The dramatic announcement of the merger of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu is but the latest demonstration of why the 2013 elections are far from a foregone conclusion. This electoral season, despite preliminary indications to the contrary, is fascinating precisely because it contains so many unknowns — each of which can have a significant effect in molding the outcome of the January 22, 2013, ballot.

During the next five weeks, until the submission of the party lists to the Central Electoral Commission, at least three basic — and currently ambiguous — parameters have yet to take shape. The first, and most obvious, is the party map. Even before the creation of the Likud Beytenu, the contours of the contenders in the forthcoming elections were exceptionally murky. The virtual collapse of Kadima, the rise of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and the incoherence of other initiatives promised a different constellation than that represented in the outgoing Knesset. Only some of this cloud has been lifted.

The center of the political scene is still in disarray. Neither Tzipi Livni nor Ehud Olmert have decided on whether they intend to enter the fray; nor is it clear, if they do, whether they will go it alone or join an existing party. To complicate matters even further, with or without either of these potential players, efforts to create an electoral coalition between Yesh Atid, Labor, the fast dissipating Kadima and Ehud Barak’s teetering Atzmaut are still ongoing. The current debate over the likelihood of such a move is compounded now be a discussion over its advisability: will a center-left bloc do better in the face of the new Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance than a multiplicity of parties which together offer a viable alternative to another four years of an explicitly right coalition?

On the religious side of the spectrum, too, uncertainty reigns. Clearly Shas, reinforced by Aryeh Deri, will now run a united slate. But the rumblings within its Ashkenazi counterpart of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) are louder than usual, and the new Haredim led by Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem may siphon off some votes. It is also unclear — especially in light of the Netanyahu-Liberman move — whether the proposed merger of the Jewish Home and the National Union will come into being.

Until the dust settles on these matters, with Meretz and the Arab parties the only stable elements, the picture of the choices facing the voter remains blurred. The main question is whether the 2013 elections will be bi-polar in nature (between a reinforced right-wing alliance and an array of center-left parties) or assume a tripartite character (a confrontation between right, center and left parties).

Equally occluded at this time, as a result, is a second key element of the elections: the issues at stake. Initially, it appeared as if the main substantive dividing line of these elections would revolve around the security axis on the one hand (best represented by the incumbent government) versus the socioeconomic betterment axis on the other hand (spearheaded by the Labor party under Shelly Yachimovich). The Likud-Beytenu alliance is crafted to challenge this agenda by expropriating additional matters in contention, most notably governmental reform, obligatory service for all, and law and order. Intriguingly, the proposed combination of the Likud and Israel Beytenu represents a secular shift in the ruling coalition, which may play into the hands of the religious parties, and especially of Shas. It also demands a reevaluation of positions on matters of religion and state in opposition circles.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a press last week announcing the merger of their respective parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a press last week announcing the merger of their respective parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A substantive reorientation may be in the making, with the Likud and its satellites assuming positions more closely associated with the neo-liberal right in Europe and North America, and its rival parties under the aegis of the Labor party opting for a social-democratic agenda closely tied to progressive forces elsewhere. This realignment, however, overlooks the democracy, rights and good governance discourse championed in certain quarters. It also disregards the Israeli version of left and right which has traditionally revolved around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This critical issue is presently subsumed (no doubt because it ranks low on the list of citizen concerns in pre-election polls). This may not be the case as the election season progresses should peace issues come into play (especially if the Palestinian Authority approaches the UN General Assembly for observer status).

The indeterminacy of the electoral agenda may be further confounded by attempts to divert attention away from many of these questions by focusing on Israel’s leadership challenge. The “Biberman” duo seeks to transmit a message of power and stability which, while underlining the absence of attractive alternatives in the present opposition, also defies essential pluralist principles.

This highlights the third unknown at this stage of the elections: the personae involved. Even though Israel has a proportional representation system which theoretically accentuates ideological stances and party identities, in recent decades undue attention has been drawn to the personal appeal of competing candidates. At this point in time, even on this score the key contenders are still not known: will the Netanyahu/ Liberman slate stand against Yachimovich, Lapid, Gal-on or Mofaz alone? Will Livni and Olmert come into the picture? Will one or more of these assume the reins? Who?

If the answers to the question of the identity of the leadership of the blocs will have to wait for a few more weeks, so, too, will the composition of their lists. The greatest tension exists today in the Likud, where an already heated primary race will become even desperate now that close to 40% of the combined list will be determined by Avigdor Liberman. Few new faces can be expected under these circumstances. This is not the case for Labor, which will run a surprisingly fresh slate; or, for that matter, for Yesh Atid, whose main attraction lies precisely in this sphere.

There is, no doubt, a close connection between the party map, the electoral agenda and the candidates in the forthcoming polls. In broad strokes, these matters will be settled in the coming month. But even when the campaign begins in earnest in the second week of December, several unknown factors will still dictate much of their dynamics. The first — and by far the most elusive — is the atmosphere surrounding the campaign: will the climate be replete with fatalism and determinism or will it be energized by prospects for change? The second — and one which historically must be taken into account — relates to events that might occur during this period but can neither be controlled nor predicted today. In the past, global occurrences and military actions swayed the results as much (if not more) than political strategists; whether these will recur and influence outcomes remains to be seen.

And then, on Election Day, the biggest and the most important of all ingredients will come into play: voter turnout. In the past elections less that 63% of Israelis cast ballots (and barely 52% percent of Arab citizens). A higher (or lower) participation rate can make all the difference in determining whether a right or center-left bloc will assume power.

The Israeli electoral puzzle is particularly perplexing. Those who believe they know the outcome should beware. Citizens throughout the democratic world, as in Israel, have proven time and again the well-worn maxim that elections are not over until they’re over.

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