The announcement of new elections on March 17, 2015 has sent the Israeli political system into overdrive. But while political aspirants are already organizing their forces and forging electoral alliances, many Israelis — schooled by experience — are wondering about the necessity or utility of these snap elections. They shouldn’t: a closer look at the causes for this unexpected plebiscite and for its timing leads to a very different conclusion. Far from being superfluous, costly or tiringly predictable, these elections may signal a real turning point in Israeli politics for the first time in close to two decades.
That is why the preliminary steps are already causing such a tizzy and why — unlike the last national ballot held scarcely two years ago which was marked by its somnolence — this round is fast developing into a heated contest which may yet bring to a close an era of inaction, deterioration and insulation by ushering in a more responsible, competent and humane leadership. Understanding what is at stake and why can help to frame the campaign and determine the outcome.
The dramatically curtailed life of the third Netanyahu government may be attributed, at least on the surface, to the fact that it simply has not been able to function — due both to its untenable makeup and to its personality disorders. The popularity levels of its key figures, including the prime minister, have plummeted in recent months, highlighting widespread dissatisfaction with governmental performance and a deep-seated distrust in those at its helm. The latest series of crises — including the decline in personal security, growing economic uncertainty, the Gaza war and its aftermath, persistent unrest in Jerusalem, rising social tensions, the spread of alarming intolerance and increased international opprobrium leading cumulatively to an overwhelming sense of despondency — demonstrate the extent to which the present coalition is just not working.
Governmental incapacitation per se (as the desperate last-minute efforts to avoid elections indicate) is not, however, the only or the prime reason for reverting to the electorate. Beneath the surface of glaring official dysfunction is something much deeper: the gradual sense that on virtually every conceivable front, things are falling apart.
The once flourishing economy of Israel has given way to a reality which includes a majority who are buckling under the skyrocketing cost of living and more than two million citizens — many gainfully employed — who subsist below the poverty line. Rising violence has adversely affected the sense of security on the streets as well as on the borders. The solidarity which once characterized Israeli society in all its diversity has given way to ugly manifestations of prejudice and systemic exclusion. The conflict between Israel and its neighbors has assumed increasingly ethno-religious features, making its resolution more remote and hastening its infiltration into the core of Israeli society. Put together, the status quo is no longer sustainable.
The failure of the management mentality, which has guided Israeli policies in recent years and is the linchpin of the Netanyahu tenure, opens up the possibility of a reassessment of alternatives. The more profound the discontent with the present state of affairs, the greater the impetus for weighing other options; the deeper the realization that continuing on the present course may spell destruction, the larger the prospects of changing its direction. At root, then, these elections are taking place because Israelis are no longer comfortable with how they live, with what they have become and with where they are going; they are much more amenable to reexamining themselves and their trajectory.
The timing of the decision to call for new elections is indicative. The cross-party debate over the proposed legislation on entrenching Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, coupled with more mundane disagreements over the budget and a variety of other policy issues may have provided immediate triggers for the firing of the leaders of two key coalition partners and essentially dismantling the government. But not dissimilar disputes — both personal and substantive — have existed for some months.
In all probability, the haste with which Binyamin Netanyahu is now resorting to the ballot box stems from a tactical understanding that early elections are perhaps the only way he has a fighting chance of preventing the ground collapsing under his feet. Indeed, snap elections serve his goal of extending his stay in office: they shorten the preparation time of new contenders like Moshe Kahlon, they prevent opponents from cementing robust alliances and they might yet deter serious challengers from within his own party. Above all, however, the insistence on elections in as brief a period of time as legally possible points to an effort to halt the spreading disaffection with the current situation and delay the emergence of credible alternatives.
In the next few days and weeks the Israeli political system will experience frenetic activity revolving, first, around attempts to complete certain pieces of legislation (especially the “Infiltrators'” law) and to approve controversial allocations before the budget year ends; and, second, around the construction of electoral alliances and preparations for the compilation of their lists for the Knesset. Two contrasting features of this interim period will have a direct effect on the impending campaign: the fact that the dispersal of parliament has halted some of the most controversial bills initiated by members of the ruling party; and the expectation that Prime Minister Netanyahu may enjoy a respite from international (if not regional and domestic) pressure in the coming months. Which of the two will have a greater impact on the election results depends, largely, on how the campaign evolves.
At first glance, the framing of the elections to date has favored personality over substance. In many respects, 2015 is turning into a referendum over Netanyahu’s leadership. The latest polls do not augur well for the incumbent, with 60%-65% of the electorate — transcending traditional left-right divisions — opposing his reelection.
Precisely because the issue of trust does not serve Netanyahu well and the opposition has yet to coalesce around an agreed candidate, all parties stand to benefit from focusing more squarely on the issues. This leaves a tremendous amount of room for citizens — individually and collectively — to determine priorities (currently leaning towards a distinct preference for socioeconomic issues, but still concerned with security) and set the agenda (which may delve into the essential questions of who is Israeli, what Israel is all about and where it is headed). In all important respects, therefore, since the questions of who we are and what guides us intertwine with who can bring us there, the elections will be all about what the voters decide them to be.
What is indisputable at this early stage is that the return to the ballot box is anything but a waste of time or a mere rerun of a tedious ritual whose outcome has already been determined. Even though much is not known (the exact party constellations, the specific shape of the campaign and its issues, citizen engagement, turnout rates), it is already clear that the forthcoming elections — centering as they appear to on the definition of the identity and values of the home that is Israel — may hold the possibility of constructive change. The more the belief that a shift is possible and the more there is hope for something different, then the more are these elections likely to yield just such a result.