The unfolding Israeli election campaign has produced a series of unexpected developments. But these new forces and factors aren’t likely to produce any major transformations, at least in the short run.
Perhaps most dramatic is the development of the United Arab List. This umbrella grouping joins together a range of different Palestinian-orientated parties in Israel. It should provide the first platform allowing for a major turnout of Palestinian citizens of Israel at the polls.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens constitute about 18 per cent of the enfranchised public. Yet, for a range of reasons, this community has never mobilised to take advantage of the significant clout it could exercise through united voting. Last year, the Knesset passed a law significantly increasing the minimum votes required for a party to win a seat in parliament. This was widely viewed at the time as being aimed at reducing the political power of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Ironically, by prompting greater unity, the law may actually prove a turning point in helping Palestinian citizens of Israel focus on their political potential as an organised voting bloc. Still, there are major psychological, cultural and ethnic barriers to overcome, even if an unprecedented number of Palestinians vote for the List.
There’s no rational reason such a bloc should not be part of an Israeli governing coalition, at least in theory. Opposition to the occupation, even categorical opposition, has historically not prevented Jewish Israeli parties and politicians from joining governments. But we can be quite certain that, at least for now, the List will not be invited to join a new government after the March 17 election, and that it would decline if it were.
Nonetheless, the larger the turnout for the List, the more positive the experience for its voters is likely to be. The more seats it can muster, the more clout it will have. And, by propping up a centre-left Israeli government from outside its ranks, as was done during the era of Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian citizens could play a crucial role in engineering a change of government in Israel.
The second major surprise during this Israeli election cycle is the resurgence of the Israeli centre-left, and especially the “Zionist Union” coalition headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.
No one seems to be more surprised at the apparent vulnerability of Benjamin Netanyahu than the prime minister himself. As things stand, he appears set to suffer a three or four seat deficit to the Zionist Union.
It was never clear why he moved to call early elections in November, only two years after the last election and without any evident necessity for doing so. What seemed puzzling at the time now increasingly looks like an inexplicable blunder.
Yet all is not lost for Mr Netanyahu and other defenders of the status quo. While these developments are unquestionably positive, they are also probably not sufficient to produce anything truly transformative in Israeli politics or policies, at least for the moment.
Even if Mr Netanyahu ends up with three or even four seats fewer than Mr Herzog, he could still retain the premiership. In 2009, Kadima had one seat more than Likud, but Mr Netanyahu was able to form a governing coalition while Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not. Even the current arithmetic still might favour Mr Netanyahu’s chances of compiling a majority over Mr Herzog’s.
Alternatively, a close result might allow Israeli president Reuven Rivlin to try to push Mr Herzog into a broad-based “national unity” government with Mr Netanyahu. Reports suggest that Mr Netanyahu would welcome such a development, which would greatly favour his beloved status quo policies. And keep him close to the heart of power.
As for the United Arab List, the formation of the bloc is merely the first step in a long series of necessary measures to actualise the political potential of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The List will not only have to perform well, it will have to remain united after the election and not sink back into familiar rivalries and divisions.
Over the medium term, List leaders will have to convince the Palestinians in Israel of the indispensability of engagement in a political order that is still usually seen as inaccessible at best and hostile at worst, and that it is neither pointless nor treasonous to seek empowerment in the Israeli system.
But even if a centre-left coalition, with Palestinian support, were to establish the next Israeli government, would that signal a major change in Israeli policies? Some improvements are plausible. More restraint on settlement activity. A greater commitment to a two-state solution. More serious engagement with the Palestinian Authority. All of these are possible.
But the essential elements of Israeli policy are unlikely to change, because there is no consensus in Israel on what to do about the Palestinians and the occupation. Moreover, the resurgence of the centre-left in this election has been based on social and economic policies, not security or relations with the Palestinians.
This Israeli election campaign has unleashed some promising new factors in that country’s political scene. But they are going to have to develop their clout over time before they can truly begin transforming Israeli policies as well as politics.