Gabi Mitchell, Jerusalem
It’s Groundhog Day in Israel.
I doubt many Israelis have seen the 1990s classic Groundhog Day. The American nuances would be lost in translation. But whether or not they’ve seen it, they’re living in it—trapped in a bizarro world where no matter how many times they hit the snooze button, they wake up to another election.
On November 1, 2022, the Israeli public will vote for the fifth time in three years. Party lists must be finalized on September 15, so there’s still time for parties to merge and for new (or relatively new) faces to join the race. The focus of the election will be the same as the last four: To Bibi or not to Bibi.
Three or perhaps four outcomes are plausible. In the first, Netanyahu secures the coveted 61 seats required to form a coalition and returns to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.
In the second, Blue and White leader and current Defense Minister Benny Gantz secures 61 seats and becomes prime minister. He could take two paths to accomplish this, given the widespread perception that he’s a pragmatist who hasn’t yet burned bridges across both aisles. One requires persuading an ultra-Orthodox party to break ties with the pro-Bibi camp; the other (trickier) route would be extending an olive branch to Netanyahu and trading the premiership for Bibi’s ongoing legal cases: If he invites Netanyahu back into the coalition, it would freeze legislative efforts to prevent politicians under criminal indictment from forming a government. This would probably give Netanyahu significant breathing room.
In the third, incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid manages to cobble together another “change government” comprising left, center, and right parties, and at least one Arab party.
In the final scenario, neither bloc has a clear path to a coalition and the Israeli electorate remains stuck in Punxsutawney.
Given the number of smaller parties hoping to pass Israel’s 3.25 percent electoral threshold—as many as twelve parties could enter the next Knesset—voter turnout will remain key. But Arab voter turnout, in particular, is critical this time. Some pollsters project it will be lower than in past years, and this could make all the difference.
Israeli election cycles are pretty quick when compared to the US, for example. But by Israeli standards, this is a long election during an unusual time of the year. During August, often called the Chofesh HaGadol—the Big Vacation—schools close and parents scramble to entertain their kids. Tens of thousands of Israelis will leave the country and tune out. In late September, the Jewish High Holidays will disrupt daily life and shift the public’s attention from politics to faith and family. It will be tougher than usual for campaign managers to get voters to focus on party messages, especially because they won’t sound all that different from the ones they’ve been hearing since 2019.
One of the most worrying trends in Israeli politics is the similarity of all these elections—same melody, same singers. By the end of Groundhog Day, no one wants to hear another rendition of “I’ve Got You Babe.” The public will hear the very same messages over the course of elections that seem to take place almost every day but never change anything. This could readily fray public trust in the political system and the democratic process, hardening Israel’s already deep tribal and ideological divisions. The electorate—and with it, political parties—may be pushed further from the center and toward the poles of the political landscape.
The lack of new talking points might create an opening for some disruptive x-factor, though, which could come in the form of a merger between political parties or the arrival of a new face. (Many have spoken of former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.) I’d argue that one of the more intriguing variables is the Israeli economy.
In May 2022, the Israel Democracy Institute polled the public’s attitudes about socioeconomic issues before and after the pandemic. They found that the share who said they were satisfied with their economic situation (“somewhat” or “very “satisfied”) had risen from 28 percent in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, to about 33 percent. But the “not at all satisfied” camp had increased from 16 percent to 21 percent. When asked what issue most concerned them in the short term, a third of respondents said, “the cost of living in general,” and 18 percent said “housing prices.”
In the months since that survey was conducted, however, the Israeli economy, like every other economy, has suffered the combined impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on global oil and gas prices and the post-pandemic supply chain logjam. To be fair, Israel has done a comparatively good job of handling the economic crisis: At the end of June, Israel’s inflation rate was 4.4 percent, compared to 9.1 percent in the US and 9.4 percent in the UK. But this is still an 11-year high.
In the past few weeks, the cost of living in Israel has increased sharply. The price of electricity is expected to rise by 8.6 percent in August (coincidentally, the hottest month of the year). Supermarkets are raising prices, too. In June, the Israeli Teacher’s Union went on strike over a salary dispute. It’s poised to continue its battle with the Finance Ministry into the start of the academic year.
The government is battling to keep the cost of such staples as eggs, milk, and bread from rising too quickly. (In Israel, by longstanding policy, the prices of certain foods are fixed by a government committee.) It’s also intervening to control the cost of gas. It’s raising interest rates. Of course, these measures carry their own risks.
It’s fair to think that if this trend continues—if the High Holidays roll around with unemployment and inflation numbers still going up—Israelis’ concerns about the economy could change the course of the election.
Want to keep track of developments as election day nears? Here are some recommendations:
Election Overdose—The superteam of veteran pollster Dahlia Scheindlin and Ha’aretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer are back for another run in this witty and educational podcast. What makes this show so great is the deep knowledge that allows them to explain all the contemporary and historical nuances only experts can provide. They are already on episode four, but it’s easy to catch up on all the action.
The State of the Campaign—Strategic consultants Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman work with the Times of Israel to produce regular analysis of trends and polls in the election race. It’s worth keeping tabs on their work as Israel enters the home stretch.
The Israel Democracy Institute does excellent work, and I want to highlight a recent piece by Tamar Hermann and Or Anabi on the composition of centrist voters in Israel. Who are they? Are they religious? What’s their socioeconomic makeup? Centrist voters may not determine the election results, but the parties they vote into office will have a critical voice in determining who leads the government.
Finally, I suggest listening to the most recent episode of the Unholy Podcast, co-hosted by Channel 12’s Yonit Levi and The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland where they discuss why Bennett’s coalition government collapsed and where one can find a silver lining with Shimrit Meir, Bennett’s former top diplomatic adviser.
Gabriel Mitchell is a policy fellow at the Mitvim Institute. Read more at Invisible Boundaries, his newsletter about Israel and the Middle East.
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