Israel’s Upcoming Elections
A Checklist for American Democrats
Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new parliamentary government (The Knesset) and a Prime Minister on April 9. Unlike the US, it is not a binary choice between Democrat and Republican. Instead, voters can choose one from many parties – ranging from the far left to far right and everything in between, even those led by Israeli Arabs. This year at least 15 parties will be on the ballot.
The party with the most votes/seats gets first dibs on forming the government. The parties also play on multiple dimensions – as some can be far right on security but far left on the separation of church and state – or vice versa.
The parties also make pledges, public and private, about who will or will not seek to form a government together – as no one party will garner a majority of the 120 seats available (61). Today, most polls show the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party winning about 25 to 30 seats. Seats are allocated proportionally based on a percentage of the total votes cast with smaller parties being shut out if they do not reach a minimum threshold. That makes this election much more than a referendum on Netanyahu.
“This will not be a typical Israeli election,” said Hanan Rubin, a former Jerusalem City Councilmember and now a social entrepreneur solving Israel’s biggest challenges via public private partnerships. “There is something new happening. There are new voices, new approaches, and they are voicing a belief that winning won’t solve every problem, but electing leaders who understand nuance and can find workable solutions is the best first step. The days of empty promises are over,” he added.
Here are five things to watch for in the months ahead.
Coming to America. Before the election arrives, Netanyahu will visit the US and headline the American Israel Political Affairs Committee annual conference in March, just weeks before the election. The gathering features 25,000 non-partisan pro-Israel advocates spending time together and then spreading out across the hill to lobby on the US-Israel relationship.
“Netanyahu is the most photo-conscious leader many have seen since Schwarzenegger’s highly produced reign as California’s governor. He understands the optics back home of appearing in front of an adoring arena in America,” said Isaac “Yitz” Applbaum, a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist specializing in Israeli start-ups and longtime political donor.
American Jews and their feelings about Israel are a daily topic of the news in Israel and the relationship is crucial to Netanyahu’s standing back home. He will benefit tremendously from this photo op.
Netanyahu will also spend time in the embrace of President Trump. The US President polls much higher among the Israeli electorate than he does among Jews in America. His actions and full-throated embrace of Israel have been a welcome relief to Israelis, many of whom felt a cold shoulder from the previous administration, despite numerous efforts to collaborate on military and strategic affairs. By standing close to him, Netanyahu benefits from the reflected power and glory of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
American Jews. Poll after poll shows that American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic. 75% of American Jews voted Democratic in the midterms despite Trump’s unalloyed support for Israel. The lesson for whoever wins the election in Israel is that any future support – electoral, financial, or emotional – from the U.S. must come from engaging a democratic-leaning American Jewish electorate – or from fickle far-right Jewish megadonors.
Israeli politics has trended rightward – led by its most extreme parties. However, in America, the most progressive and liberal voices are ascendant. Any Israeli political leader seeking to engage American Jews must find a way to balance Israel’s obvious security needs with conversations that promote liberal democracy.
The Generals. The biggest wildcard in the upcoming election will be former General Benny Gantz who is entering national politics for the first time. Gantz was immensely popular in his role as the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces which as an institution is nearly universally beloved among Jewish Israelis.
It is worthwhile to note that while former US Generals Colin Powell and Wesley Clark held presidential ambitions, neither gained electoral traction. In contrast, Gantz has formed his own party, built his own campaign infrastructure, recruited political allies and stands to be an instant force in this election.
While he earned plaudits for his role as a general, in terms of his candidacy, he’s a blank state. He has avoided media interviews and public appearances. His polling numbers are high right now, but he has yet to say anything meaningful on any issue of the day. Once he does, his polling numbers should shrink, but also solidify.
He’s not the only one. Another former IDF Chief of Staff, retired General Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon has also formed a party and plans to run. Rumors abound that his party will form an alliance with Gantz and run on a “security and secular” ticket – thus trying to thread the political needle among two of Israel’s largest political voting blocs. Two additional generals Gabi Ashkenazi and Shaul Mofaz are also being wooed by parties seeking to burnish their security credentials.
Hanan Rubin, the former Jerusalem City Councilman added, “These generals sit in-between the usual political players. Not left, not right, but something new and between. So are many of the other new parties being formed right now. When election time comes, voters will go to a candy shope filled with lots of choices. They will have to choose not just from the old flavors, but from a store full of every idea and every flavor imaginable.”
The Resurgent Left. Despite the political wrangling and momentum on the far right, the most promising force is Israel’s Labor party – the dominant player on Israel’s political left. Reports of its demise have come and go many times. This election, the party features a new leader Avi Gabay, and a veteran US Pollster and Democratic strategist Stephan Miller and his 202 Strategies organization. He trained with some of the party’s elite consultants. In contrast, Netanyahu has already announced that he will serve as his own strategist.
Gabay has repeatedly said that when all the political jostling is finished, this election will emerge as a contest between Israel’s left and right – with him standing toe-to-toe with Netanyahu and his Likud party. Polls do not reflect this dynamic yet, but as the election proceeds, if Gabay can harness Israel’s political left and its secular (non-religious) voters, he stands to gain the most traction. There is nowhere for him to go but up…and this could be his time.
Celebrity Matters. In a relief for voters and to the bane of political consultants, candidates are financed publicly and cannot advertise on television beyond the minutes allotted by the government. This election will be a true test of both a candidate’s ability to grow his/her stature as well as leaning on any existing celebrity status.
In fact, the party currently running second, Yesh Atid, is helmed by a longtime TV journalist Yair Lapid whose telegenic presence vaulted him to instant leadership in the prior election four years ago. In addition, this cry for celebrity is why immediately upon entering the election, the Generals poll high while Labor’s leader, an unknown who can walk through a grocery store unnoticed, polls lower.
This election will be fought out entirely on the playing field of Israel’s highly politicized newspaper culture as there are daily newspapers unabashedly on the left and right. However, Facebook, the dominant social media platform, stands to be the biggest winner of this election’s spending. And Instagam’s growth in Israel has been dramatic and will be an important tool to reach voters as well. Voters will be microtargeted in ways reminiscent of the US Presidential election.
When asked what he hoped for out of this election, Rubin added, “People understand that no matter who will be Prime minister, things won’t happen in a day. There won’t be dramatic solutions. People understand that what is more important than someone who can solve the problem, is someone who can lead Israeli society to a different way of behaving, thinking, acting. That’s my hope.”
Changes will happen daily between now and when the final campaign lists are presented by each party on February 21. Twitter is an essential source to follow the ebbs and flows and to access English language commentary on events both big and small. So as the US prepares for the Presidential election which will come very quickly, enjoy the jostling and strategies employed from one of our most important allies.
Dan Cohen is the founder of Full Court Press Communications. He was a political consultant and now serves as a strategic communications strategist co-located in Tel Aviv and Oakland. Dan learned politics by electing Democrats in Florida. Follow him @DCSTPAUL
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