Less than a week before Israel’s parliamentary election, a fractured array of centrist parties has failed to join forces and offer a coherent alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Divided by personal rivalries and the lack of a shared agenda, Netanyahu’s centrist challengers remain at odds, and two have even signaled more readiness to join a future coalition under his leadership than unite with each other.
While Netanyahu has focused on what he portrays as his ability to defend Israel militarily and diplomatically, his centrist opponents are trying to steer the campaign to other issues, targeting potential voters with ideas such as social and economic change and diplomatic initiatives toward the Palestinians.
Yet public opinion polls indicate that the parties appealing to center-left voters — who make up 38 percent of the Jewish Israeli electorate, according to a recent survey — have not succeeded in altering the balance of political power.
“One of the mysteries of Israeli politics is a very robust center that doesn’t manage to get together,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “They have different agendas.”
The result, polls suggest, is that the next parliament will look much like the outgoing one, with right-wing parties and their ultra-Orthodox allies enjoying a solid majority and a collection of center-left factions not having enough seats to form a governing coalition. That is likely to produce another hawkish Israeli government wary of concessions to the Palestinians and focused on what it sees as broader regional threats, such as the Iranian nuclear program.
Turnout a ‘major factor’
Polls show a stable trend in which the right-religious bloc, headed by Netanyahu’s ticket, will control more than half the seats in the 120-member parliament. About 20 percent of voters say they are still undecided, but pollsters say they are mostly debating choices within the right or the center-left and not choosing between them.
“Turnout is going to be a major factor,” said Camille Fuchs, a statistics expert at Tel Aviv University who has been conducting surveys ahead of the Tuesday vote.
A high turnout is expected to help the center-left parties. Surveys have shown that right-wing Israelis, particularly Jewish settlers, vote in greater percentages than center-left supporters, who show less fervent commitment to making their voices heard. The momentum of the 2011 social justice protests — when that indifference seemed to have shattered — has largely petered out.
But though the turnout could affect seat distribution inside each bloc, it is not expected to tip the scales in the overall count in the legislature.
Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, which polls suggest would emerge as the second-largest faction with 16 to 18 seats, has made socioeconomic issues the centerpiece of her campaign. She has avoided foreign-policy questions such as the stalled peace efforts with the Palestinians or with Iran.
Trying to attract voters who are more preoccupied with financial security, education and health care, Yachimovich has attacked Netanyahu for free-market economic policies that she says have increased the burden on the Israeli middle class. Her party ticket includes young former leaders of the social justice movement, which protested the high cost of living.
Yachimovich seized on the revelation this week that Israel’s national deficit for 2012 swelled to double the government target, saying it belied Netanyahu’s assertion that he had shielded Israel from the global economic downturn. She warned that tax increases and cuts in government services would follow.
“They talked to us about ‘an island of stability,’ when they knew that the situation was getting worse,” Yachimovich said in televised comments. “It turns out that Netanyahu is no macroeconomic genius.”
While Yachimovich steers clear of foreign-policy issues, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who has formed a new party, Hatnua, or the Movement, has based her campaign on negotiating a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Livni formerly led the centrist Kadima party, which emerged as the largest faction in parliament after the last legislative election, in 2009. She was unable to form a coalition and was unseated as party chief after a lackluster performance at the head of the opposition.
Livni argues that Israel’s social and economic problems can be resolved only when it has settled the conflict with the Palestinians.
At a recent meeting with voters, Livni said Israel faced a stark choice: “Either we will have two states, or one state between the Jordan River and the sea which will be an apartheid state . . . and the whole Zionist vision will be in danger.”
While Yachimovich has ruled out joining a coalition with Netanyahu, Livni has not, saying that she would join a future government with one aim.
“I’ve returned to promote a diplomatic process,” she said in a recent interview with the Israeli news Web site Walla. “If I won’t be able to do it, I’ll fight for it from the opposition.”
A centrist who has more strongly suggested that he might join a Netanyahu-led government is Yair Lapid, a former television anchorman who leads a new party called Yesh Atid, or There is a Future. Polls show that it could emerge as the fourth-largest faction in parliament.
Lapid’s party has gained a substantial following with its campaign against preferential treatment for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have used their political influence to win exemptions from compulsory military service for tens of thousands of men who instead pursue religious studies while receiving government stipends.
Drawing on the resentment of secular Israelis who serve in the military and pay high taxes, Lapid says the ultra-Orthodox should join the workforce and do a stint of national service, either in the military or in a civilian capacity, such as working in hospitals or helping the aged.
With polls showing Yesh Atid winning as many as 12 parliamentary seats, Lapid could become a key player in coalition talks. He says he could use that leverage, with other centrist partners, to push Netanyahu into a more moderate coalition.
“We have to do everything we can to prevent a rightist, ultra-
Orthodox government,” he said in a recent television appearance. “It’s not good for Israel.”