Yossi Mekelberg
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Israeli elections are always a colourful celebration of Israeli pluralism and its democratic young traditions, even when they are marred with intolerance and at times obnoxious language by politicians and their supporters.

The elections on January 22, are no exception. 34 parties will be competing for 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. It is estimated that 12 of these parties have a realistic chance to pass the very low 2% threshold.

Since the elections were announced last October, the Israeli political system has entered its usual flurry of new party formation, realigning of old ones, and the re-entry of retired politicians, who decide to throw their hat in the ring one more time to ‘help the country in times of great need.’ The Likud Party is running in a joint list with Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Our Home; Tzipi Livni has returned to politics with a new party Hatnua; and the Jewish Home has united the extreme right religious vote, becoming a potential force to reckon with. As always there are also those who might be a ‘one election wonder’ such as Yair Lapid, a former TV personality, who has formed a centrist party called Yesh Atid (There is a Future), and is predicted to gain around 10% of the vote.

If public opinion proves to be correct current Prime Minister Netanyahu will preside over the next government, but questions still remain. Will he be the only leader in position to form a government? What mandate will he receive from the Israeli electorate? And crucially, what coalition of parties will he be able to assemble for his government?

To argue that these elections are historical in their importance and critical for Israel’s long-term wellbeing and regional stability might sound cliché, as all Israeli elections are vital for the future of the country. Yet, the 2013 elections take place under different regional and international conditions. 

These are the first elections since the radical changes that have transformed the Middle East following the Arab Spring and the United Nations’ decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to that of a ‘non-member observer state’. Facing Israel’s next coalition will be the Iranian nuclear issue, and the vital decision of whether to use military force or resort to other means will become imminent. Moreover, it is unknown how the second Obama administration’s approach towards the Middle East and Israel will differ now that the president is free from the burden of re-election. This is especially true considering Obama’s uneasy relations with Benjamin Netanyahu. In a bold move on the eve of the elections, Obama is already quoted as saying that ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,’ possibly signalling a more assertive US administration in its relations towards the next Israeli government. 

Obama’s frustration and exasperation with the current Netanyahu government is shared with large parts of the international community, especially in regard to the lack of progress in the peace process with the Palestinians and the defiant expansion of the settlements despite widespread international criticism. If the new coalition continues building settlements they might be on a collision course not only with Israel’s closest ally, but with many other of her friends. 

Israel’s domestic challenges are as severe as its international ones. Increasing economic disparities between rich and poor; mounting rifts between secular and religious, and Jews and Arabs; addressing a budget deficit which rose to 4.2% of gross domestic product - double the original estimate; and ensuring a more equally shared military service burden among all Israeli citizens, are only few of the challenges Israel is facing on the eve of the elections.

While it seems likely that Netanyahu will remain Israel’s Prime Minister, some of the key members in the cabinet are likely to change. Defence Minister Ehud Barak has announced his retirement from politics, though under certain circumstances this might be a very short retirement. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is barred from a ministerial position as long as his court case for fraud and breach of trust is deliberated, or in the case he is convicted. Furthermore, the joint list of Likud and Israel Our Home appear to be less successful than first suggested and are likely to gain considerably less than their current combined representation in the Knesset.

Consequently, coalition building will prove to be as difficult as ever, consisting of more parties than preferred for a smooth-running government as more concessions will have to be made to the coalition members. Forming a coalition will consist of reconciling between the agenda of the next Prime Minster; those willing to sit around the cabinet table and the conditions they will set; and the in the fickle political environment, the type of coalition that will ensure some longevity in power. On many occasions in Israeli politics these factors have tended to conflict with one another, and one can foresee a similar pattern following the pending elections. This will compromise the ability to address the long-term needs and interests of the country

Yossi Mekelberg is also Programme Director of International Relations at Regent's College.