Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran on a fervent and unapologetically conservative platform under the slogan "In your heart you know he's right." The Johnson campaign responded with the instantly classic retort: "In your guts you know he's nuts."

Election season is heating up in Israel, and Bibi Netanyahu's governing Likud party is facing its stiffest challenge to date from a unified center-left that includes both Labor as well as Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah Party. The combined list has dubbed itself "the Zionist camp" and is running an energetic (and to my mind sorely needed campaign) to cast itself as the true heirs of Israel's social democratic and egalitarian tradition.

The Israeli right's main strategy seems to be casting itself as standing up against the all-encompassing tide of Israel's adversaries -- a term which at this point includes most of Israel's friends. Naftali Bennett's extreme-right Jewish Home Party is running on the straightforward slogan "We don't apologize." And Likud has elected to go with the even more on the nose "It's us or them." Which is paired up against the Zionist camp's pitch-perfect "It's us or him."

The latest polls are showing a narrow plurality for the Zionist camp (Labor-Hatnuah), which currently is projected to pull in 26 MKs to Likud's 23. That doesn't tell the whole story, though -- as there are the usual smattering of smaller parties that are necessary for any coalition to reach a sixty-one person majority.

Most of the descriptors I've seen of the lay of the land give the right a sizeable advantage, but they do so under some contestable assumptions regarding the center of the political map (you'll note in the above link that "right" is defined as anyone who has "not ruled out a coalition" with Bibi). Certainly, they are stronger than one might think given Labor/Hatnuah's leading score. Of the unabashedly "left" parties (not counting the Arab list, which I'll get to in a moment), things drop off considerably once one gets past the dynamic duo leading the pack. Meretz is projected at 6 MKs, which is more or less normal for them, and Yesh Atid has seen its support slashed in half to just 9 MKs. That's 41 MKs, a far cry south of sixty.

The big story of these elections has been the unification of the long-feuding Arab parties into a single list. These parties are too diverse to be called part of the "left" per se (the unified list includes Communist, secular nationalist, and religious parties), but they certainly aren't going to join a right-wing government. With a projected 12 MKs, that pops the center-left bloc up to 53 MKs.

On the right, Bennett's Jewish Home is polling third with a projected 15 MKs, and he's a solid right-wing vote, so right there you have as much as the main two secondary left parties combined. But after that, things get dicier. Of the religious parties UTJ (7 projected MKs) is much more solidly right-wing than Shas (also 7 MKs). While I think it's is fair to say that UTJ will caucus right, Shas can and has joined with a left government. Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu is pulling in 7 MKs, and while he is certainly properly viewed as a member of the right he has demonstrated a bit of an iconoclastic streak in recent years (not always for the good). Still, I think it is reasonable to slot him in with the right bloc too -- but it isn't out of the question that it could be brought into a more left-wing government. If the wind is blowing in that direction, I think it could happen. Call it my crazy prediction of the season. But, my crazy prognostications notwithstanding, we can give the right bloc a solid 52 MKs.

This leads to something very interesting. Even if it grabs Shas, the right bloc would need another party. In fact, functionally both camps can't rely on Shas to put them over the top (Shas + left = 60 MKs). And that gets us to the final party in play, the newly-arrived Kulanu. Kulanu is one of Israel's perennial centrist parties (Yesh Atid was the last one, Kadima was the one before that, Shinui was the one before that). They appeal to people disaffected from the same-old same-old, usually enter government, usually accomplish much less than they promise, and usually fade out after one or two election cycles. Kulanu's roots lie in in center-right politics, and so many people have slotted them into the right camp, but I think that's too quick. Most of these centrist parties have had right-ish roots, and most of them have proven quite amenable to working with the left (why else are they splitting off from Likud in the first place?). I mean, look at Livni, who has crossed all the way over from her Likudnik beginnings to join a slate with Labor. Kulanu's political program is almost entirely economic in focus, and it is an economic program that is not inherently in conflict with either side. It's relative silence on security issues, likewise, leaves it open to working with either side. I don't see it as anything close to a foregone conclusion that it will elect to side with Bibi.

Basically, as it stands Kulanu will hold the balance of power. And if the Zionist Camp is given the chance to form a government, I think it very well could put together a package that brings Kulanu into the fold. In that case, we could have something fascinating indeed -- a liberal Israeli government for the first time in a half-decade, anchored by a new and unknown centrist party and a unified and newly influential Arab bloc.

It could be a very interesting trip we're all in for.


EW said...

Wow. That's surprisingly encouraging -- and plausible.

Nate Silver, look out.

Mordy said...

Is there any indication that the Zionist party would be willing to caucus w/ the unified Arab party?

David Schraub said...

Historically, the Arab parties have not formally joined the government (because they don't want to be responsible for Israel's security policies), but informally they have often worked with liberal camps to create a working majority (and block a conservative governing coalition). That seems to be a likely outcome here. Certainly, the liberal Zionists would be nuts not to do it -- without the Arab list there is are scarcely any plausible routes to a 61 MK majority.

Roy said...

I agree that the Arab parties support left wing coalitions from the outside, but you included them in your counting to 61 mandates, which is not right.
No mainstream Israeli party can join the Arab parties in their coalition as the Arab parties are aggressively anti Zionists. Even if the Zionist camp would have the guts to do so, it will make the Yisrael Beinteno and Kulanu parties a no go (as they refuse to build a coalition with the Arab parties).
So, unfortunately, no 61 mandates.