Israel will hold parliamentary elections on Sept. 4, more than a full year ahead of the next scheduled vote. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the new poll, saying he wanted to renew his mandate and broaden his coalition.
The current coalition has been the most stable one for years in Israel, but both international and domestic considerations prompted Netanyahu to call for a new vote.
Addressing his Likud Party on Sunday, Netanyahu expressed confidence that he would be re-elected.
“I believe we will get a renewed mandate from the citizens of Israel to continue to lead the country,” he told supporters. “With God’s help, we will form as wide a government as possible and continue to lead the state of Israel.”
Iran Issue, Palestinian Non-Issue
Campaign hubris aside, Netanyahu is right to be optimistic: Recent polls show that if elections were held now, Netanyahu’s party would be the big winner.
Political analyst Tamir Sheafer of Hebrew University says Netanyahu himself is also popular, and one of the reasons is his strong stance on Iran and its controversial nuclear program.
“Netanyahu is doing very well in keeping the Iranian issue on the agenda and as long as this issue is on the agenda people will vote for Netanyahu’s government,” Sheafer says.
And that is despite the criticism that several former Israeli intelligence chiefs have recently heaped on his aggressive stance on Iran.
Netanyahu’s premiership has been marked by an absence of a peace process with the Palestinians.
But, says Tamar Hermann of Tel Aviv University, the Jewish Israeli electorate doesn’t seem to care, and that has also worked in his favor.
“The Palestinian issue is a non-issue right now as far as the Israeli domestic debate is concerned,” she says, adding that recently polling shows it ranks fourth or fifth.
Economic Worries Top Voter Concerns
Hermann says the average Israeli is worried about the economy.
Even though Israel has managed to weather the international downturn relatively well, the cost of living has skyrocketed, and polls show that issue is the No. 1 concern among Jewish voters in Israel.
Netanyahu has struggled with the issue and his rivals hope to use it to win seats.
“More and more Israelis are looking into Israeli society, the question of equality among Israelis, social justice, solidarity,” says Daniel Ben Simon, a member of the Knesset from the left-leaning Labor Party.
A few years ago, Labor was being written off as a relic. Now, the party has largely abandoned its pro-peace rhetoric and is singing the tune of social change.
“We will have to cut the defense budget, we will have to give more to the population,” he says. “There is growth in Israel. The money is not going the right way.”
It’s a message that is resonating after last summer’s social protest movement.
Another key issue is what role the ultra-Orthodox will play in society. There are growing calls for them to do military service and receive less government support. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party, which is staunchly secular, is pushing that onto the agenda, as is newcomer to the political scene, Yair Lapid, a former TV host.
The only group that doesn’t seem to have a clear message is Kadima, the party of former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. It has dropped dramatically in the polls after the ouster of Tzipi Livni as party chief.
But, warns political analyst Sheafer, 15 to 20 percent of the Israeli electorate hasn’t made up its mind yet on who they’ll vote for, so things are sure to change.