01/04/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

The Israeli Elections: The Left in Search of Identity

All the polls taken in Israel ahead of the upcoming Knesset elections indicate a static situation, so far as the division between right and left is concerned. The only significant changes are inside the two main blocks, that of the current coalition and that of the opposition. So far as the coalition is concerned, this blog already relayed the meteoric rise of Naftali Bnnett and his Jewish Home party at the expense of Likud. Altogether, the parties comprising the current Netanyahu coalition maintain their 65-68 seats, as opposed to the 52-55 seats held by the current opposition parties. A dramatic, and as yet unforeseen, change should take place for this electoral map to turn around, dethrone Netanyahu and bring in a new leader for Israel.

Never say never, particularly in reference to Israeli politics, and to what happens in a country which prides itself with having never a dull moment, yet this is a dull campaign, henceforth the expectation for a last-minute upheaval may most likely remain an expectation, not a reality.

Right and left in Israel are terms which do not correspond with the accepted European and to a large extent also American definitions of right and left, nor in regard to the class divisions, nor concerning attitudes towards socioeconomic issues. Every American reader equates support for Obamacare with the left, but in Israel, it was a Likud, a right-wing government, which instituted a state-run health insurance legislation.

American readers also automatically put unions and their membership in the left-wing column, but in Israel it is different. One of the main power brokers of the Likud party, MK Haim Katz, is also the chairman of the union of the Israel Aircraft Industries, the largest public industrial employer in Israel; and this is just one, though prominent, example.

Grover Norquist would be terrified to find out that in Likud, whose leader PM Netanyahu likes to compare himself to conservative Republicans, there are many who openly call for more taxation, particularly on the rich, as a way of paying for the welfare state that they want Israel to be.

So, in order to have a better sense of the otherwise confusing world of Israeli politics, we can go by one definition of left versus right, and this is the attitude towards the conflict with the Palestinians, the notion of a two-state solution and the attitude towards settlements. Here, too, the picture is somewhat murky and unclear. There are five parties competing for about 40 seats, as about 10-12 go to the three Arab parties. The fact that the Arab-Israeli vote goes mainly to Arab parties, and less and less to center and center-left Jewish parties, is one of the ringing failures of parties in Israel which claim to present an inclusive political platform, one that could provide a political home for many Israeli Arabs.

Those who want to combine support for Palestinian national aspirations with a drive to better their lot in the State of Israel, with its built-in Jewish majority and character. There are Arab candidates in the parties of the center and left, but these people seem to have no troops behind them.

This is just one of the failures of the center and left, in terms of broadening their electoral base. Three other big blocks of voters continue to be firmly in the right-wing column, and out of reach for the center and left; Sepharadic voters, Jews from the former Soviet Union, and religious voters. These three blocks constitute the backbone of the right-wing coalition, and they continue to be impregnable to the Israeli left. This is not good news to the five parties of the center and left, better news to Netanyahu, but still potentially troubling for him, because the current polls show him losing ground to the right-wing religious parties, something which will greatly curtail his freedom of action after the elections.

Here there is a potential opportunity for the center left, but one which is being sadly wasted. The Labor leader, Shelly Yechimovitz, who competes with Bennett for the no. two slot after Likud is committed not to join a coalition led by Netanyahu, and so is the marginal Meretz party. The movement of former FM Livni, Yesh Atid [we have a future] of Yair Lapid and what is left of the Kadima party under Shaul Mofaz are ready to join Netanyahu, but without the religious right wing. Confused? You ought to be, and so are many Israeli voters who otherwise would have liked to vote against Netanyahu, but feel that under current circumstances their vote will be to no avail. One of them is Yuval Diskin, a former head of the General Security Service and a fierce critic of Netanyahu from the left, who called for likeminded people to abstain from voting altogether. Clearly, sweet music to the ears of Netanyahu and Lieberman.

With the center and left so fragmented over their priorities, unable to find the minimal workable common denominator, Netanyahu cruises ever more easily towards another term. So, on January 23rd the all too familiar ritual of soul-searching and self-blame, so familiar to the Israeli center and left, is expected to commence in full force.