The Israeli elections took place on the 17th of March, when 26 parties contested for 120 seats. Clear majorities are not expected since Israel follows a system of proportional representation, but opinion/exit polls till late predicted a neck to neck race amongst the top contenders- right wing Likud (to which the current Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu belongs) and the Zionist Union, a centre left political alliance between the ideologically close Israeli Labour Party (chairman Isaac Herzog was Leader of Opposition in the outgoing Knesset) and Hatnuah (founded in 2012 by former minister and leading peace negotiator Tzipi Livni).
The 20th Knesset
Upsetting the exit poll calculations, Likud emerged the clear winner with 30 seats. The Zionist Union trailed with 24. Ten parties have made the 3.75% of votes cut-off. The election turnout was 71.8%, the highest since 1999, as per the Jerusalem Post. Women’s representation has grown, with 28 women MKs, while the number of Arab MKs jumped from 12 to 17. To reach a 61 seat majority, Netanyahu has already called upon likely coalition partners to- The Jewish Home (pro setter ultra nationalist), Kulanu (centrist, run by former Likud MK, running on socio economic relief platform), Yisraeli Beytenu (led by right wing leader Lieberman), and Shas and United Torah Judaism (religious orthodox). A right wing coalition is most likely since the Zionist Camp has confirmed that it shall stay in the opposition acting as a voice of conscience and truth.
Issues in the elections
Mr. Netanyahu called for early elections due to a falling out with his coalition partners last December. Given its Jewish homeland policy and geographical predicament- being surrounded by hostile neighbours, and having a small territory- foreign relations are always at the centre stage in any Israeli elections. Peace negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, stand on Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory remain crucial since they affect the very nature of the state along with domestic concerns- rising living costs, homeland security, and exemption of draft for seminary enrolments. These featured in this election as well, with added emphasis on the Iranian nuclear issue (the P5+1 are working hard to hammer a deal before the March 31st deadline in Lausanne), threat of ISIS, and souring relations with the USA (owing also to the frosty relations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu).
Bibi’s acidic campaign
The campaign slogans showed a stark divide. Likud’s “It’s us or them” and Zionist Union’s “It’s us or him”, made the campaign personal and, as several media outlets called it, a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. He has been in power since 2009, and the economy worsened and the peace process stalled. However, Bibi’s last minute acrimonious campaign for right wing votes seems to have paid off. He back tracked on his endorsement for a two state solution saying that there would be no Palestinian state if he was re-elected. He said that owing to recent upsurge of Islamic radicalism in the region, giving land for Palestinian state would give strategic depth for anti Israel forces. His White House speech drama also portrayed a strong nationalist fervour. Though USA-Israel ties are essential to Israeli foreign policy, Obama’s domestic unpopularity, last years of his Presidency, and Republican support to Netanyahu, caused the Oval Office snub to Bibi’s USA visit to remain a non issue. The fear mongering, even in the last hours, where he posted on Facebook that the left was bussing in Arabs to vote the nationalist government out of power, apparently drove several conservatives to vote in Likud’s favour. USA has criticised this “divisive rhetoric” used in the final stages.
By these elections, Israelis have shown that homeland security remains central. The peace process seems to be stalled yet again. Soon after the election results, PA official Erekat said that in light of Mr. Netanyahu’s statements, it was clear that “there is no partner on the Israeli side”. Implosion of the PA due to blocked tax revenues and impending split in security cooperation may prove to be dangerous. Also, how Mr. Netanyahu would tackle the Palestinian authorities which are increasingly gaining international diplomatic hold, and have taken unilateral steps in international forums to bring Israeli ‘war crimes’ to book, would be issues of concern. As would be his handling of the economy- rising housing and food prices, hardliner stand on Iran may and possible rapprochement with USA. USA affirmed its commitment to the two state solution in light of the election results.
What is in it for India?
For India, the election results mean business as usual. The bilateral relations have been on an upsurge since the NDA government took over, which looks forward to ties on homeland security, defence (Israel is the third largest arms supplier) and agriculture. Israel has a robust high technology agriculture research and implementation program, especially suited to dry land agriculture (majority of Indian agriculture remains drought/ desertification prone). Mr. Rajnath Singh visited Israel last year after the warm exchanges between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Modi on sidelines of the UNGA meet in Washington last year. A visit by Israeli defence minister to India in February, the first ever since India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, shows the relationship moving beyond the ‘behind the scenes’ stages. The bilateral relationship is to be seen within a calculative pragmatism, where India is going ahead with the economics, and not being caught up in the politics. The long held stand for non intervention in sovereign matters of others is also convenient diplomacy for not taking a strong stand on the Palestinian self determinism issue, which India, in principle supports.
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