Israelis head to polls to end close election race

Mar 17, 2015 | News

Israeli voters wait in line at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 17. (Reuters)

Israeli voters wait in line at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 17. (Reuters)

By Ian Burns

Israel heads to the polls on Tuesday in an election that will determine the direction of the Jewish state amidst ongoing conflicts with Iran.

The incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has garnered criticism of late for his fiery rhetoric on the election trail.

Netanyahu has claimed that “leftist elements” both inside and outside Israel have ganged up on his election campaign, and has emphatically stated that there will be no Palestinian state under his rule, saying that it would lead to “extremist elements” attacking Israel.

The main opposition coalition is the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog. Herzog has promised that he will revive peace talks with the Palestinians and repair relations with the United States.

The election is tight. According to the Huffington Post, polls conducted during the final week of the campaign, the Zionist Union is on track to win 24 to 25 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud favoured to win 21 to 22 seats.

“The Zionist Union seems to be holding a 2 to 4 seat lead over Likud,” director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Paul Michaels told Humber News Tuesday.

Israel’s electoral system follows a strict proportional representation system, which means that the number of votes that each party receives roughly equals the number of seats they receive in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).

With the great number of political parties in the country, it often requires establishing a coalition government.

“Even if the Zionist Union party wins the largest amount of the vote, they may not even be given the first opportunity to form government,” Renan Levine, lecturer in political science at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, told Humber News.

He said that the right-wing parties, of which Netanyahu’s Likud is one, may come to an agreement quicker to form a majority coalition of 61 votes in the Knesset.

“Netanyahu may have an easier path to government,” said Michaels.

Michaels pointed out that the economy has moved to the forefront in this election, as opposed to fears about security.

People “tend to only see Israel in terms of conflict, but 48 per cent of Israeli voters list the economy as the number one issue,” said Michaels.

Levine said the traditional focus on security has been less prevalent this election.

“Netanyahu has focused on Iran, and the other parties have focused on social issues,” he said. “The Palestinian issue has almost disappeared.”

Levine said Netanyahu’s hard stance on Iran is not a key factor for voters, because the opposition parties tend to have a similar strong stance.

“The difference is they worry that Netanyahu has put the relationship with the United States at risk,” he said.

Michaels said that the focus on the economy, as well as stronger participation by Israel’s Arab citizens, is encouraging.

“This election is showing the vibrancy of Israeli politics,” he said. “Whatever the result tonight, the coalition building starts tomorrow.”