Choosing among 34 political parties is much simpler than it may first appear. The first step is deciding who you are, and what is important to you. The second step is to avoid wasting time thinking about 20 or so parties beyond the edge of reality.
It is easiest for the ultra-Orthodox. For many--perhaps the vast majority of them--they follow their rabbi''s instructions. And their rabbis follow the rabbis at the head of their cluster, congregation, or movement in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
The rest of us are likely to begin with feelings about the most important issues. The prominent alternatives are:
- Security, i.e., what to do about Palestinians and other Arabs?
- What to do about settlements? For many, this is a subset of security. A tough line on the Palestinians comes along with a willingness to expand settlements. A feeling that Israel should be more accommodating with respect to Palestinians comes along with the attitude that settlement is a national disaster, or time bomb ticking toward explosion
- Social issues, i.e., who should get what share of the economic pie?
- What to do about the Haredim, i.e., the ultra-Orthodox, whose males claim to spend their lives assuring the Almighty''s concern for Israel by studying sacred texts, avoid work, taxes, and military service, but do make lots of boys who will grow up like their fathers, and vote for political parties that demand special deals for them on housing, mortgages, taxes, water bills and who knows what else?.
All of the above pertains to the 80 percent of Israelis who think of themselves as Jews, with or without the Rabbinate''s certificate of authenticity.
Personal and family traditions are also important. Not all Israelis think like professors.
Arabs as a group are more tradition-bound and followers of family leaders than Jews, although some of them are professors, or think like professors and decide what is best for them. Somewhere off in a corner of this campaign are Jewish Knesset members who want to ban individual Arab candidates or Arab parties on account of their helping Israel''s enemies. Arabs are threatening a general boycott of the election--and even worse behavior--if those efforts succeed.
Parties emphasizing Israel''s concerns for security with support for settlement are best positioned to come out of the election with the largest number of votes and become creators of the next government coalition. Likud our Home and Jewish Home are polling close to or a bit more than 50 Knesset seats together. That means they will have to coalesce with other parties, but Likud will be given the President''s nod to go ahead and negotiate.
Word is that Sara Netanyahu does not like the leader of Jewish Home. That can complicate everything.
Currently, however, both Likud our Home and Jewish Home are celebrating the latest demonstration of Arab mobs cheering extremist politicians. Khaled Marshaal, one of the figures claiming leadership of Hamas, recently made an intemperate speech before thousands in Gaza in which he praised comrades and martyrs for their victory in last month''s confrontation, and promised more actions that would eventually provide them with all of Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
The security-oriented and settlement-friendly parties are also celebrating the impotence of the parties advocating a mixture of accommodation with Palestinians and social justice among Israelis. The most extreme of those parties (Meretz) shows little movement beyond the three seats currently held, and leaders of the the more prominent cluster of Labor, Lapid, and Livni are letting ego overcome the advantages of partnership.
Overall, the security-settlement vs accommodation-social justice competition looks something like 50 against 35, depending on the poll.
If the past will guide the near future--and it usually does--the security-settlement cluster is most likely to coalesce with the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose recent poll results of 15-17 will bring the security-settlement cluster over the line to a Knesset majority.
Those hoping for some movement on social justice, or limiting the parasitic behavior of the ultra-Orthodox see another alternative. However, the recent behavior of Labor-Lapid-Livni makes one wonder if Labor and Lapid can turn their polls totalling about 25 into something the security-settlement leaders will buy. Livni is not a good bet for those seeking flexibility of her basic principles, whatever they are.
Earlier this week the government (i.e., Benyamin Netanyahu) signaled the likely future by a back door maneuver that will extend the Haredim''s exemption from military service. This has spurred some action from Lapid and Labor toward the Supreme Court and street demonstrations that may keep anti-Haredism in the headlines and influence some voters. Most likely, however, is a reinforcement of existing tendencies, or some shifting among Lapid-Labor-Livni, rather than any grand movement from elsewhere to one of those parties.
On the fringes is a new party led by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who split from SHAS and is offering a list that is partly secular and in favor of pressing more Haredim into the IDF, national service, and work. One of the wet dreams keeping Israelis awake sees that party attracting protest voters, and winning enough seats to become an element in coalition arithmetic.
Against this is the chronic impermanence of new parties, and the major players'' reluctance to offend ultra-Orthodox parties that are in politics for the long haul.
Life in other western democracies may be less threatening or less exciting, depending on what affects one''s inner balance. Americans may think that their politics are simpler, but that is only true if they avoid voting for their state''s treasurer and superintendent of schools, referendum questions great or insignificant, their county''s sheriff and the council that makes decisions about sewage and water, the local school board, and a slew of judges ranging from those who will decide about the state constitution to those who punish neighbors for not cutting their lawn or shoveling the snow.