Something has happened to Israeli politics since the late 1990's.
There has been a drop in the weight of the largest parties, as well as a decline in voter turnout.
From the election of 1996 onward, the largest party in each election has received an average of 31 percent of the votes. In all previous elections (from 1949 through 1992), the largest party received an average of 45 percent of the votes.
A similar pattern appears in the combined votes of the two largest parties, with their percentage of the votes in the two periods dropping from 74 to 54 percent.
During the same periods, average voter turnout dropped from 81 percent to 69 percent.
There has also been a shortening of the time between elections. From the election of 1999 to the present the average span of a Knesset has been 38 months, while earlier it was 44 months. The present Knesset will have been in office for only 26 months up to the election scheduled for March, 2015.
What does all this mean?
A common explanation is a multiplication of middle size parties, none of which can dominate a government, perpetual maneuvering for advantage, with voters' confusion and frustration that nothing can be accomplished in the fields that interest them.
Why has that occurred?
Here the explanation is a bit shakier. However, one scenario begins with Palestinian violence with the first intifada from 1987, increasing dramatically in tempo during the second Intifada from 2000, together with the failure of several efforts to reach agreement with Palestinians. There was Ehud Barak together with Bill Clinton in 2000, Ehud Olmert in 2008, and most recently the failure of Kerry's initiative to get even close to the points that those previous efforts had reached.
That sequence of events is said to be one of the reasons for the decline in left of center political parties that have been most prominent in promoting continued efforts at reaching an accord with the Palestinians. The Labor Party or its predecessors had dominated Israeli politics until the election of 1977, then led governments that came to power after four of the five elections between 1984 and 1999. Labor has not selected the Prime Minister from the election of 2003 onward. Currently it is the third ranking party, with only 15 seats. Polls taken after the failure of the Kerry initiative, but before the current onset of political maneuvering, showed Labor likely to reduce its standing even further.
Commentators and activists are currently posturing for advantage in the run up to the voting scheduled for March 17. A common theme is opposition to Benyamin Netanyahu, and frustration at the lack of decisiveness and voter participation. Candidates are emphasizing the need to coalesce among the smaller and middle-size parties, with the intention of creating blocks that can offer clear alternatives on the issues facing the country, and take control from Likud.
A new peace initiative has not been prominent in the campaigns of individuals aspiring to leading major parties. Not only the failure of Kerry's initiative, but continued demands from Palestinians for concessions unlikely to be considered by any major Israeli party, along with the ascendance of Muslim extremism may be enough to turn Israeli politicians inward in the direction of domestic problems. There is also a drift even more rightward among the more conservative parties. That is most prominent in the Prime Minister's push for legislating Israel's standing as a Jewish state, and Jewish Home's demand for more extensive settlement throughout the West Bank. Both of those efforts figured in the breakdown of the current coalition.
Yet to be tested is the capacity of heavy egos to accept the combination of parties that all seem to support. Who will lead the combines will be one challenge, as well as ideological elements that are likely to produce tensions. Labor is home to die hard leftists who will not welcome Tsipi Livni, who comes to the center from a background in Likud. They will object to assuring Livni a high spot on Labor's list--and thereby a sure seat in the Knesset--while others have to compete in a tough party primary election. SHAS's parliamentary leader has proclaimed that his party will not sit in any government coalition that includes Yair Lapid.
The most prominent mystery is Moshe Kahlon. He made a name for himself as Minister of Communication in the previous government of Benyamin Netanyahu, claiming credit for reducing the cost of using cell phones. He took a holiday from politics during the run-up to the 2013 election, apparently due to a falling out when the Prime Minister was not willing to assure him the ministerial promotion that he demanded.
Now Kahlon has made himself prominent as the presumptive head of a new party, whose primary offering will be a commitment to reduce the cost of living. That makes him a likely a competitor with Yair Lapid. Yet the public sees Kahlon as the new star, with the polls indicating that he would outdo Yair Lapid and rank among the weightiest of the middle sized parties along with Jewish Home and Labor. Yet Kahlon is dithering in a way that can hurt his chances in an election only four months away. He has failed to provide a name for his party, or to identify who would be his running mates on the party ticket.
Kahlon also has not ruled out returning to his home in Likud and competing against Netanyahu (and perhaps Gideon Saar) for party leadership. He has feinted a bit to the right by claiming to be "true Likudnik," but who is not afraid to make territorial concessions. The reference is to party icons Menachem Begin (Sinai) and Ariel Sharon (Gaza). Kahlon's reputation is that of a rightist on matters of dealing with Palestinians, so he may be trying to suggest more flexibility and reasonableness than Netanyahu, without anything close to a posture that would assure the opposition of Likud rightists.
A potential irony of Obama helping Netanyahu comes in a report out of Washington that the White House is pondering sanctions against Israel for its continued construction of Jewish housing in areas of Jerusalem over the 1967 borders, even while it is pushing for a lightening of sanctions against Iran.
Such news might be all that is needed to give a new lease on political life to Benyamin Netanyahu, as well as assuring the Obama Administration with another dose of problems from the Republican Congress that will convene in less than a month.
We are now in the initial excitement of a new political campaign. Much can happen in Israel and outside of Israel that will impact on candidates, activists, and us commoners. More of the same is the general rule in politics, but not always. This may be one of those elections that produce a change.