Even in the best of times, voting is something of a crap shoot for citizens who wish to influence what their government does. Candidates speak in general terms in order to appeal as widely as possible and to give themselves room to maneuver in the face of conditions bound to change. And that statement assumes that candidates are honest. Hah. Maybe some of them. Moreover, no victor is able to make policy alone. A chief executive must work with a legislature. Even if it is controlled by the chief executive''s party, there are bound to be competing personalities and factions.
Israel''s voters have the additional problem of knowing that the government will be a coalition. They have all been coalitions. The Jews and others of this small country have never produced a majority. A collection of five or six parties is not unusual. Occasionally parties come and go as coalitions expand or shrink with circumstances between elections.
What does this mean for a voter''s calculations?
It''s not enough to think about the most desirable candidate or the most desirable party platform, even assuming that the leading candidate, the published platform, and the themes of campaign slogans, billboards, and speeches provide clear clues as to what the party will support. If there is a chance that one''s favorite party will get enough votes so its leader will be asked by the President to create a government, the questions are which parties will that party leader invite into the government, which ministries will each of the parties receive, and which individuals will each of the parties select to actually serve as the ministers? While the Prime Minister is expected to be dominant, the chances are that the Prime Minister will focus on a few issues at the top of the agenda, whatever that becomes in the situation of a small country battered by political and economic pressures from outside its borders. Ministers have various kinds of discretion and autonomy within their own fields, although whoever is the Finance Minister has a powerful upper hand via control over money.
Currently, one of the topics more prominent than others, and more problematic than others is what comes under the heading of "settlements," or more broadly, "what to do about the Palestinians?"
The history and current pressures are well known. They involve Israeli frustrations at being unable to reach agreement with Palestinians, the current split among Palestinians between what might generously be called the accommodationists of the West Bank and what are more certainly the rejectionists of Gaza, a steady drum beat from overseas--alternately led by Washington or European worthies--condemning Israeli settlement activities and demanding that Israel and the Palestinians work harder at reaching an agreement, along with the recent symbolic accomplishment of the Palestinians in the United Nations and the frequent threats by various Palestinians that if Israel is not more accommodating it will be necessary to disband the Palestinians Authority and give Israel responsibility for governing Palestinians, or alternately that it will be time for another intifada.
What faces the Israeli voter in terms of what the various parties are promising with respect to settlement or the Palestinians?
The present and most likely future Prime Minister is promising to support settlement. He led a decision to punish the Palestinians for the UN maneuver by advancing planning for several thousand housing units beyond the 1967 borders, including an especially controversial area (E1) between Jerusalem and Maale Adumin. Since then, he has backtracked, said more or less clearly that E1 is not due for any actual construction in the foreseeable future, and emphasized Israel''s right to build within the Jerusalem municipality. We all know that only Israel recognizes the post-1967 boundaries of Jerusalem, but there is wide support for building within the new neighborhoods.
Tsipi Livni, whose party is called The Movement led by Tsipi Livni, is the one prominent voice emphasizing the need to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians in order to reach a two-state solution. Livni says that she was involved in Ehud Olmert''s negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and she sounds confidant that she can reach an agreement with Abbas. Her party has been polling at the level of 11 seats, and there are some not altogether reliable reports that her people are negotiating with Netanyahu''s people about her entering the government as Foreign Minister.
The surprise of this campaign is Jewish Home led by Naftali Benet. He is the most outspoken candidate in behalf of settlement and has spoken more or less explicitly against the creation of a Palestinian state. He got some bad press about a comment that, if called to reserve duty in the IDF he would refuse orders to remove Jewish settlers from their homes, but the polls continue to show rising support for Jewish Home. Currently it is at 15 seats, likely to be the third largest party, and closing in on Labor, currently the second largest party, but according to one poll likely to win only 17 seats.
Also in the air is a squabble between Netanyau and SHAS over the Ministry of Housing and Construction. That might not be important for the American White House, Downing Street, Paris, or Berlin, but it is to Israelis. The Ministry has been in the hands of SHAS, and the housing created at its behest has been disproportionally meant for ultra-Orthodox families. That appears not only in the style of construction (cheap and crowded), but in the criteria as to who will get preferential mortgages. This involves criteria that benefit couples who have been married for several years and have not yet purchased an apartment. Since Haredim marry young, they are more likely than secular families to benefit from favorable mortgages based on the criteria of length of marriage.
Avigdor Lieberman has also spoken of taking the Ministry of Interior away from SHAS, and making it more friendly to his constituency of Russian-speaking immigrants. Perhaps one-third of those immigrants are not Jews according to religious law, there are controversies about conversions, the Interior Ministry has a role in recording the identity of individuals, and it has the patronage-heavy task of allocating money to local governments.-
Lieberman does not have a strong record of following through with his promises for the sake of his constituents, and his own role in the next government will depend on what the courts decide about his indictment on a criminal offense.
SHAS is threatening to stay out of a Netanyahu government if he will carry through with his promise to give the Housing and Construction Ministry or Interior to someone other than SHAS
It is hard to believe that SHAS will stay out of a Netanyahu-led coalition, but it is also hard to believe that Netanyahu will carry through with a promise to depart from his hitherto favorite strategy of creating a right of center coalition, with SHAS, Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home.
My guesses may be better than yours, but mine will be far from certainties.