Sunday, January 06, 2013

First Look at 2013 Israeli Elections

One of the most volatile and fickle electorates in the world - certainly in the Middle East - is about to go to the polls. I've not ventured yet into the thorny subject of the 2013 Kenesset elections in Israel, as has been my wont in elections past, because I firmly believed this election would not be decided until the last few weeks of campaigning. I just didn't believe the story was worth my time - not until the shifting political players had finally dug in for the final push. And we've now reached that point.

Outgoing (and the smart money says incoming) PM Benyamin Netanyahu has been enjoying a comfortable lead in opinion polls, and the left-center potential opposition has been fractured, rudderless, and ineffective. Thus, every imaginable pundit and pollster has predicted a comfortable majority for an even harder right Netanyahu-led coalition once the voting takes place.

But as any seasoned Israeli election watcher ought to remember, there is a general rule of thumb that renders all early punditry meaningless: there is a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the right/religious/nationalist parties (the "Fortress Israel" crowd), and a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the left/secular/centrist parties (the accommodating "peace process" crowd). It is the 20% perennial undecideds, the moody feel-it-in-their-kishkes Israeli voters, who make the difference. These bipolar voters often do not decide until the final 48 hours of a campaign.

And this year, despite the collective wisdom of the pundits, the undecideds are definitely in play.

It looks for the moment like the undecideds are leaning to the right. That's why all the polls are showing an easy majority for "Fortress Israel." But now that the election, which has been bereft of issues and debate-free (not a single one has been scheduled between any of the principal contenders), is heating up, watch for some surprises. I'll try to highlight some of these surprises in the coming days.

Take this weekend: the most recent former heard of the General Security Service (known in Hebrew as shabak - think of the FBI with spycraft and special ops) gave an interview published Friday in Israel's largest circulation daily newspaper, in which he labelled Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak as unfit to lead the nation. We've heard these complaints from other former Israeli intelligence chiefs - but the gravitas of Yuval Diskin's critique is a carefully timed body blow to Netanyahu's carefully messaged narrative of a strong national leader.

Will Diskin's charges have any effect on the undecideds? There are new and untested parties and political figures in the hunt, and thus there is no historical data for predicting how Israeli voters will respond to reading yet again of credible doubts concerning their current PM. Unfortunately, there has yet to emerge any Nate Silver-like authority who has an accurate read of voter preferences, and historically, pre-election polls are often wildly off the mark.

So I'll simply put it this way: it's time to start paying attention to the campaign. All the electoral verities of the last 2-1/2 months are melting away in the harsh light of the looming election scheduled for January 22.

Election Day may yet turn out to be an easy rout for Netanyahu. But don't lay odds just yet. The game has finally begun.

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