OPINION: Three crucial issues that will sway Israel’s election

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OPINION: Three crucial issues that will sway Israel’s election

Turnout, extremism and the economy will determine the result of the country's fifth election in three years, argues Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's Gavin Stollar

Benjamin Netanyahu (R) is seen next to  Yair Lapid ( © Omer Messinger/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)
Benjamin Netanyahu (R) is seen next to Yair Lapid ( © Omer Messinger/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

As a fifth election in three years looms for Israelis on 1 November, an interested observer from the UK, let alone voter from Israel, can be forgiven for being confused and bemused in equal measure.

I am a committed devotee to a proportional voting system for the UK and a long-standing advocate for Israel, but that country’s electoral system leaves me conflicted. Regardless, the facts are out there and Israelis will be asked to decide, again.

It is not widely appreciated but Yesh Atid –  the party of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid– is the sister party of my own, the Liberal Democrats, and both are members of the Liberal International alliance.

Yesh Atid is a secular, liberal, Zionist political party and I have just returned from Israel where I had detailed discussions with its activists, MPs and senior advisers with very close proximity to the prime minister, as well as talking to residents living on the Gaza border and British expats in Jerusalem.

I believe the three issues that will decide this election can be summarised as turnout, extremism, and the economy.

First, turnout. Based on the cross-section of voices I heard, this is the uniform issue cited. Cutting through the noise, if the number of people who vote is low and more specifically if the 20 percent Arab-Israeli population vote is low, this is very good news for former prime  minister Netanyahu.

The centrist Lapid-led bloc needs to get out the vote. Lapid led the first Israeli Government so far to have included the Arab-Israeli parties.

He needs them again and they need to turn out in big numbers.

Second comes extremism. Here I speak of the “Religious Zionism Party bloc” which is on course to win 13 seats and is headed by Itamar Ben Gvir. Ben Gvir is seen as an extremist and regarded as unpalatable to most in Israel and certainly to the diaspora.

Itamar Ben Gvir (R), head of Israel’s Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, cheers to supporters at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2021 while campaigning a day ahead of the fourth national election. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Image

The issue is simple: if Netanyahu requires Ben Gvir’s seats to form a government, does he do a deal with the devil or does he proposition Benny Gantz’ Blue and White Party?

Unfortunately for Bibi, Gantz has stated unequivocally he will not join a Netanyahu-led government, but faced with the opportunity to stay in government and keep extremists out, will Gantz listen if the wily Netanyahu is able to coax him in? We shall see. It is a  critical issue on a number of levels and for many of those concerned.

Finally, there is the economy. It was said to me across the board that Israelis are enjoying boom times. There are not enough people to fill the thousands of high-tech and digital jobs that the high-rise city of Tel Aviv has to offer.

The country has a higher GDP per capita than the UK, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain and Japan, to name but a few. Israelis are feeling positive about the historical focus on the financial state of their country.

What does this mean? One typical reaction is electoral apathy, with people saying they are doing all right so there is no need to run to the polls and vote. This leads to low turnout, which is good news for Netanyahu.

A second reaction is voters thinking they need another reason to change their allegiance from the person credited (rightly or wrongly) with this prosperity.

That would be Netanyahu again. So, what could that reason be?

At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Lapid spoke of Israel’s need to be courageous by seeking a peace with the Palestinians. Strikingly, this was the first time an Israeli PM had mentioned the Palestinian conflict at the UN in six years.

Clearly, Lapid feels he could be the man to deliver where all before him have failed. Selling a dream of peace alongside a politically altruistic message of hope has characterised Lapid’s political career to date. And this new emphasis on peace, interestingly, seems to be resonating.

Having shared dinner with Yitzhak Rabin’s former press secretary, I left Israel feeling hopeful and fearful in equal measure, reminded of lessons of the past but with hopes for the future – a future for Israel, which in my estimation, needs a statesman like Lapid to deliver a peace that 70 percent-plus of Israelis still yearn for.

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