The next Israeli elections, which will take place no later than late October 2013, will determine whether the right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will keep running the government with hardly any parliamentary opposition, or if his Likud party and its potential right-wing and Orthodox partners will face a center-left bloc which either eliminates or, at least, decreases Netanyahu's political power. It will determine whether the peace process will remain in a deadlock, or will get a fair, if not a last chance.
Kadima and Labor have great difficulty presenting a charismatic potential leader who can challenge Netanyahu. The prime minister enjoys both the active support of Ehud Barak, as well as the passive support of Barack Obama. Thus, it seems unrealistic to mobilize, in the foreseeable future, a significant segment of Jewish voters from the right-Orthodox bloc to form a center–left coalition.
To date, combined Orthodox and settlers turnout has been above 90%, which does not leave much room for change. Jewish majority turnout is unlikely to change drastically, providing there is no major new event such as war, intifada or a major economic crisis. The name of the game is the Palestinian-Israeli voter turnout. The only possibility to form a 61-member center-left bloc in the Knesset, eliminating Netanyahu’s quest for power, or at least a 59-person bloc, is mobilizing more members of this minority constituency and getting them to the ballot boxes.
Their recent low turnout, a mere 53% (45% voted for Arab parties, 8% to non-Arab parties), reflected the despair of the Palestinian-Israelis and the sense that they are unable to change their socio-economic and civic reality. The Arab parties were never invited to join the governments, and thus were not able to deliver budgets and legislation in favor of their constituencies. Frustrated Arab members of Knesset have been devoting their time to high-media profile issues. Members of the Jewish parties, realizing that Palestinian-Israelis don't vote for them, or don't bother to go to the polls, are at most indifferent to their interests.
However, when the Palestinian citizens of Israel realize that there is a chance to influence their own lives, turnout may be as high as in the municipal elections (circa 90%). An increase in turnout to at least 65-68% in the parliamentary elections can result in an additional 120,000 votes or a 4-6 Members of Knesset tie-breaker.
If the 2013 general elections coincide with municipal elections as scheduled, high Arab turnout in the municipal election may have a spill-over effect on their turnout in the general elections. Ha'aretz political analyst Yossi Verter reported recently that Netanyahu, aware of this possible scenario, will find an excuse to split up the dates of the municipal and general elections.
Furthermore, the initiative to impose mandatory national service on Palestinian–Israelis (as a "byproduct" of legislation that will limit the number of Jewish ultra-Orthodox who are exempt from military service) is deepening the alienation among Palestinian-Israelis from the big political game. On the other hand, this legislation may encourage outraged Palestinian-Israelis to reconnect with center-left parties. The challenge of the liberal non-Arab parties is to convince Palestinian-Israelis that, once given political power, they will ensure that equal duties will be balanced by equal rights.
Right-wing parties will find it quite difficult to smear their political rivals for cooperating with Palestinian-Israelis. After all, they are committed to the Declaration of Independence, which promises equal rights to every Israeli, regardless of faith or race. This commitment is also part of Likud's platform.
At the same time, the Israeli left is looking into another idea that involves Palestinian-Israeli voters. They are considering reaching out to Palestinian inhabitants in East Jerusalem, who constitute 38% of the city's population, to try to convince them to participate in the 2013 municipal elections. If they agree to lift the boycott on municipal elections, the capital of the Jewish state will be administered by a non-Zionist mayor and city council.
A Palestinian local party will have no ideological problem joining ultra-Orthodox parties in order to form a coalition, or force the Jewish mayor to offer their representatives equal partnership. A bi-national administration in the so-called "united capital" may serve as shock treatment to mainstream Israelis. It will make them realize that the alternative to a two-state solution puts the state's Jewish character at serious risk. Right-wing parties will have a hard time accusing the center, and the right-wing, parties of collaboration with the enemy. After all, they don’t miss an opportunity to declare that Jerusalem will be forever the united capital of Israel, without discrimination between east and west, Jews and Arabs.
This can only happen if the Palestinian leadership realizes that it is in its interest to encourage Palestinian-Jerusalemites to participate in the municipal elections, which could set a precedent for a bi-national alternative to the shrinking two-state solution. On the other hand, it will allow the Israeli dove parties to demonstrate to the Jewish public that if Israel wants to stay both Jewish and democratic, it must separate from most of the territories and the people it has been occupying for the last 45 years.
Akiva Eldar is a senior analyst at Ha’aretz.