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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Israel: 2013 Elections Preview

Jim Zanotti Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Close U.S.-Israel relations drive congressional interest in upcoming elections for Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (parliament), scheduled for January 22, 2013. Israeli leadership decisions may have profound implications for matters of high U.S. priority, including potential threats from Iran and its non-state allies (such as Hezbollah and Hamas), issues of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and political change in neighboring Arab states. The composition of a probable new coalition and government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could significantly influence Israeli decisionmaking, politics, and relations with the outside world, including the United States. In turn, this could affect U.S. popularity, credibility, and—ultimately—national security vis-√†-vis the Middle East and more broadly. For more information on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations, see CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, by Jim Zanotti.

Netanyahu came to power following elections in 2009, and called for the 2013 elections to take place in January, nine months before they were required. Most polls and analyses predict that Netanyahu will win another term as prime minister, but a drop in polling support for his joint Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu list—possibly due in part to the indictment of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman—could increase his dependence on support from small right-of-center or ultra-Orthodox parties that focus on specific issues and have seen their polling averages rise. If they thus acquire disproportionate influence, such coalition partners—along with other parties, cabinet ministers, and “hardline” elements within Likud—might constrain or otherwise affect Netanyahu as he confronts a range of challenges that include the Iranian nuclear issue, cost-ofliving and other budgetary matters, and the seemingly intractable situation with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s political opponents from the left and center appear thus far to have been unsuccessful in attempts to gather a bloc that represents a viable political alternative.

The likely effects of Israel’s elections and related political developments on its internal cohesion and foreign relations are unclear. Criticism by some U.S. and international observers of Netanyahu’s government since 2009 has targeted expanding Jewish residential settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many of these critics accuse Israel’s leaders of a penchant for short-term thinking, focused on maintaining territory and security control, at the potential expense of a longer-term vision of mutual accommodation with other regional actors. Some Israelis dismiss this criticism by insisting that it does not properly take into account the proximity, multiplicity, and seriousness of the challenges Israel faces, or the concessions that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have periodically made.

Should his party emerge with the largest Knesset representation, Netanyahu would play the leading role in shaping the new coalition and government, but would need support from outside his political support base. As part of this process, he would weigh various domestic and international considerations—including the lack of a clear rival to his immediate leadership— within an overall political, demographic, and regional security context. The strategic challenge of Iran’s nuclear program and the potential for key short-term decision points on unilateral Israeli military action are paramount among security concerns. However, the concerns also include questions about growing threats in ungoverned spaces at Israel’s borders, increased potential for West Bank instability, and the future nature of Israel’s relations with neighboring countries and concerns about further international isolation. To the extent that Netanyahu’s choice of coalition partners and ministers reveals his priorities and constraints as to policy initiatives, Members of Congress can use this information to assess the status and trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations and evaluate possible political, economic, and military options in the Middle East.

Date of Report: January 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R42888
Price: $29.95

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