As U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration tentatively begins to engage with the Middle East, it does so knowing the region’s players could look very different in six months time.
A quartet of elections – starting Tuesday, when Israelis go to the polls in what’s widely viewed as a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have the potential to fundamentally reshape the parameters of any discussion about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
It’s a rare chance for voters to affect the fate of a region with weak democratic traditions. But despite a widespread desire for change, there are also powerful forces determined to maintain the long-time status quo.
Israel’s vote will be followed in May by the first Palestinian parliamentary elections since 2006, when the Islamist militia Hamas shocked the world – and plunged the region deeper into chaos – by winning a majority, then establishing its own government in the Gaza Strip. In a separate election in July, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will face voters in Gaza and the West Bank for the first time since 2005.
Iran, too, is heading into a crucial election that will again reveal the deep divide between the country’s reform-minded youth, who hope for a reborn nuclear deal and more engagement with the outside world, and its conservative old guard. The latter, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, viewed the deal warily even before Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, pulled the U.S. out of the agreement – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and reimposed sanctions three years ago.
Tuesday’s election in Israel will be the first test of whether those who want to see change in the region have enough votes to push out those who favour the status quo. The polls show Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud is likely to again emerge as the largest party in parliament, the Knesset, though with only about half the number of seats he’ll need to form a coalition government.
The election – the fourth in less than two years – revolves around the same question as the previous three: Do Israelis want the scandal-tainted Mr. Netanyahu, who has led the country since 2009, to remain in office? The 71-year-old is on trial facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Most polls predict Likud will win between 28 and 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, down from the 36 it won in an election last March. That result forced Mr. Netanyahu to enter a power-sharing agreement with rival Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party finished second. The deal was supposed to see Mr. Netanyahu hand the premiership to Mr. Gantz after 18 months, but after failing to pass a budget bill, the government collapsed before the promised transition.
Mr. Gantz and Blue and White look set to be punished by voters for putting faith in Mr. Netanyahu, with polls projecting the party will win only five seats, down from 33 a year ago.
This time, Mr. Netanyahu’s closest rival looks to be former television news anchor Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid party. Mr. Lapid backed Mr. Gantz in the previous election, but the two men fell out over Mr. Gantz’s pact with Mr. Netanyahu. Polls suggest Yesh Atid will win almost 20 seats, leaving open the possibility of Mr. Lapid forming a coalition with parties across the political spectrum who are opposed to Mr. Netanyahu remaining in office.
Those who admire Mr. Netanyahu point to Israel’s world-leading COVID-19 vaccination campaign, as well as the deals he reached to normalize diplomatic relations with a quartet of previously hostile Arab states. His opponents, meanwhile, argue that a politician charged in three separate corruption cases should not be allowed to continue in office. Mr. Netanyahu is also seen as an obstacle to any attempt to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
“This election is about Netanyahu or not Netanyahu,” said Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator. “There’s no substantive argument going on. The question is whether Netanyahu can continue governing.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s path back to power remains the same as it has been for more than a decade: making alliances with smaller right-wing nationalist and religious parties. The path is narrower than before, however, because several prominent right-wing politicians – including former allies who now head their own rival factions – are sworn opponents of the Prime Minister.
Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin said the most likely election day scenario sees Mr. Netanyahu winning the largest number of seats but finding himself unable to form a government. In that case, President Reuven Rivlin would likely turn to Mr. Lapid and ask if he can build a 61-seat coalition.
“I still think that Netanyahu has the best chance of becoming prime minister,” Ms. Scheindlin said. But if neither he nor Mr. Lapid can form a government, the country could be plunged into a fifth election campaign, she said. “I don’t want to believe in it [another election], but I can’t rule it out.”
Israel has held eight elections since 2006, the most recent time that Palestinians got the chance to cast their ballots.
The fact that Mr. Abbas decided the timing was finally right to restart Palestinian democracy is seen as both an attempt to impress the new U.S. administration – the elections were announced five days before Mr. Biden was sworn in as President – and a sign of tentative rapprochement between Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.
Whether the May 22 legislative elections will lead to any substantive change remains an open question. Since announcing the vote, Mr. Abbas has made a series of presidential decrees – including a ban on candidates under the age of 28 and another on civil servants running for office – that effectively limit the field of candidates to those who already control the Palestinian Authority.
There’s even talk of a joint list of candidates approved by both Fatah and Hamas, a step that would bring an end to the long-simmering division in Palestinian society, while also making it difficult for any new political forces – or any new ideas about potential peace talks – to emerge.
“Really what [Mr. Abbas] has been doing is tailoring these elections to effectively [allow] only the people who have already been ruling for a long time,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to Mr. Abbas. “So the same situation as usual. We’re not going to see a fundamental shift.”
Ms. Buttu says she left Mr. Abbas’s office in 2006 because “he couldn’t articulate a vision or strategy for achieving freedom from occupation.”
With opinion polls showing that two-thirds of Palestinians think it’s time for Mr. Abbas to resign – he has led the Palestinian Authority since the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat – Ms. Buttu said she believed he would find a way to cancel or postpone the presidential election, which is currently scheduled for July 31. “He’s definitely not confident of the result,” she said of the 85-year-old Mr. Abbas. “He’s started to become very frightened of losing his stature.”
The Iranian elections, meanwhile, guarantee at least some change because President Hassan Rouhani cannot run for a third consecutive term. The outcome will likely determine the future of the JCPOA, which envisions Iran accepting curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.
Both Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Biden say they support the pact – which Mr. Netanyahu vehemently opposes – but both have demanded the other side start implementing it first.
Mr. Rouhani and his reformist allies negotiated the 2015 deal with Barack Obama’s administration, in which Mr. Biden served as vice-president, and briefly reaped the rewards as Iran’s economy recorded impressive growth in 2016 and 2017. However, the reform camp’s credibility was badly damaged when Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, pushing Iran back into recession.
Mr. Rouhani’s successor will be elected from a field of candidates approved by the Supreme Leader. It’s believed the 81-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei – who is rumoured to be in ill health and concerned about ensuring the stability of the regime after his death – will try to shape the race so as to ensure a conservative victory.
Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that the longer the nuclear negotiations drag on, the greater the impact they will have on the election. Mr. Vaez said he expects “a very heavy-handed approach” in terms of disqualifying any candidates who could claim the reformist mantle from Mr. Rouhani, while clearing the field for a “young, revolutionary, energetic leader” from the conservative camp who could help guide the transition process if a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei must be found.
The regime’s defensive mood, Mr. Vaez said, could make it difficult for the Biden administration to make headway on its plan to use the JCPOA to extract further concessions from Iran regarding its missile program and its support for militant groups around the Middle East. “If the current diplomatic deadlock continues into the election campaign in Iran, it’s going to push all the candidates into competing with each other over how tough they can be with the U.S.”
Israel’s would-be prime ministers
Benjamin Netanyahu: The incumbent and leader of the right-wing Likud party. Mr. Netanyahu has survived seven elections since coming to power in 2009. He’s running on a track record that includes the fastest COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the world and last year’s signing of the Abraham Accords, which opened diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. He’s also currently on trial over three separate corruption indictments.
Yair Lapid: The leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is running second to Likud in the polls. A former TV anchorman, he served as finance minister under Mr. Netanyahu in 2013 and 2014, but is now trying to present himself as the man to replace his former boss.
Naftali Bennett: A right-wing politician opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, Mr. Bennett heads the Yamina party, which could emerge as kingmaker after Tuesday’s election. He has served in five different ministries under Mr. Netanyahu, but now says his former boss should be removed from power.
Gideon Sa’ar: The head of the right-wing New Hope party. Like Mr. Bennett, he’s a former protégé of Mr. Netanyahu who is now hoping to see him removed from office. The question after Tuesday may be whether either man will lend his support to Mr. Lapid or will be lured into once more backing their old boss.
Benny Gantz: A former chief of Israel’s armed forces who led the centrist Blue and White coalition to second place in the previous election. Despite a campaign promise not to serve in a government headed by Mr. Netanyahu, he eventually agreed to a power-sharing deal that left Mr. Netanyahu as Prime Minister, with Mr. Gantz set to succeed him in November, 2021. But the coalition government fell before Mr. Gantz got the top job, and polls suggest voters are about to desert Blue and White.
Merav Michaeli: The latest leader of the once-dominant Labour Party. Polls suggest the left-wing movement, which led several efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, is set to be one of the smallest factions in the next Knesset.
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