Israel goes to the polls today in an election that looks even more important and controversial than usual. The country nominally has four-year terms, but chronic political instability means that a parliament (or Knesset) hardly ever runs full term: this election is being held more than a year early.

Although the Israeli party system is fiendishly complex, elections are fundamentally simple: the whole country votes as one electorate for a Knesset of 120 members, elected by list-based proportional representation. The minimum threshold for representation is only 2%; however, contrary to popular belief, that does not seem (at least in recent times) to have been a major cause of instability; most of the existing parties would still be represented with a 5% threshold, and their relations would presumably be just as stormy.

Opinion polls over the last couple of weeks have been quite consistent, so we can be fairly confident about the general shape of the result. The two core parties of the outgoing government, Kadima and Labour, will win about 40 seats between them; their main opponents, the right-wing Likud and the further-right Yisrael Beiteinu, will together be somewhere in the mid-40s; the left-wing Meretz and the Arab parties will have about 15 seats between them; and the remaining 20-odd seats will be divided up among the religious parties.

The fun part is what happens next. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu has been staking out a hardline position on the peace process, effectively promising a new war in Gaza, while Kadima’s Tzipi Livni seems to be reaching out to the left, so it is hard to imagine them coming together after the election.

More likely, one of them will win the support of the religious parties to assemble a fragile coalition. Netanyahu is the favourite, but the largest religious party, Shas, has supported centre-left governments in the past — it is generally seen as being open to the highest bidder — and it is possible that Livni could win it over and cling to power. The final outcome may not be known for some weeks.

Tempting as it is to avert one’s eyes from this sordid manoeuvring, it is actually of critical importance to the future of the region. Israel is a case study for the rule that elections do matter.

It was Labour’s surprisingly comfortable election win in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin that made the Oslo peace accords possible. Netanyahu’s victory in 1996 put the peace process on ice again, until the 1999 election brought Ehud Barak precariously to power. Ariel Sharon won the 2001 election with a mandate to end concessions to the Palestinians, until he broke with Likud to form the centrist Kadima party.

Now Netanyahu again promises to tear up the peace process, in alliance with the fanatically anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu. With Palestinian intransigence only fortified by the recent war, it’s hard to find grounds for optimism.

On the other hand, only Nixon can go to China. It was a Likud leader, Menachem Begin, that first got the peace process going by giving up the Sinai peninsula. Somehow, the Israeli right has to be convinced that it’s safe to do the same with the West Bank and Gaza.

Peter Fray

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