Israelis will go to the polls on Jan. 22 to elect a new parliament and, by extension, government -- an event that has so far attracted relatively little international attention. Understandably so: Benjamin Netanyahu just came closer than any Israeli prime minister in more than two decades to serving out a full parliamentary term, and nobody expects him to lose. His putative challengers from the center have been unable to find, coalesce around, or attract enough support for a credible alternative candidate.
If this election does have a headline, it is the coming of age of Israel's new right, encapsulated by the candidacy of Naftali Bennett, 40, the new leader of Habayit Hayehudi, the "Jewish Home" Party, which is storming to third place in the polls, having shared the honor of being the smallest party in the outgoing Knesset. Bennett, a former advisor to Netanyahu, is an interesting character: A dot-com millionaire of American parentage, he served in the military's elite Sayeret Matkal unit, wears a kippa, and is deeply rooted in the national religious movement. Bennett's soft-spoken style often obscures his hard-line views: He is radically pro-settler and even annexationist in his position on the territories. Israel's most popular political satire show, Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country"), has caricatured him as a new software app: the iBennett, a modern version of the old settler model -- "no beard, no crazy-mystical gaze, smaller kippa" -- but with occasional glitches (the spoof iBennett character recognizes there are other nations in God's promised land, sounding reasonable, but then reverts to type by claiming "God will strike them with a plague of frogs").
Alongside Bennett's rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a "Tribes of Israel" election -- taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies.
Indeed, with all the personal rivalries, splits, mergers, and divisions within the four major tribes, it's remarkable how little this campaign has been about the serious issues facing Israel. There is precious little substantive policy debate, even by Israeli and general Western standards. Iran, for instance, has barely featured at all in this campaign season. The race has also not really been about the Palestinians. Bennett may have produced a plan for annexing 60 percent of the occupied West Bank and formalizing an apartheid system, but in election rallies, ads, and interviews, his party emphasizes social issues, military service, and his version of Jewish values, de-emphasizing not only his annexation plan but also the settler radicalism of his list.
This theme of "don't mention the Palestinians" is also a driving motif for the centrist leaders of the Labor Party and Yesh Atid (a new party led by TV personality Yair Lapid), with their focus on domestic issues. Only Tzipi Livni, who broke from Kadima to found her own Hatnuah Party, and the left-wing Meretz Party emphasize the two-state option and the conflict, but Livni's prescriptions convey a decidedly stale feel. They are irresponsive to the changing regional realities and growing strength of Hamas, and elicit something of a "been there; tried that" reaction from the public. All of which allows Netanyahu's message of staying the course to go largely unchallenged.
The left's efforts to recreate 2011's mobilization around social and economic issues have largely fallen flat, despite the efforts of Shelly Yachimovich, the new Labor Party leader. Yachimovich seemed to believe she could ignore national security issues and set an agenda of "it's the economy, stupid." It was a naïve strategy, one that has marginalized Labor by placing it outside the national security conversation, and has led to Labor's declining popularity during the campaign. By failing to establish herself as a credible rival to Netanyahu across the gamut of national issues, Yachimovich has also made her economic platform less relevant. Even the secular-religious fights of yesteryear and the question of universal military conscription lack a cutting edge and passion this time around.
What remains is a tribal contest between Israel's four major political-electoral camps: Netanyahu's Zionist right (including the far right and national religious right), Livni's Zionist center (only Meretz still defines itself as Zionist left), the ultra-Orthodox bloc, and the bloc overwhelmingly representing Palestinian Arab citizens. But it's not much of a contest, as the latest polls show each tribe winning roughly the same number of seats it holds in the outgoing Knesset: respectively, around 50, low to mid 40s, high teens, and just over 10. In other words, an alliance of the right and ultra-Orthodox continues to hold a majority of the 120-seat body.