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16/03/2015 16:06 GMT | Updated 17/03/2015 10:59 GMT

Israel's 2015 Elections Could Be The Most Remarkable In A Generation

With the deafening applause for Benjamin Netanyahu ringing through the United States Congress this month, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the Israel's defiant prime minister had tomorrow's election sewn up.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the Likud leader's devastating but popular summer offensive in Gaza and his uncompromising toughness over an Iran nuclear deal, he's losing votes fast. His two centre-left challengers, considered weak on security and foreign affairs, don't want to talk about that at all. Instead, they want to corner the PM on the economy, the devastating cost of living and the meteoric rise in house prices. For the first time, this Israeli election may not be won or lost on the issues the outside world is focussed on.

Netanyahu is showing all the signs of a politician who is increasingly desperate (although polls and coalition mathematics show it is far from hopeless for him) - making a violent u-turn on his two-state solution position on Monday.

During a visit to a settlement in East Jerusalem, less than 24 hours before polls open, Netanyahu said he would not allow a Palestinian state while he was prime minister, effectively putting the kibosh on any peace negotiations were he to win. Allowing his centre-left opponents, the Zionist Union, into power would lead to "Hamastan" in the heart of Jerusalem, he said, adding that there would a radical Islamist power in Israel's backyard.

"I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel," he said.

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Workers hang on a building a giant campaign poster showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

It will make a huge difference to US-Israel relations, as well as potentially have a big impact on the Middle East peace process. Netanyahu has basically made it as clear as crystal he wants a Republican in the White House. His relationship with Obama is toxic, as it is with many European leaders. But there's an election in the US in 2016 and if the Republicans win, he could capitalise majorly when it comes to US concessions to Iran.

His main challengers, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni from the Zionist Union, are not as vocal on international issues - they know they're weaker on it and they want to make this election purely a referendum on Netanyahu's domestic record. But both of them are far less hawkish and have declared themselves committed to the two-state solution. Herzog, who is the leader of the Israeli Labor party, and Ed Miliband is a friend. He has called the status quo "unacceptable" and promised a "different direction". Whether than means a serious re-starting of peace talks remains to be seen.

SO WHAT'S SO REMARKABLE ABOUT THIS ELECTION?

The international portrayal of election issues - Iran, the peace process, the military - doesn't really reflect the reality of the debate in the country this time around. Yes, of course those issues do still matter, especially seeing as most Israeli families have at least one member serving in the military because of conscription laws.

But the major issues the opposition party, Zionist Union, could win on are the cost of living, the economy, social security and house prices. They claim ordinary Israelis are suffering in an economic crisis caused by Netanyahu's government. One section of society which is also concerned about those issues are Israel's 1.6 million Palestinian voters, who will vote for the Arab Joint List.

arab list israel

Israeli Arab political leaders holding placards bearing text 'Go to vote for the joint list, for a new tomorrow on March 17'

WHO ARE THE ARAB JOINT LIST?

Israel has several Arab parties, who have ranged from secular and centrist, to conservative and Islamist. But they are now running on a joint ticket because a new law in the last parliament raised the threshold of the vote percentage needed to get seats in the Knesset.

This bloc could be powerful - they are tipped to get a dozen seats and potentially be the third biggest party. And while the leaders have ruled out partnering with ZU officially, in practice they could support the centre-left government against Netanyahu.

And it's not just Arabs voting for them...

arab list israel

Arab-Israeli Member of Parliament with the secular Balad party, Haneen Zuabi

ISRAELI JEWS VOTING FOR ARAB PARTIES - THAT SOUNDS LIKE A BIG DEAL?

It really is. Hadash, which is the Arab-Jewish communist party, is part of the Arab Joint List. And many far left Israeli Jews who had voted for Hadash will now take their votes to the Arab Joint list.

Jewish votes could win an entire extra seat, 25,000 votes, for the Arab Joint List, according to Haaretz.

israel house price

Israelis hold a cardboard house during a march to protest against rising housing prices

SO IT'S ABOUT DOMESTIC ISSUES, NOT INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS OR SECURITY?

It may well turn out to be, though Netanyahu is doing his damnest to change that. But it seems that "it's the economy, stupid" might be the true in Israel for the first time, not "it's Israel's security, stupid." That's certainly what the Israeli left are pushing for.

Herzog has particularly made an issue out of house prices, the focus of 2011 occupations and demonstrations by young Israelis. Prices have risen 55% since 2008. That focus from ZU massively resonates with Israelis, even if they might be a indifferent about Herzog as prime minister (he's a bit Ed Miliband in that regard). Still, the biggest protests were on 2011, and in 2013 Netanyahu still won.

The peace process is barely figuring on the agenda, but the left is undeniably weaker on security and the perceived threat of a nuclear Iran - which is still a key issue, and is what led Netanyahu to make his speech at Congress which so angered the Obama administration - but it could play well with Israeli voters who are worried about the US's improving relationship with Iran.

sara netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau (R) and his wife Sara

WHY IS NETANYAHU WEAK ON THOSE ECONOMIC ISSUES?

Apart from the fact he's been in power for six years and not done anything perceptible to address growing inequality?

He's got an image problem. The Netanyahus have lived a lavish lifestyle,the state comptroller found "excessive" public funds were spent by Netanyahu and his wife Sara, on food, interior decorating and gardening.

He also had a "two kitchens" nightmare strikingly similar to Ed Miliband's. A camera crew came in to film the couple's home, while Sara Netanyahu pointed out the frayed carpets, worn upholstery and tiny kitchen.

But there was round mocking when it was discovered that the crew had filmed the downstairs quarters, routinely used by live-in staff and their "administrative" kitchen. Not their private living space upstairs.

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Likud party's candidate running for general elections, Benjamin Netanyahu

SO WHO IS BENJAMIN NETANYAHU ANYWAY?

Known by everyone in Israel as Bibi, Israel's current prime minister has had a chequered career. He was prime minister between June 1996 to July 1999, but was defeated by Labor's Ehud Barak. He became prime minister again in 2009, when Kadima failed to form a coalition, and won the premiership again in 2013.

He is known for his hawkish attitude to the peace process and foreign affairs. His right-wing premiership has seen the collapse of peace talks, an expansion of settlement building, and though he has said he accepts the two-state solution in principle [SEE UPDATE BELOW], he has said that Palestinians must accept Israel is a "Jewish state". He received strong support from the Israeli public for the 2014 Gaza offensive which he said was prompted by the number of rocket attacks from the territory. The ensuing conflict took the lives of 2,200 people, the vast majority Palestinians.

But he is close to losing office, writing a dramatic post on his Facebook over the weekend, saying that the Right was "in danger" and the Israeli election influenced by “leftist activists and the foreign and international media are conspiring to get Tzipi and Bougie [Herzog] elected via illegitimate means, using innuendo and foreign money.”

UPDATE: Nope, he doesn't support a two-state solution after all, as of today, despite definitely saying he did at a historic speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009. In an astonishing u-turn, when he was asked directly whether no Palestinian state would be created under his leadership, the prime minister answered: “Indeed.”

“If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Herzog] set up the next government, Hamastan 2 will be established on these hills here,” he told NRG Radio as he toured a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

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Israeli MP Tzipi Livni (L) and Isaac Herzog co- leaders of the Zionist Union party

AND WHO ARE ZIONIST UNION?

The current poll leader is Zionist Union. That's actually two parties, Labor and Hatnuah, who have decided to run on a joint ticket. The Labor party is headed up by Isaac Herzog. Hatnuah is headed up by Tzipi Livni .

At the moment ZU, who are centre-left, are leading the polls, but they may struggle to form a coalition. The latest poll expects that the ZU will gain 25 seats to Likud's 21.

In what was an unprecedented pledge, Herzog and Livni ran as joint leaders, and they had claimed they will split the term as prime minister, giving each a turn at the top job. But on Monday, at the 11th hour, Livni said she would give Herzog the chance to serve a full term.

Herzog, known as 'Bougie' (there's a lot of nicknames for Israeli politicians), is the currently leader of the left-wing Labor party and leader of the Opposition. His big beef is inequality and cost of living for Israelis.

Livni is a secular liberal - one of the main reasons she never managed to create a coalition in 2009 is that she refused to make a deal with the ultra Orthodox parties. And Netanyahu did. She has pushed for further progress in the peace process.

WHO ELSE MATTERS?

Actually, quite a lot of people....

yair lapid

Israeli MP and chairperson of centrist Yesh Atid

Yair Lapid - Former TV personality and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who was Netanyahu's finance minister and part of the last coalition with Likud. His resignation from the coalition was a key moment that prompted these elections. He'll probably take his party to join ZU in coalition, but it remains to be seen how many seats they'll win.

naftali bennett

Israeli Economy Minister and head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett - No, not the Green Party leader. Actually they are starkly opposite. He is the leader of the far right Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party and likely to be a key player if Netanyahu tries to form a coalition. The party does not support a two-state solution and encourages settlement building. Bibi's breathtaking u-turn on a potential Palestinian state is thought to be a last ditch attempt to bring over any potential right-leaning Likud voters flirting with Bayit Hayehudi.

moshe kahlon

Israeli politician and popular former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon

Moshe Kahlon - a former Netanyahu minister who formed the new party Kulanu, he could pick up as many as 12 seats. His focus is economic matters and cost of living - and his choice of which bloc to back could be crucial.

orthodox jews israel

Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews gather in a sports arena in Jerusalem

Then there's the two religious parties:

United Torah Judaism - a joint list of the ultra-Orthodox parties voted for by Israel's Charedi Jews. Their support could be crucial to forming a coalition.

Shas - an ultra-Orthodox party whose support comes from Sephardic Jews (those descended from the Middle East, southern Europe, north African Jewish communities rather than Northern Europe or Russia). Has pledged to support Netanyahu and Likud.

meretz

A worker puts up an election campaign poster of left-wing Meretz party

There are other smaller parties that could also gain a handful of seats, such as the traditionally left-wing, Green-leaning Meretz or the ultra-nationalist Yisraeli Beitenu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Then there's the Arab parties - who represent Israel's 20% Arab population, who we talked about earlier

israeli election poster

Cars drive along a main street in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv covered in giant campaign posters

HOW DOES THE ELECTION WORK?

Israel's electoral system uses proportional representation - voters don't vote for a local MP, they vote for a party. Then the party makes up a list of preferred candidates, and allocate them seats in parliament, the number of which is determined by the percentage of the vote the party receives.

Because of the sheer number of parties, no one ever wins an outright majority, so the government is made up coalitions. In practice, this means that governments rarely ever last a full four-year term.

The prime minister is usually the leader of the party that can form the first coalition which has a majority.

israeli election

A supporter of Israeli Prime Minister and the Likud party's Benjamin Netanyahu

DOES THAT MEAN THAT THE LARGEST PARTY WON'T NECESSARILY 'WIN'?

Yes.

In February 2009, Tzipi Livni of the centre-left Kadima party won the most seats in the Israeli parliament (remember her? She left Kadima when she was de-selected as leader, and the failed party is not even running in this election because it lost so much support - now she's part of ZU).

But Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister because more right-wing parties, albeit smaller ones, won seats in Parliament, and so his Likud party managed to form a coalition for a majority of 61 seats or more. Livni became leader of the Opposition.

This could happen again this time around.

zionist union

A giant campaign billboard rotates showing Netanyahu and Herzog

SO WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?

No one knows!

Polls are often woefully inadequate in Israel because core blocs of voters like Chassidic Jews or Israeli Arabs won't respond.

But the most likely scenarios are:

a) Likud form a coalition with ultra-nationalist Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu, the two main religious parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, and as well as convincing Kulanu to come on board. Netanyahu stays prime minister.

b) ZU form a (weaker) coalition with the left-wing Meretz, the centrist Yesh Atid, the religious parties mentioned above, and convince Kulanu to join their bloc. The Arab List parties give some tacit but not official support. Herzog becomes prime minister, with Livni to replace him half-way if the government holds for the full term.

c) Israel's President President Rivilin declines to choose between Herzog and Netanyahu, and orders a national unity government of Likud and Zionist Union, with a rotating premiership of Netanyahu and Herzog. There is precedent for this - it happened in 1984. But it would be unlikely to last long, and new elections could follow shortly, and there's a possibility of electoral reform.

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Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel

WHEN WILL WE GET THE RESULTS?

Um, possibly not for ages. When the results come in, Rivlin will consult with party leaders and select who has the best chance of forming a majority coalition government. That could be the leader of the largest party, but as we saw in 2009, it doesn't have to be.

That Knesset member has 42 days to negotiate to form a coalition, and that coalition is then presented to the Knesset for a vote of confidence. Once all that is approved, the leader becomes prime minister.

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