The Israeli elections delivered a blow to the conventional wisdom, always a welcome development: although widely expected to lurch rightward, Israeli voters surprised everyone by moving toward the center – and even giving a bit of a boost to what passes for the Israeli "left."
While returns are still coming in as of this writing, it looks like the rightist bloc in the Knesset is on track to win 61 seats, while the center-left garners 59. The big winner: television personality Yair Lapid, whose newly-founded centrist Yesh Atid party is projected to rack up some 19 seats, ahead of Labor, with 17. The biggest loser: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-Yisrael Beitenu merger won 31, eleven less than they had before. Another big loser: Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, who was expected to come in second. Bennett and his homies look to be winning a mere 12 seats, instead of the 17 or so projected earlier. Also: the "Strong Israel" party, even further to the right than Bennett, lost its two Knesset seats – in spite (or, perhaps, because of) their explicitly racist anti-African refugee campaign in southern Tel Aviv. The religious Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – apparently showed little movement.
While Bibi trained his guns on the threat from the ultra-right – Bennett and the super-nationalists on the fringe, supposedly on the upswing – Yesh Atid campaigned mainly on economic issues, most significantly against the privileges accorded to ultra-Orthodox Jews in housing, military service, and government subsidies. Indeed, the party’s campaign ads sounded like what one might hear from our own Democratic party: pious pledges of fealty to the sacred Middle Class, an assertive secularism, and shameless demographic demagoguery (not "enough" women were at the top of Likud’s party list).
Bibi, for his part, emphasized national security issues, pointing to his record as the one who kept Israel "safe" and trying to appease the ultra-rightists around Bennett by declaring he would build yet more settlements. In response to anti-African riots in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, he also pledged to crack down on refugees coming from Africa, and deport those who had already arrived.
This rightist strategy failed spectacularly: the great right-wing surge widely predicted – including here, I might add – never materialized. Instead, what we have is a walk-back to the center – although, when it comes to Israeli politics, this description may be a bit misleading. Before anyone gets too excited about the exact meaning of this "walk to the center," they should understand that Lapid’s "centrist" views on the Palestinians are, um, decidedly non-centrist. As Arutz Sheva reported:
"’I do not think that the Arabs want peace,’ he wrote on his Facebook page. Lapid said that he does not care what the Arabs want. ‘What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them.’ The important thing, he added, is ‘to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel.’
"Lapid has said recently that the Left ‘makes the same mistake again when it negotiates the division of Jerusalem. The Palestinians must be brought to an understanding that Jerusalem will always remain under Israeli sovereignty and that there is no point for them in opening negotiations about Jerusalem.’"
Such views are hardly a cause for celebration among those who hope for a more reasonable Israeli approach to the peace process: however, Yesh Atid did not emphasize these views in its election campaign, at least from what I can tell. Insofar as this election reflects the electorate’s evolving views on national security issues, one can look at what didn’t happen – Jewish Home’s expected rise to the nation’s second largest party – as the big take-away. Bennett campaigned, in part, on the strength of his plan to annex most of the West Bank – a proposal that would have isolated Israel even more than it already is, and which is now dead in the water.
This election, it turned out, wasn’t about national security but about the quality of life in Israel: the secular middle class had its revenge. The rise of Yesh Atid augurs a backlash against the privileges of the haredi – ultra-orthodox "scholars" who don’t get drafted and get preferential treatment in housing – and also against the ideological and religious concerns that were the focus of the rightists’ election campaign strategy.
This election was also about Barack Obama, and Israel’s increasingly strained relationship with the US. In the last days of the campaign the White House "leak," via Jeffrey Goldberg – that the President thinks Bibi hasn’t a clue as to what’s best for Israel – apparently really hit home: the Israelis know, even if Bibi often seems to have forgotten, how dependent the Jewish state is on America’s patronage. Goldberg’s reportage was seen as payback for Bibi’s brazen interference in the American election, during which the Israeli Prime Minister allowed himself to be weaponized by the Republicans (albeit not to any discernible GOP advantage). The lesson here: the Americans have more electoral clout in Israel than vice versa – that is, if the White House chooses to exercise it.
Netanyahu will form the next government, but clearly he is in a much weaker position, particularly vis-à-vis the US. If Lapid joins the governing coalition, the Israelis will be more open to re-starting negotiations with the Palestinians, and more amenable to American pressure – this in spite of Netanyahu’s implicitly anti-American campaign rhetoric. For Likud, and Bibi, this election is a slap in the face, and the sting is not likely to wear off any time soon.
In retrospect, it looks like this pre-election analysis was pretty close to the money.
The humiliation of the Israeli right is conditional good news – conditional, that is, on the assumption that Netanyahu will seek a coalition with the centrists, as in this scenario, rather than with Bennett and the religious bloc. While this would seem to make the most sense – there is reportedly a lot of bad blood between Netanyahu and Bennett – when it comes to Israel’s fractious politics, you never know. It is perfectly possible Bibi could put together a right-wing coalition with a one-vote majority in the Knesset, in which case all bets are off.
The new government, whatever its composition, will face the bleak prospect of Israel’s increasing international isolation – and stepped up pressure from the US to re-start the peace process and let Obama earn his Nobel peace prize.
It’s Bibi’s choice. As he struggles to put together a government, the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history stands at a crossroads: he can build a coalition committed to putting the two-state solution back on the agenda – and take the nutty notion of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran completely off the table – or he can march off the ideological cliff with Bennett and the rest of the crazies.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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