Don’t get your hopes up: what the election really showed
Supporters of the ultra-Orthodox Shas at the women’s section during the party’s event on election night, January 22 2013. The party, supported only by Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, won 11 Knesset seats, the same number as Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), a ‘white’ party. This was the most ethnic election ever says Noam Sheizaf, second.
Yousef Munayyer, Daily Beast
January 23, 2013
The ballots have been cast and counted and the Israeli election is now over. Post-election reporting and analysis have been rife with speculation and misinformation. Here is what the outcome of this election actually means and doesn’t mean:
It does not mean Israeli voters have rebuked Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians. Many have characterized this outcome as a setback for Netanyahu. In a sense they are right in that his party has fewer seats, but his policies toward Palestinians and Palestinian territory remain largely unchallenged. It is important to keep in mind that the new star of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid, whose party garnered about 19 seats to become the second largest party, did not run on a platform that distanced him from Netanyahu’s policies on Palestinians. Rather, his campaign was focused primarily on two issues: redistribution of social responsibility—particularly as it relates to exemptions for religious communities—and redistribution of wealth through programs for middle-class Israelis. It was a platform that largely resonated with the significant outpouring of protestors in 2011 demanding economic reforms. Of course, those protests were far more about the price of cottage cheese than anything relating to Palestinians, the occupation or colonization. Likewise, the rise of Lapid just reinforces the reality that popular mobilization in Israel in opposition to Netanyahu is only coalescing around economic issues and not in opposition to his policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Lapid and Netanyahu know that Yesh Atid’s mandate isn’t one of peace, and thus, while Lapid’s seats offer him some leverage in coalition negotiations, it won’t be in areas that ultimately matter for peacemaking.
It does not mean there is a half-half split between Right and Left. This is perhaps the most common misconception I’ve seen in post-election commentary and analysis. There are some who lament the rightward trend in Israeli politics who would like to see things this way; the reality is it just isn’t the case. Americans, familiar with what a former professor of mine used to refer to as our “system of donkeys and elephants,” are particularly susceptible to this misconception. Israeli politics, however, involves far more actors, cleavages and ethno-religious interests. Anyone using the right-left spectrum should be able to define what this spectrum is. Few actually do.
The half-half divide is more appropriately described as a split between Netanyahu’s natural allies and his political opposition. This should not be conflated with an ideological divide or even a policy divide, particularly as it relates to the occupation. Further, the “left” bloc that some have referred to includes non-Zionist Arab parties, which picked up about 9-12 seats. These parties have never, in the history of the Israeli political system, been included in a governing coalition. While their presence places some limits on the largest party’s (in this case Netanyahu’s) ability to shape a coalition, including them in an ideological voting bloc with Zionist parties displays a fundamental misunderstanding of their politics and their place in a hostile Zionist political system. Just like in 2009, when Netanyahu’s was the second largest party, it is still he and only he who is in a realistic position to cobble together a coalition. Yes, the coalition that emerges will either be slightly different from the last due to the inclusion of Lapid, or less stable due to the loss of seats, but it will nonetheless have Netanyahu at its center of power and his control of policy toward Palestinians will remain largely unchecked.
It does not mean the prospects for a renewed diplomatic process increase. The diplomatic process, albeit fruitless when in motion, was at a complete halt in recent years. Many believed that certain variables needed to be defined before the parties would set their diplomatic strategies and these included the outcomes of the American and Israeli elections. Well, now we know the outcomes. President Obama has been re-elected and so has Netanyahu. Netanyahu has survived four years of Obama’s tepid initiatives at engaging the Palestinian issue with excuse after excuse. From the saga of the settlement freeze that wasn’t, to advancing the Iranian nuclear issue to the top of the U.S.-Israeli agenda, to propagating the notion that the most cooperative Palestinian Authority in history is an insufficient negotiating partner, Netanyahu has managed to evade even a semblance of progress while continuing colonization of Palestinian territory. Of course, Netanyahu’s allies in the U.S. Congress and public sphere have been instrumental in keeping the President in check. Think the second term will be any different? Maybe you should ask Chuck Hagel about that.
Netanyahu has to dodge and parry for about two more years before all attention turns to Obama’s potential successor. During this time many of the same excuses will likely be employed and two others might be introduced as well. Netanyahu may use a fragile coalition as an argument that he cannot make any significant moves on settlements. Potential changes to Palestinian leadership, should reconciliation actually occur, will also be easily exploited by Netanyahu as yet another reason to maintain the status quo.
This election outcome does mean that Israel has shifted right. Some breathed a sigh of relief when Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party only garnered 11-12 seats instead of the expected 14-15, and believed this meant that the notion that Israel was shifting right was unfounded. Well, there are two significant problems with this. First, the Jewish Home party significantly exceeded the number of seats—seven—that its components (remnants of the National Union and Jewish Home of 2009) received in 2009. The number of seats they received this time would have been higher if not for an increased turnout in the Tel Aviv bubble, where voters are largely oblivious to the occupation but wary of anything religious.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the number of seats Bennett’s party receives is not the only metric of rightward shifts in Israel. Take for example the fact that during the primaries for the Likud—which led the self-proclaimed most pro-settlement government in Israeli history—that party elected even more pro-settler elements into its leadership. The Likud, which then merged with Avigdor Lieberman, the man who was routinely referred to as “far-right” and “ultra-nationalist” only one election ago, is the largest party in the Israeli political system and now has others to its right. Last, keep in mind that while the members of the governing coalition and some of their natural allies were openly and staunchly pro-colonization and even annexation, no party in the Zionist opposition vociferously challenged the Israeli settlement enterprise—with the possible exception of Meretz, which took in a grand total of 7 seats. Those 7 seats, by the way, were considered a remarkable and unexpected triumph.
It does mean that Israelis overwhelmingly deemphasized peace as a priority. The opposition parties that emphasized socio-economic issues and deemphasized peace, Labor and Yesh Atid, were the biggest winners. Labor focused on reaching out to female voters as well as economic issues. Lapid’s Yesh Atid stuck mostly to economic issues and reforming conscription laws to include religious communities. Parties that stressed a resumption of negotiations, even under staunchly Zionist terms, like Livni’s Hatnuah, performed significantly worse. If Israeli voters rejected anything about Netanyahu’s stances in this election, it wasn’t his pro-settlement policies and hawkishness on Iran, but rather the degree to which the government prioritized these matters over economic matters affecting the average Israeli. That successful opposition parties did not dare link the two is an indictment of just how much the polity has deemphasized peace, and has become complacent about the military occupation of millions of souls.
It does mean that the Apartheid system will be further entrenched. Ultimately, this election will bring little change in the status quo. The incentives for the next Israeli government, just like the last Israeli government and the one before it, are tilted heavily toward perpetual occupation—that is, Apartheid. Even before the ballots were counted, Washington made clear that the outcome of the election would not change its stance toward the issue. Domestic U.S. politics, as evidenced by the prostration of Chuck Hagel to pro-Israel interest group demands, is likely to ensure that U.S. policy continues to alleviate the costs of perpetual occupation through unwavering military, economic and diplomatic support, so that Israel’s colonial enterprise is always a politically and economically profitable one. Israeli politics can then continue to focus inward, debating how best to ensure prosperity for Jewish Israelis, while walling off Palestinians and the vast majority of the rest of the world.
Half the people living under Israeli state control, Palestinians, either cannot vote or are treated as second-class citizens. The outcome of these elections shows that Israelis will not challenge that reality. It must be our duty to ensure that the counting of some ballots does not act as a fig leaf for the disenfranchisement of millions of others.
Netanyahu is most likely to form his next government around the religious and the secular middle class, represented by election victors Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The coalition will concentrate on domestic reform and will only strengthen the status quo on the Palestinian issue. Also: Did Israelis really move left? Seven takeaways from the elections.
By Noam Sheizaf , +972
January 23, 2013
1. The future government
At the time of writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s base of Orthodox and right-wing parties has 60 Knesset seats – the same as the potential opposition. Estimates are that the Jewish Home party will finish with another seat at the expense of the United Arab List once the soldiers’ votes are counted, pushing the Right over the Knesset’s halfway mark. This is not a major change, since it’s pretty clear that Netanyahu will form the next government with Yair Lapid – the biggest winner of the night – and probably Kadima. The three parties have 52 seats combined and with Naftali Bennet’s Jewish home party, they could reach 63-64 seats, which means a stable government. Other parties that might join the government, like Shas or Tzipi Livni, will do so on the terms of the senior coalition partners.
This combination makes sense because Lapid, Bennet and Netanyahu share the same ideology on social and economic issues, and have the same indifference to the Palestinian issue (with some nuances). Bennett will have the support of Likud hawks, while Lapid will take over the role of handling the Right’s contacts with the world, as Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres did for the previous Netanyahu government. Lapid spoke at the last AIPAC conference and enjoys nice relations with some of Israel’s allies in Washington, while for them his presence in the government will serve as proof that Netanyahu has indeed “moderated.”
The next government will try to reach a new consensus on issues of military draft reform and perhaps the heavy tax burden on the middle class – these are the issues that Lapid is most identified with and Netanyahu and Bennett will only be too happy to respond.
2. The hard-Right and the settlers
So much attention was given before the elections to the rise of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and the increased representation of the settlers in the next Knesset that even his supporters were disappointed with the 11 seats they got (as I said, they are likely to end up with 12). But make no mistake, this was a relatively good night for the settlers. The next Knesset will have a record number of around 40 religious Jewish Knesset members (including 19 in the Orthodox parties) – many of them settlers or supporters of the settler movement. Since they will be part of the government, and since they tend to operate as one coherent bloc, they are likely to have a major effect on issues involving appointments of government officials and on Israeli policies in the West Bank (I have written more about the rise of the settlers to the position of the new elite xx here). Unless Netanyahu leaves Bennett outside the government – an unlikely prospect – he won’t be able to pursue a diplomatic solution even if he wanted to, and everything he has ever done suggests that is the last thing he wants.
On the Palestinian issue, the next Knesset will not be very different from the previous one. Lapid himself declared before the elections that he opposes a territorial compromise on Jerusalem. He also refuses to form any sort of ad-hoc union with the Left or the Arab parties, which is necessary for any political path that could end the occupation. If you thought Netanyahu perferred confrontational speeches and a lot of hot air to bold action, wait until you see Lapid. After all, the guy is a talk-show host.
3. The ethnic vote
A Netanyahu-Bennett-Lapid coalition will be the most “white” Israel has ever had, for lack of a better word. The almost total absence of Sephardi Jews in those parties is quite shocking, and deserves deeper examination.
In fact, these were the most “ethnic” elections I remember, and it seems that each ethnic group or sub-group had its own party, with the clearest division being between Arabs and Jews, of course, but also within those groups. With the risk of tremendous generalization, I would say that poor Sephardi Jews voted Shas and those with higher income Likud; Ashkenzi national-religious went with Bennett; Secular Ashkenazi voted for Meretz, Livni and Lapid and so on.
Except maybe for Labor and Likud – the old forces which still have some coalitions between them – it seems that the entire system is determined by the interaction of two variables: ethnicity and economic status. The party lists reflect that fact, despite the occasional variations, which could be explained by the need to project a more inclusive image. Lapid’s novelty and the deeper reasons for his success is the understanding that the Ashkenazi upper-middle class now views itself as another sector that needs to compete for more benefits, rather than as the elite in charge of the entire society.
The effect of ethnicity and its interaction with class, especially among Jews, is the most denied element in Israeli popular discourse, because it runs contrary to the image or myth of the Zionist melting pot, and it certainly contradicts the image of a state which treats all citizens – Jews and non-Jews – equally, although that was always more of a comfortable self-perception than something you could seriously defend. Again, these issues deserve closer examination, which I will try to get to sometime soon.
Returning to politics: if you want to know how weak Netanyahu got, just remember that out of the Likud’s 31 MKs, 11 belong to Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu list, which at least according to Lieberman is still a separate party. If the ambitious Lieberman decides one day to resume his independence – maybe after his trial – Netanyahu will be left with an average Knesset faction, and at least half of his MKs will be hawks and settlers who could desert at any moment. The most important outcome of Netanyahu’s weakness is a further-reduced chance of an Israeli attack on Iran – and looming cuts in the security budget will work in that direction too.
5. Shift to the left?
Since the elections were called we posted every public poll on our Knesset Poll Tracker page and not a single one predicted Netanyahu’s bloc dropping to 60 Knesset members (one or two polls gave him 61, but not in the weeks leading up to the elections). The previous Knesset had the Right-Orthodox with 65 seats, and the poll average we posted gave the Right 66 seats.
The actual results are a swing of 3-6 seats to the left within the Jewish public, starting from the Likud (plus some changes within the Right). The Likud, Lieberman and the national religious had 49 seats in the previous Knesset – they now have 42-43; the Center (Kadima + Labor) had 41, and the new Center (Lapid + Kadima + Livni + Labor) has 42; the Left (Meretz) had 3 and now has 6, and right now the non-Zionist parties have an additional seat, although they are likely to lose it.
I would speculate that the gradual migration of Jewish voters to the Right that has taken place since 1996 seems to have stopped, and might have even ended. Yet we are still talking small numbers and a long-term process, so don’t expect new policies immediately. I still stand by my view that the Israeli public and the Israeli political system cannot, under the current circumstances, come up with a solution that would end the occupation, not to mention solve the deeper fundamental issues of the conflict.
6. No shared politics for Arabs and Jews
The shift to the left didn’t result in a Jewish readiness to support shared platforms with Palestinians. Personally, this is the most heartbreaking element of politics here (in my polling station only seven votes were cast for Arab-Jewish parties, two of them from my own house. The legalization party, for example, got six votes).
The three Palestinian parties reflect three distinct approaches to politics – religious, liberal and socialist – but Jews vote for their own religious, liberal and socialist parties (so do Palestinians, but it’s harder to blame them – Jewish institutions were always unwelcoming for them) and Jewish politicians, even on the Left, hardly try to bridge that gap.
7. A positive note
Part of the “success” of the Center-Left was pure luck. While two small opposition factions – Kadima and Balad – passed the Knesset threshold (the latter actually gaining some 11,000 votes since 2009), the extreme-right Otzma LeYisrael party, headed by Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad will probably be left out of the Knesset, “burning” two seats that would have gone to the Right.
This is perhaps the happiest turn of event in these elections. There are racists and there are racists, and Otzma was the worst kind. In the tradition of the JDL and Kahane groups – not surprising, considering the fact that most Kahane people ended up in Otzma after their party was outlawed – Otzma’s members used to go to the most sensitive areas of conflict and try to fan the flames. They marched in Palestinian towns chanting racist slogans, and they spent days in south Tel Aviv demonizing and inciting against asylum seekers. MK Ben-Ari played a central role in the incitement that led to the attacks on asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood last spring. It won him a lot of media attention and also support – or so it seemed.
Before the polls opened, Ben Ari posted on his Facebook page a video showing him and other known Hebron settlers visiting Rabbi Kahane’s grave; it didn’t help. While the Arab members of Knesset Ben Ari hated entered the parliament with a comfortable margin, Kahane’s heirs were left out.