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We were wrong! But happily, Israeli elections haven’t gone to the right

By Kevin Bloom 24 January 2013

The Israeli pundits were saying it, and so were we – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to win a landslide victory on 22 January, then promptly form a coalition government with the right. Now we know that Bibi has just got through, which probably means a coalition with the centre-left. Dare we ask what’s next? By KEVIN BLOOM.

So the votes are in, and it could’ve been way, way worse. Despite the dire predictions on this website (by this writer) that the 22 January elections would see the Likud party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming a coalition government with parties of the nationalist and ultra-religious right, it now appears likely that a centre-left administration is going to pilot the Jewish state into its immediate future. Why were our predictions so wrong? That’s where the good news starts.

Historically, Israeli elections have been determined by one thing above all others: the feelings of the electorate concerning which party could best guarantee the security of the country and the personal safety of its citizens. The successful campaigns of the past have been those that have most clearly articulated the existential threats and their attendant solutions. As of 2013, that pattern has been broken.

Why? Because, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s repeated claims that the Iranian nuclear programme represents a crisis for Israelis equal to the one that faced European Jews in 1939, his four years in office have been remarkable for their lack of crisis. Similarly, Netanyahu’s references to the Arab Spring – and the virulent form of Islamist government it’s brought to Israel’s doorstep – have not worked to gloss over the fact that the country has enjoyed a period of relative calm. Last November’s Operation Pillar of Defence was the only significant military action over which Netanyahu has presided since coming to power, and the ceasefire was signed before the mooted land invasion ever got its chance. In other words, for all his war talk, Bibi has been a “peace-time” prime minister.

As Ha’aretz noted on Wednesday afternoon, when the votes had mostly come in: “Many voters took advantage of the calm to vote according to what really bothered them: their economic situation, the social gaps, the fact that some Israelis bear the burden of the military and taxation while others do not, or a sense of just being plain fed up with the existing regime.”

Again, then, we were wrong. But we weren’t the only ones. The results of Tuesday’s ballot show that the gap between the right-religious bloc and the center-left-Arab bloc is significantly smaller than most had anticipated, including the pollsters. With 98% of the votes counted, the joint ticket of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman looks to have won 31 seats out of the Knesset’s 120, a full 11 seats down on the 42 this Likud-Beitenu faction holds in the current Knesset. The big winner of the day was former journalist and Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid, whose new centrist party Yesh Atid won 19 seats, which will make it the second-largest party in the Knesset.

Although final results could shift after votes of serving members of the Israeli military are counted, it’s unlikely that the change will be dramatic. Apparently, Netanyahu has already telephoned Lapid to discuss a potential coalition government – Likud’s spokespeople said the prime minister told the Yesh Atid leader: “We have the opportunity to do great things together.” Given that Lapid has concentrated his election campaign on socio-economic issues and removing the exemption from military service of ultra-orthodox Jews, this can probably be construed as a positive outcome. That said, what it signifies for Netanyahu’s policy of increased settlement construction in the occupied territories (as outlined in a recent Daily Maverick piece, the last four years have seen a record number of units being built) is still no more than guesswork.

But guessing is what most of the Israeli media is doing right now, and Lapid’s triumphant message to campaign workers in Tel Aviv is as good a place as any to start: “We must now… find the way to work together to find real solutions for real people,” he said. “I call on the leaders of the political establishment to work with me together, to the best they can, to form as broad a government as possible that will contain in it the moderate forces from the left and right, the right and left, so that we will truly be able to bring about real change.”

If the words “moderate” and “real change” mean anything in this context, they mean first and foremost finding a solution to the dispute over the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into the army. The law that allowed the ultra-Orthodox to postpone military service lapsed in mid-2012, although thus far not a single member of the community has been conscripted. Seeing as the community’s rabbis have promised to fight conscription with all the means at their disposal, a Netanyahu-Lapid government is likely to be channeling a big chunk of its energies into the showdown.

Then, of course, there’s Iran – the item on Netanyahu’s campaign platform that’s been as prominent as the ultra-Orthodox military thing has been on Lapid’s. As Amos Harel of Ha’aretz pointed out, suddenly an attack no longer seems inevitable. Netanyahu has had a number of opportunities to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities over the past few years, but each time he’s been held back by both his own generals and the US administration.

“Now, with a coalition that will squint toward the centre,” wrote Harel, “it seems the chances of an Israeli attack, one that is not coordinated with the Americans, are shrinking significantly. In the Iranian context, even though you won’t catch anyone among the top brass in the IDF admitting it out loud, you can bet that at the general staff there were many sighs of relief as the election results came in.”

Which leaves the small issue of the Palestinians. In October last year, realising he wasn’t building a big enough constituency by focusing on domestic issues, Lapid was forced to turn his attention towards foreign policy. In a speech he purposely gave at an Israeli university outpost in the settlement of Ariel, he announced his intention to hold on to the main settlement blocs, emphasising that should he be elected, Jerusalem would not be divided. He also insisted that while there would be no Palestinian right of return, he did view the Palestinians as a partner for peace. Lapid was unambiguous in his support for a two-state solution, stating that he would not sit in a government that refused to negotiate.

Can Netanyahu, who likewise claims support for a two-state solution even though his actions in the territories prove the polar opposite, ever properly agree with Lapid on this? Will Lapid move Netanyahu to the centre, or will Netanyahu move Lapid to the right? The election results suggest the former, and for that we can give thanks. But nothing is certain in Israeli politics, not even a Netanyahu-Lapid coalition. For a change, then, we’ll have to refrain from predictions. DM   

Read more:

  • “Israel’s new, post-election agenda: first the ultra-Orthodox, then Iran,” in Ha’aret
  • “What Will Israel’s Government Look Like?” in the Daily Beast

Photo: Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, addresses supporters at his party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv January 23, 2013. The surprise star of Israel’s election on Tuesday is Lapid, a former television news anchor whose centrist party, exit polls showed, soared to second place in the balloting only months after he joined politics. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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