The Israeli parliamentary election results are coming in and it looks like that country’s electorate remains deeply divided about what it wants from its politicians – and what issues it sees as the critical ones. J. BROOKS SPECTOR summarises the just-ended election – and the likely way forward for Israel’s politicians.
In what has undoubtedly been Israel’s most important, most fraught election in years, incumbent prime minister Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu has been fighting for his continuing political life in the 17 March snap parliamentary election; Netanyahu himself had called it, when he had earlier thought he had hit the likely peak of his political popularity. Netanyahu’s circumstances as a politician seemingly on his back foot by election day were relatively unexpected, given his long tenure as prime minister.
But then there was the shaping of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s supporters (the latter a former cabinet member in an earlier Netanyahu cabinet) into an increasingly fierce electoral combatant – the Zionist Union. This group was tipped to squeak past Likud to gain a larger plurality of votes than Netanyahu’s party. But, as the voting drew to an end, exit polls indicated Likud and the Zionist Union were neck-and-neck, each gaining around a quarter of the total votes – and thus equivalent shares of seats in the Knesset. The remainder of the seats would end up being allocated to over a half dozen smaller parties. Accordingly, building a ruling coalition will be the tricky part.
In the past several weeks, in his increasingly frantic efforts to lock in a lead, Prime Minister Netanyahu had been trying to leverage the concerns of many in his country over Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions (as well as the strategic threats to Israel of Hamas and Hezbollah) into still-stronger support for the Likud Party. Most notably, this came through what was his tactically effective but ultimately divisive, strategically misguided speech to the assembled joint members of the US House of Representatives and Senate at the beginning of March.
Instead of further solidifying Israeli-US ties, the net result of that speech – with its strident call for the US Congress to reject the very agreement the Obama administration was trying to reach with Iran in Geneva – seemed to further weaken an already frayed relationship between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. It also pushed support for Israel in the US, heretofore a largely bipartisan affair, into becoming an increasingly partisan issue between Republicans and Democrats. Most awkwardly, it pitted the US Congress under its Republican leadership into a struggle against the president over the Iran nuclear negotiations in a virtually unprecedented way over an ongoing foreign policy negotiation.
But, towards the end of the run-up to the election, seemingly worse news was on the way for Netanyahu. Herzog and his partners had found a way to become identified with the kinds of bread and butter issues, such as sharply rising food prices and housing scarcities, that echoed the old Bill Clinton campaign mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid”. That campaign pathway, in the absence of an outright national security challenge, has often been the path to victory around the globe. Netanyahu was also stung by revelations that he and his wife had spent, by Israeli standards, an extraordinary amount of government money on expensive meals ordered in from restaurants, along with other luxury spending.
Still, in a pair of final gambles, in an electoral situation where polls seemed to indicate that Herzog’s Zionist Alliance had pulled four seats ahead in the proportional representation stakes, Netanyahu reversed his previous lip service to a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine standoff (Herzog and Livni are on record as being in favour of the two state solution and a resumption of negotiations), and then urged his loyalists to get out there and vote because of stirred up fears Israeli Arabs would be voting in larger than usual numbers.
The latter charge could be read as a response to the unusually vigorous coalition of four often-bickering Arab parties. Some analysts predicted this Arab coalition might gain 15 or even 16 parliamentary seats, rather than their current dozen, if they ultimately propelled more Arab voters than usual to go to the polls. While this Arab party coalition had no formal plans to join with the Herzog forces in a new government (nor would they necessarily be welcomed into one), the argument was that they might end up being mathematically placed to help block a government from forming under Netanyahu’s increasingly embattled Likud Party.
Still, Netanyahu’s supporters seem to have been holding out for the kind of secret ballot response many older white South Africans will remember, that is, “Praise the Progs, vote United Party, but thank the gods for those damned Nats”. Equivalently, in the run-up to the election, it was argued that many Israeli voters may well have been saying – prior to the actual ballot – that they support the Zionist Union in responses to surveys, but Likud hopes were that those self-same voters would, once they were alone in the privacy of their thoughts and as they actually voted, go with Likud on the security fundamentals, or, at worst, they would pick one of the smaller right wing parties. (Come to think of it, back in 1964, Republican senator Barry Goldwater in the US also thought there was a hidden, deeply conservative majority when he was his party’s presidential candidate, and that so-called silent majority would come out in droves to dispatch Lyndon Johnson – in an election the latter won in a landslide.)
These are the basics of the election: Israeli voters elect a 120-member parliament, or Knesset. As in South Africa, Israeli citizens vote for party lists, not individual candidates. Seats are allocated in the Knesset according to the percentage of the national vote the parties win, once a party has succeeded in surpassing a 3.24% minimum threshold of voter support.
In this election, Israeli voters could pick from among 25 different political parties. The two key parties, however, were Likud and the Zionist Union. Prime Minister Netanyahu has led Likud through two consecutive terms (as well as a still-earlier one, mid-nineties), and Netanyahu and his party have taken a particularly hard line over both Palestinian claims for sovereignty over a separate state and against the threat of a nuclearised Iran.
Meanwhile, the Zionist Union is a joint candidates list topped by Isaac Herzog of the Labour Party and Tzipi Livni of Hatnua. Key elements of their campaign have included significant emphasis on those bread and butter economic issues, along with an expressed intention to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, and to repair Israel’s now-frayed ties with the White House. In effect, Herzog has been asking Israeli voters to vote for hope rather than fear or desperation.
The Israeli Arab Joint List, a union of four Arab parties, is expected to bump up the chronically low voter turnout of Israel’s Arab minority. This Joint List has brought together four small, largely Arab-backed parties representing Israel’s 20% Arab minority may well have emerged as the third-largest electoral bloc, once all the votes are tabulated. Despite deep fissures that have traditionally separated socialists, Palestinian nationalists and traditional Islamists, the list’s leader, Ayman Odeh, says this unprecedented union could significantly increase Arab turnout at the polls – and thereby the group’s clout in the Knesset.
Then there is Kulanu, led by Likud defector Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon has focused like a laser beam on the economy, and he has been hoping to gain the finance ministry in a coalition government with either of the two biggest parties, once all is said and done. Kahlon is the son of Libyan immigrants and he has been popular with working class Israelis due to his Middle Eastern background, his modest family upbringing, and, perhaps most notably, his earlier success in government with efforts to reform the mobile-phone market.
There is also the Jewish Home party, led by high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett. Bennett has been Netanyahu’s chief rival for the support of West Bank settlers. Representing modernist Orthodox Jews, the party has built strong ties with the West Bank settlement movement. Bennett’s party has usually been seen as a natural partner of Likud, even though he has also been striving to broaden his appeal to secular Jews.
Further, there is Yesh Atid, led by former TV personality, Yair Lapid. Lapid is also running on an avowedly economic platform, promising relief for the struggling middle class voter. In his party platform, Lapid argued less money should be spent on those West Bank settlements as well as on the controversial stipends given to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties might end up with key roles after the election itself – once the inevitable horse-trading to build a stable coalition that can actually govern takes shape. Shas was founded in the early 1980s by ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern origin as they articulated a growing sense of marginalisation by the older, established Israeli political order. Shas’ followers have tended to be hawkish and the party traditionally has been a Likud ally, even though its spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, had issued a determination some years ago that saving lives was more important than keeping territory, per se. The party, now headed by Arieh Deri, emphasizes social welfare for its low-income constituency. A breakaway faction of Shas led by former party leader Eli Yishai is also running.
Then there is Yisrael Beitenu. This far-right, secular party, headed by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, has taken a hard line against Israel’s Arab minority and Lieberman has said he will push for the death penalty for terrorists. However, this party has shrunk in the pre-voting polls since breaking its alliance with Likud, and in the wake of a series of corruption scandals that forced out several key players.
Winning an outright majority has proved to be impossible to achieve throughout Israel’s political history. No party has actually gained a 61-seat majority. As a result, following the election, Israel’s president (a largely ceremonial position currently occupied by Reuven Rivlin) meets with the various party leaders to determine who has the best chance of forming a government (By that point some serious, informal horse trading will undoubtedly have already taken place). Thereafter, the president calls on the head of that party, usually the largest in the new parliament, to attempt to build a viable coalition within six weeks. If successful, that party leader now becomes the country’s newest prime minister. If creating a coalition proves fruitless, the president then asks another party to attempt this task. The president, can also end up asking the leaders of the two biggest parties to form a unity government – as unwieldy as that might be politically.
The country has 5,881,696 eligible voters out of its total population of 8.2 million; 75% of these are Jews and around 20% are Arabs (Christian, Muslim and Druze), while the remainder are “others”, i.e. non-Jewish immigrants such as spouses of recent immigrants.
Still, despite the apparent deadlock, given the electoral results for some of the smaller right-wing parties, Netanyahu’s Likud may well have a less complicated, politically difficult path to the building of a majority coalition. Nevertheless, these fractured results also show an electorate that remains deeply fissured over how to deal with its strategic security challenges – as well as the relative importance of security versus the economy in the collective minds of Israeli voters. Or, as the hoary old vaudeville throwaway line would have it, “Three Jews, four opinions”. DM
Photo: Supporters and activists of Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union party react as the first television predictions come on a screen after polls for the Israeli general elections closed, in Tel Avivi, Israel, 17 March 2015. First exit polls suggest the parliamentary election is too close to call yet. Preliminary results are expected by 18 March and final results by 25 March. EPA/JIM HOLLANDER
For more, read:
Netanyahu Expresses Alarm Over Strong Arab Voter Turnout at the New York Times
Key facts about Israel and its election system at the AP
Key players in 17 March Israeli parliamentary election at the AP
Netanyahu promises no Palestinian state if he is re-elected at the AP
Arab Alliance Rises as Force in Israeli Elections at the New York Times
Live Blog: Israel Heads to the Polls, as Bibi Seeks Fourth Term at Foreign Policy.com
In Israel, Race Between Netanyahu and Herzog Appears Too Close to Call at the New York Times