July 30, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Elections in Israel


2013 Israeli legislative election ballots

With the vote-counting nearly completed, it is already possible to draw a number of conclusions regarding the 2013 Knesset elections in Israel.

Firstly, the long-standing division of Israeli parties into “left” and “right” wing blocs does not fully capture the reality. The norm among analysts is to cite the existence of two competing “camps” in Israel – the “left and the Arabs” bloc, and the “right plus the religious” bloc. If seen in these terms the elections yesterday produced a tie, with each of these blocs winning 60 seats in the 120 member Knesset.

But if one considers that the “left” bloc is supposed to include everyone from the centrists of Yesh Atid to the Nasserist Arab nationalists of the Balad movement, and the “right” takes in Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Shas and secular, security-minded hawks in Likud, it becomes plain that this simplistic division is insufficient.

The “left” and “right” blocs were once characterized respectively as those parties committed to the possibility of territorial compromise as a road to peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, and those opposed to such a path on security or nationalist/religious grounds.

This was always an insufficient distinction. But it ceased to make sense a long time ago. In Israel today, there are few true believers in “land for peace,” because of the obvious failure of experiments in territorial compromise to actually bring about a peaceful solution. At the same time, there are also fewer ideological adherents to the traditional “Whole Land of Israel” philosophy of the right.

Rather, the salient fact of Israeli politics today is the existence of a large pool of voters who do not totally reject the possibility of compromise, but who are deeply skeptical of Arab intentions. These centrist voters are not fired up or primarily concerned with ideological and nationalist issues.

Amid the surrounding Mid-East chaos, they want normal lives for themselves and their children. Their priorities are largely identical to those of middle class voters in other Western democracies– taxation, personal security, standards of education.

The big “surprise” of the election results yesterday resulted from the presence of this public. This was, of course, the strong performance of the “Yesh Atid” party of former journalist Yair Lapid. Lapid’s appeal–pragmatic, moderate, concerned with a fair sharing of the national burden–was precisely to these Israeli centrist voters. It worked.

But Lapid may want to note that his is only the latest in a long line of centrist lists that have done well initially by appealing to the Israeli center, but have subsequently failed to establish themselves as a permanent presence on the political scene.

Kadima, which last night went from 28 seats down to a projected 2, was an example of just such a party. Before this, Israelis remember the Center Party of former Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak, the Shinui party of Lapid’s own father, the Third Way list of Avigdor Kahalani, all the way back to the prototype Israeli centrist surprise of Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change in 1977.

One of the central paradoxes of Israeli political life is that this middle-class, centrist public is the key presence and the backbone of Israeli society, but no party able to retain its undivided affections for long has yet emerged. Centrist lists in Israel tend to burn brightly but briefly. The system has a near insurmountable tendency in the end to go back to the dominance of the “historic” parties of Likud and Labor, which derive from the rival, pre-state Revisionist and Labor Zionist movements. In this more limited sense, the “left-right” division still makes sense.

The large, pragmatic center in Israeli politics, meanwhile, remains stubbornly invisible to many analysts in the international media.

A somewhat hysterical story of Israel’s imminent turn to the far right and the decline of Israeli democracy was told and re-told in the western media in the weeks prior to the elections. Even some of Israel’s less well informed friends began to buy into it.

There was little substance to this. It was based on the emergence on the national-religious side of Israeli politics of a new, young and charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett. Bennett succeeded in uniting the old National Religious Party support with the far right (in the process, removing other far-right lists from the Knesset.)

Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi list won 11 seats. If he seems to have failed, it is because he was built up to absurd proportions by an international media keen to cast Israel as a country falling to the radical right. In terms of what was actually possible, he has recorded a modest but notable achievement.

As for the Western pundits–as one wag on a British website put it–”its almost as if they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to Israel.”

The “winner” of the elections, of course, was the Likud Beyteinu list of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense that this list is by far the largest in the new Knesset, and Netanyahu is set to form the new government. But at 31 seats, it fell far short of the number its component parts (Likud and Yisrael Beyteinu) held in the outgoing parliament–42.

This was the result of a lackluster campaign, and probably also of supporters of each of the component parts of the list being reluctant to vote for the other and thus taking their votes elsewhere.

The coalition negotiations will now begin. Likud Beyteinu and almost certainly Yesh Atid will be members of the new government. Their combined strength is around 50 seats. Other likely additions will be one or another combination of Bennett’s Bayit Hayehudi, the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism lists, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua and the remains of Kadima.

Bottom line: the underlying strength and maturity of Israel’s democracy was demonstrated this week. With a region in flames all around them, Israelis pulled off an election with a high turnout (66.6%), conducted efficiently and transparently, focusing on a substantive discussion of the key issues facing the country, but largely devoid of deep division and rancor. The results indicate that a large, sane, pragmatic center is the core presence in Israeli political life. It is to be hoped that the government that emerges from the coalition negotiations will reflect this reality.

About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.