international analysis and commentary

Israeli elections: the illusion of a tie between right and center-left


Two main winners, two big losers, and one major misunderstanding: this, in a nutshell, is the result of the latest Israeli parliamentary election.

The first winner is Israeli democracy. Almost half of the current members of the Knesset will not return for another term – something hard to imagine in most democratic countries of the world. Moreover, the 19th Knesset will be 21.6% female; a remarkable result in comparison to the previous parliament in which 17.5% of members were women.

The second big winner is Yair Lapid. His party, Yesh Atid, obtained 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset and is now the second-largest political actor after the joint Likud-Beiteinu list (31 seats).

The latter list is the main big loser: led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud and the Yisrael Beitenu registered a sharp drop, down from the 42 seats it held in the outgoing Knesset.

The results are something of a blow also for the Labour party (15 seats), which under new leader Shelly Yachimovich had hoped, focusing mainly on economic issues, for a new “golden age”.

Such outcomes, further strengthened by the impressive performance of the Zionist left-wing party Meretz (with six seats Meretz has doubled its representation), pushed many political analysts to claim a virtual tie between the right and center-left forces. This is, however, a major misunderstanding: in reality – as noted by Larry Derfner among others – what in these last few months passed for the center-left is actually the right. A closer look at the Yesh Atid and Labor (HaHavoda) parties suggests that the center-left does not really exists and rightist positions are stronger than ever.

The campaign of the main centrist candidate, Yair Lapid, focused on domestic policies – mainly the need to enlist ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in the army. However, once forced to come forward with a clear-cut stand in foreign affairs his statements did show how close he actually stands to PM Netanyahu. Just a few days before the elections, Lapid clarified for example that “I do not think that the Arabs want peace. What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them.” Lapid went on to add that the left “makes the same mistake again when it negotiates the division of Jerusalem”.
In this context, pollster Mina Zemah pointed out that Yesh Atid drew about 50% of its support from the right. In other words, the big shift in votes was from Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu – and to a minor extent from Kadima – to Lapid’s party. As analyst Noam Sheizaf noted, from Netanyahu’s perspective Lapid “is probably the most comfortable adversary he (Netanyahu) could hope for, one that is not likely to cause any problems on the Palestinian issue.”

Shelly Yachomovich, leader of the Labor Party, went so far as to declare to the settler website Arutz 7 that considering Labor a left-wing party is historically wrong. She gave a speech in Ariel, a settlement particularly detrimental for the local Palestinian communities, in order to attract more right-wing voters.

Despite what Aluf Benn defined “a painful slap in the face from voters” Benjamin Netanyahu will now serve for a third term as Prime Minister, a privilege that only David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel, has had in the past. Netanyahu, however, will have to negotiate from a weaker position than in the past and will be forced to make political concessions that he has hitherto avoided. In regard to domestic issues, this will bring about important reforms such as the enlisting of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in the army. In foreign policy, however, very little change is likely, especially on any possible compromise with the Palestinians and the issue of Jerusalem.

Such looming scenario is also confirmed by the fact that the third main potential ally in the coalition of the coming Netanyahu government is Naftali Bennett, leader of HaBayit HaYehudi (12 seats), the right-wing religious Zionist party that benefited from the Likud-Beiteinu merger. Naftali has on many occasions harshly criticized Netanyahu for supporting the two-state solution as well as for being “soft” on the Palestinian bid at the UN. One of his main proposals is the annexation of Area C, i.e. 60% of the West Bank.

In the coming days we will witness interesting political bargaining between the main parties. In the final anslysis, it is not a matter of how many votes you get, but of which coalition you are able and willing to form. Traditionally, the party that gets the larger number of seats has the first chance to form a governing alliance in negotiations that are characterized by policy concessions and promises of cabinet posts. In this respect the appointment of the finance minister – Israel is facing an NIS 40 billion deficit – will tell us which political actor Netanyahu fears the most.

The more likely configuration is a coalition formed by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, HaBayit HaYehudi and perhaps one or two minor parties. This means that the rightist block will remain extremely strong, as confirmed by the unprecedented number of religious Jewish members of the new Knesset – around 40, many of which are settlers and certainly supporters of the settler movement.

The main result of this electoral turnout may have been that Israel did not move further to the right; however, it did not move to the left or to the center, either.