The Israeli Elections: What Happened, What Didn’t

By Paul Scham | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Mar 18, 2015
The Israeli Elections: What Happened, What Didn’t

Those Israelis who hoped for a change in Israel’s direction awoke this morning to news worse than they had feared. With more than 99 percent of the vote reportedly counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has won 30 seats to 24 for his main challenger, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog.

During the campaign, and especially in its last few weeks, Netanyahu had tried openly to capture seats from parties to his right, namely the Jewish Home (headed by Naftali Bennett), now reduced to 8 seats, and the new Yachad Party, which apparently did not receive the threshold 3.25 percent of the vote necessary to reach the Knesset. The left-Zionist Meretz Party reached the threshold, but barely, with either 4 or 5 seats. If it ends up as 4, party chair Zahava Gal-On has said that she would resign from the Knesset. The centrist parties, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) and Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon) have 11 and 10 seats, respectively, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas received 7 and United Torah Judaism 6. Current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, has been enmeshed in a new financial scandal, and speculation had it that he might not reach the threshold, but he has 6 seats, far fewer than his previous 11, but he remains a player. The disparate Joint List, composed of the “Arab parties” and the Communists, which includes Jews and Arabs, received 13 or 14 seats, appreciably more than its combined total of 11 in the previous Knesset, marking the first time a truly unified Arab list has run, though its members’ views range from Arab nationalist to Islamist to Communist.

The election was universally portrayed as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has served three terms, including two in the last six years. He has emerged fully in charge, almost certainly able to assemble a right-wing/religious coalition within two to three weeks, if he chooses that over a “unity” government that includes Labor. In either case, smaller parties will not be able to play him off as they could after the last election, when he was forced to accept a coalition in which his own control was never complete. For two years, the comparatively dovish Tzipi Livni as justice minister and the centrist Yair Lapid as finance minister were thorns in his side. Lieberman seemed to run his own erratic foreign policy at times, and Naftali Bennett, representing the settlers and other far-right groups, was continually demanding more settlements and an end to even the fig leaf of two states. Now, Netanyahu’s coalition will presumably be far more solid, not dependent on any one partner to maintain itself.

President Reuben Rivlin, whose feud with Netanyahu is legendary, has made clear that he would prefer a unity government, and the Zionist Union’s leader, Isaac Herzog, has carefully refused to rule it out. However, it is more likely that Netanyahu will prefer a narrow coalition with the Jewish Home and Moshe Kahlon as his core partners. He has already promised Kahlon the finance ministry, and will probably keep that promise. Though there was talk of Bennett as defense minister, that is now unlikely; the position will probably remain with the Likud incumbent, Moshe Ya’alon, who is hawkish but not radical in Likud terms. Netanyahu will then take Shas and United Torah Judaism, who were excluded from the previous government and are eager to defend the interests of the large and growing ultra-Orthodox public. Finally, the coalition would almost certainly include Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which would give it a comfortable majority of 68 seats. Lieberman has already demanded the defense ministry, but it is doubtful that he retains sufficient clout to get it.

Even if the far-right Yachad Party reaches the threshold, it will probably not enter the government, since it is not needed and its leaders includes followers of slain Rabbi Meir Kahane, who are considered beyond the pale, even by much of the rest of the Israeli right. In addition, Netanyahu blames the breakup of his last government on Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni, so he is unlikely to invite them in. And the ultra-Orthodox parties detest Lapid because he pushed through a law that drafts previously exempt ultra-Orthodox men into the army; as such, they might not consent to sit in a government with him. They would also probably be easier to work with as long as their institutions are funded.

With a comparatively stable government secured, it would be difficult for any of the coalition parties to threaten to leave the coalition and bring down the government, often the bane of the life of an Israeli prime minister.

Assuming a narrow government like this is formed, the opposition will then be “led” by Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, which is primarily the Labor Party combined with Tzipi Livni, lately of Hatnua, Kadima, and Likud. She is likely to be eclipsed by him, since her popularity was already waning during the campaign. Both are dovish in that they want to resume relations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which were cut off after the failure of the last round of negotiations in April 2014. Netanyahu and the right wing have continued to maintain that Abbas is not a peace partner and so, with no other Palestinian leader on the horizon and Abbas considered almost an Israeli pawn by many Palestinians, it is hard to imagine any sort of peace process in the offing. Obama and Kerry have vowed to continue it, but with their relationship with Netanyahu in ruins, it is hard to imagine a basis for it. Most of the Labor Party, though dovish in Israeli terms, does not seem to believe a two-state solution is currently possible, advocates a united Israeli Jerusalem, and does not put forward any sort of comprehensive peace plan.

The second largest opposition party will be the Joint List, the only part of the Israeli left to emerge from the election with its power enhanced. The new 3.25 percent threshold, which was meant to reduce or even eliminate Arab representation in the Knesset, has instead both increased it and created a semblance of unity for the first time. Thus, Israeli Arabs and the small part of the Jewish left that has supported them will have a larger and more visible platform whether the Joint List remains a single party or, as is very possible, splits into several factions. However, the opposition, whether jointly or severally, will have little power. Its likely additional components will be Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the great hope of the secular middle class in the 2013 election, which has widely been considered a disappointment, reflected in its drop from 16 to 11 seats. There is also Meretz, the last organized representation of the once large Zionist left. Its platform of social democracy and a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders has not been able to gain traction with the electorate, and it is generally considered too tied to the “old elites” of North Tel Aviv and their affiliated kibbutz movement. Its weak showing was partly due to many of its supporters voting “strategically” for the Zionist Union in the hope of beating Likud in the race for the most seats.

Thus, the political question now and for the next few years is who Netanyahu will decide to be. His first few years were comparatively moderate. He nominally accepted two states and, had Obama pushed him more strongly, might conceivably have been brought to engage in serious negotiations. But, in his next term, starting in early 2013, Netanyahu, partly under the influence of Bennett’s popularity, moved to the right on negotiations, on the “Jewish homeland” demand, on NGOs, and on other issues. His neoliberal policies had already aroused massive opposition in 2011, so he eased off slightly on those. But then, in his election campaign, he focused on Iran and acted as if he could deal solely with U.S. Republicans and participate in their campaign against Obama.

Netanyahu has always been a man of the right. But he is not a religious nationalist, or at least not until he recently began sounding like one, and he has always appreciated the necessity of the American-Israeli connection—again, until he recently let Republican adulation go to his head. Were these (clearly successful) attempts to woo right-wing voters away from the even further right parties tactical or strategic? Does he realize the danger to Israel of its increasing isolation in the world? Does he want to demonize Israel’s frightened but somewhat resurgent Arab minority? Does he really think Palestinians will remain quiescent? The answers to these questions will show which Netanyahu was reelected and what we might expect from him in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the electoral campaign is over and the real horse trading has already begun. Each party leader is trying to get the most for himself and his party in the new government. After consultation with party leaders, President Rivlin will presumably ask Netanyahu to form a government next week, and he will have three weeks, with a three week extension possible, to do so. Meanwhile, the other interested parties, including the Palestinians and the rest of the world, can just wait.

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