The Israeli Elections promised much besides more Netanyahu

If you haven’t been following the major media coverage of the recent Israeli parliamentary elections, let me sum up the question that preoccupied it – will Prime Minister Netanyahu remain in office? Pretty much everyone paying attention who isn’t trying to speculate to drive up media consumption could pretty easily tell you that he succeeded and that claims that the centrists were the real winners here aren’t terribly rooted in reality. For more on that issue, I’ll direct you over to Emily Hauser, who’s got it pretty much covered.

It seems the better issue to explore might not be who would be in charge of Israeli in the near future and rather who would put them there and why. Some of the data points towards there being a rather shocking reorganization of Israeli political parties and with that the country’s political landscape, but as Hauser noted, without necessarily translating into any significant change in policy. To get a sense of this, we have to break down the existing political parties into slightly more fine-tuned blocs than Haaretz already has, namely like this:


(Data from the previously mentioned Haaretz coverage and here.)

It’s hard to very quickly summarize what happened there in words, compared to the above visual. The newest Knesset looks smoothed out – with an end to the representative discrepancy between the rightist and leftist parties, the retained Arab and Ultra-Orthodox blocs, and the possible (but unlikely, as we’ll get into) coalition government by the center-right, center, and center-left. It seems moderate above all else, doesn’t it?

Not really if you care to notice that the plurality that will have the first chance to form a coalition is not just Netanyahu’s Likud, which might be called “center-right” for Israel, but rather an electoral alliance between Likud and and the rightwing Beiteinu party. As members of the Beiteinu party already hold high-level and policy-impacting positions within the cabinet, this electoral consolidation of the parties does seem to reflect their ties, but without Beiteinu ceding its more conservative views.  In short, what passes as center-right is something that leans pretty hard to the right. Hauser, for that matter, thinks that the engine behind Netanyahu’s probably continuing leadership was the rightwing vote, and with that alliance and the demonstrable shift in support from the rightists to Likud, but probably as a result of a largely shared agenda, rather than political extremes becoming more moderate.

Realizing that, Yesh Atid might seem like a counter current, as its imposing head, Yair Lapid, has largely run against Prime Minister Netanyahu in these elections. Hauser’s theory was that just as rightists have flocked into the increasingly more conservative Likud, the center-right is now largely feeling into the center. That being said, his centrism seems more rhetorical than policy-based. As Hauser pointed out, his insistence on the government at least negotiating with Palestinians seems like a “diversion with which to distract the international community” while occupation and settlement continue. Less than a year ago, the Yesh Atid platform called for, without clarification, changing “the system of government”. I’m sensing a bit of a trend among the wealthy and western here. Seeing as his light policy is pretty much every major and secular party in any democracy supports but with the difficult to swallow portions of Likud’s plank ignored rather than replaced, it’s hard to see him providing much resistance to Netanyahu’s coalition, especially when he’s said as much himself. Was a vote for him just a slightly more conscience-approved version of voting for Netanyahu for the Israeli right? In any case, if he proves resolute, Netanyahu can always work something out with the Ultra-Orthodox bloc (as he did with some of those parties to form the existing government), who also have enough votes for him to be able to form a coalition with (assuming he retains the general support from the rightists).

On the other hand, the center-left, the only major bloc other than the rightwing to see a major reduction in size, seems to have let any political consensus disintegrate every which way. One major party, Kadima, has utterly dissolved into the leftist Hatnuah (under the leadership of Tzipi Livni, former head of Kadima) and the remaining center-left party, Labor. Meanwhile, Labor initially joined the current coalition government with Netanyahu’s Likud party and assorted rightist parties, but then splintered as the majority of the party decided to break the coalition. As a result the Independence party existed for the past session of the Knesset, which effectively pulled the more conservative members of the Labor party. For instance, many of the Independence representatives had close relationships with settler movements or outright said that Palestinians deserve a “shoah, which is the term typically used to refer in Israel to the Holocaust. In spite of losing their conservative wing to an ad hoc centrist party, their number of seats in the most recent election in fact nearly doubled from 8 to 15. Coupled with the schism in Kadima, however, this has translated into a net loss for the center-left bloc, but resulting in greater ideological clarity between the center, center-left, and leftist blocs.

In short, this past election suggests that in addition to Netanyahu’s plurality of support, he has the potential governing coalitions with three different blocs, any two of which would be sufficient to form a government. He’s already reached out to the rightists and is likely to successfully negotiate with the parties that didn’t enter into an electoral alliance with him. From there, he has the choice between negotiating with the Ultra-Orthodox, who will be disappointed in his secularism, or the centrists, who’ll look the other way while safe and secure behind the Iron Dome. Conversely, any sort of a counter-coalition seems doomed to failure, with the Arab-friendly parties being politically toxic to almost all others, the center-left and leftist in-fighting having recently drawn a lot of blood, and a good chunk of support having moved into the more Netanyahu-friendly center. As Hauser noted, there isn’t a 59 vote minority to a probable 61 vote Third Netanyahu Government, but rather four separate oppositions – which are rooted (and often not very firmly) in opposing his coalition as the political status quo that can never fall (the centrists), the enablers of the emerging economic elite (labor-minded center-left), the militant occupiers on the behalf of the Ultra-Orthodox (the reformer left), and the enforcers of the Israeli ethnic hierarchy (the Israeli-Arab parties).

Israel needed more than one additional MP to be assigned to one of those four blocs. It needed a leftwing political culture of solidarity rather than balkanization, and without that conservative Israelis seem poised to control the political process for not only this government but beyond the near future.

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