Israel votes, and surprises

What Israel badly needs is genuine political leadership of the sort that doesn’t shy away from speaking truth to power. So how did it do in the elections?

The electoral campaign leading up to Israel’s Tuesday elections initially appeared to tell two parallel tales. The first was of the New Right and its eye-catching turnaround since Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the vigorously Messianist settler movement born in the wake of the June 1967 war. The other was of the Old Center-Left, that collective comedy of errors that has repeatedly crested and foundered since Rabin’s assassination despite the country’s persistently centrist-leaning demographic.

The Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett, a 40-year-old former tech entrepreneur who has argued for Israel to annex the 62% of the West Bank corresponding to Area C and to grant circumscribed autonomy to the residual Palestinian population centers, picks up where the moribund Orthodox Religious Zionist movement left off. After Israel’s lightning victory in 1967, Religious Zionism waxed in influence and provided a powerful, End-of-Days impetus to settlement activity east of the Green Line. But Bennett’s potential ability to bridge the settlers in Israel’s geographic periphery (and Biblical heartland) with the more secular and material-minded in the central coastal areas possesses a bewitching appeal of its own that might significantly influence voting patterns in the longer term.

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Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett. Image: János Chialá/Demotix. All rights reserved

Even leading figures from parties on the right have acknowledged this rising political force, unsurprising given the polls suggesting the flight of precious intra-bloc votes in Bennett’s direction. Just before the elections, Likud Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Ovadia Yossef, spiritual leader of the Sephardic religious Shas party, both separately attacked Bennett on different issues.

A number of reasons account for the secular-religious right’s move from strength to strength in recent years. Higher birthrates among religious constituencies (as is the case among Israel’s Arabs) is one. Moreover, a stronger degree of bloc discipline, both in terms of turnout and voting choices is in evidence, notably among those who are both religious and of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) or Sephardic extraction. This contrasts with the growing apathy among more liberal constituencies center and left, whose absence at the ballots have only boosted the right’s gains by default. There is also the cumulative effect that the failure of the Oslo peace process and its subsequent spin-offs, as well as the destabilization of the regional security order following the Arab uprisings, have had on the credibility of the pro-peace lobby.

All this logically unfolded at the expense of the Center-Left, written off despite the recent and galvanizing appearance of two more parties within that space, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah (The Movement) and former media personality Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a future). The respective heads of Labor, Hatnuah, Kadima and Yesh Atid firmly stumbled when it came to their individual egos during the electoral campaign, incapable of making common cause and maximizing votes from that most fertile, if volatile ground in the political center. By elections’ eve, centrist Kadima, the leading force in electoral politics for two seasons running, appeared barely able to win two seats compared to 28 in 2009.

But then Israel finally went to the ballots on Tuesday with the highest turnout (66.6%) since 1999. While Bennett’s Jewish Home expanded as predicted, Yesh Atid turned out to be the season’s surprise, gaining roughly twice its expected number of seats (19) mere months after it started out from scratch. Combined with Labor (15), HaTnuah (6), Kadima (2), Meretz (6) and more remotely, the Arab parties Chadash, Raam-Taal and Balad further left (total 12), the ability to form a perfect blocking coalition at 60:60 now tips the scales back towards equilibrium. The exit polls are only half the battle won. The real test, as we saw in 2009, lies in actually cobbling together a sustainable coalition of the unwilling.

But why does this all matter?

To be sure, these elections weren’t about the impromptu State of Palestine, a nuclear Iran, or even growing regional insecurity. Instead, they clearly revolved around the domestic issues that mattered most to Middle Israel during recent social justice protests including the absence of Charedi participation in the military and the economy, unsustainable costs of living, the gap between the ultra-rich and the growing legions of poor, the country’s budget deficit, and state-religion relations.

Moreover, Netanyahu will almost certainly remain first among equals and the one to form the government despite the right’s poorer showing. This might remain problematic given that the collective decisions made during his second term as prime minister – for all its relative stability and the global consensus he managed to forge against Iran’s nuclear program – ultimately degraded Israel’s international position, failed to prevent unnecessary tensions with key allies, and quickened the country’s frog-march towards a binational state.

Also, even an eventual coalition with broader center-left participation is little guarantee of de-escalation on the Iranian front, a return to negotiations with the Palestinians or even the cessation of settlement expansion. On the contrary, electoral equilibrium paired with the calculus of coalitional bargaining suggests that the next government may rather swiftly succumb to instability.

The immeasurably greater significance of 2013′s electoral outcome, even if it was a protest vote, lies instead in Israeli society’s reinvigorated potential to halt if not reverse its own perilous slip-and-slide towards illiberal democracy. This isn’t either to say that only the center-left has the solutions. Elsewhere, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once famously acknowledged that Iran’s reformists and conservatives needed each other like both wings of a bird. This was admittedly a highly dissimilar political context permeated with a different set of power relations. But the principle holds and what Israel badly needs is genuine political leadership of the sort that doesn’t shy away from speaking truth to power. Israelis as a whole may not be overly optimistic when it comes to Shimon Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East”. But Tuesday was only the latest reminder that change too can come from their own hands.

About the author

Kevjn Lim is an independent, Middle East-based writer and contributing analyst at Open Briefing: The Civil Society Intelligence Agency.