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Israel: how things fell apart

Thomas O'Dwyer
13 February 2009

Now that the final results of the election in Israel on 10 February 2009 are in, it is becoming clear that - to borrow from WB Yeats - the centre will not hold. The bare figures may show that the centrist Kadima party of foreign minister Tzipi Livni emerged a single seat ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud - twenty-eight to twenty-seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But the flesh on the bones tells a deeper story.

Thomas O'Dwyer is a country risk consultant, journalist and broadcaster and a long-term resident in the middle east. He has been a Reuters bureau chief, foreign editor of the Jerusalem Post, and a columnist with the International Herald Tribune's Ha'aretz newspaper

"Slouching towards Kadima" (26 March 2006)

"Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel" (13 July 2006)

"Israel's post-heroic disaster" (30 April 2007)

"Israel after Lebanon: warning siren, deaf ears" (15 February 2008) The exit-polls predicting thirty seats for Livni led to instant celebrations at Kadima headquarters on election-night, but these quickly gave way to dawn gloom as the extent of the rightward shift in Israeli politics became apparent. The former prime minister "Bibi" Netanyahu may have come a narrow second-best, but he has wider support in pressing his claim that he and not Livni should get the chance to form a coalition government.

Israel's post-election tradition in cases of an unclear result is that the country's president calls on the leader of the biggest party in parliament to have a first attempt to form a government, but this time the parties to the right of Kadima have a clear majority. President Shimon Peres is giving Livni and Netanyahu time to gather their respective arguments and prospective allies; he has nearly two weeks to decide which of them to call on to engage in coalition-building.

Already, however, Kadima is showing signs of resignation; Livni said on the evening of 12 February that "Kadima will go into opposition if Mr Netanyahu forms a government, because this party has no intention of accepting the policies of a rightwing, ultra-Orthodox government." This meant that both leading sides have now retreated from the idea of a broad national-unity government, which was being discussed right up to the close of polling stations on election-day.

True, the fact that Livni's Kadima managed to retain its strength until the end amid the surge of Likud and the right during the campaign has astonished political commentators. Kadima, after all, was an artificial construction cobbled together by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in November 2005; when Sharon had a stroke and fell into a coma just a month later, the new party was not expected to outlast him. Instead, Kadima under Ehud Olmert won a majority in the elections in March 2006, and formed a broad coalition with the Labour party and the religious party Shas.

A lost left

The continuing strength of Kadima, despite the return of many of its rightwing voters to Likud, is really based on the collapse of the traditional leftwing parties in Israel. Labour, which for decades assumed it had a secular equivalent of the divine right to rule, picked up a paltry thirteen seats - and was pushed into an ignominious fourth place by the ultra-nationalist Russian immigrant, Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party.

"It is so cruel", said one Kadima activist, "Tzipi Livni defeated the left and was defeated by the right." What happened was that the political landscape slipped tectonically to the right. Labour, the leftist Meretz and the small Pensioners' Party in total lost sixteen seats. As had been predicted, many Kadima voters did indeed desert to Likud, but were replaced by former supporters of the leftwing parties who voted for Kadima. The party's composition has changed, in a political landscape that looks less favourable to it than before.

In these circumstances, the collapse of Israel's once powerful left has been occupying media analysts as much, if not more, than assessment of the result or speculation over the shape of the next government. The consensus of commentators of left and right is that the spinelessness of the leaders of leftwing parties, rather than the leftwing public, is to blame for the left's failure.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli politics:

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel reverses gravity" (29 March 2006)

Jim Lederman, "What Israel's election means" (4 April 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

The rightwing commentator Israel Harel, writing in the Ha'aretz newspaper, scorns the Labour leader (and defence minister) Ehud Barak, for his alleged weakness over the army's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. Barak "lost because...he did not have the courage to decisively defeat the terror of the Gaza strip." More widely, says Harel, the leftist Meretz party had "began calling for an end to the Gaza operation on its third day, and some of its people accused the Israel Defense Forces of war crimes." In this perspective, Labour and Meretz "crashed" in the  election largely because their long-term "overidentification...with Arab-Palestinian nationalism, even during a vicious war of terror against the Jews" has alienated voters of the left.

In reality, former Meretz voters were appalled that their party had not denounced the war from the start. For their part, Labour's voters have grown sick and tired of years of compromise and backsliding from traditional party values, just so the leaders could cling to whatever scraps of power were tossed to them in the coalition governments of Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert.

An attack on Labour's miserable decline by one of Israel's most renowned leftwing writers, Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz, is even more scathing than Harel's. "The Israeli left died in 2000; since then its corpse has been lying around unburied - until finally its death certificate was issued, signed, sealed and delivered on (10 February)", wrote Levy. "The hangman of 2000 was also the gravedigger of 2009 - defence minister Ehud Barak. The man who succeeded in spreading the lie about there being no [Palestinian] partner to talk to has reaped the fruit of his deeds in this election. The funeral was held two days ago."

The fact that the largest party in a parliament of 120 seats holds only twenty-eight of those seats - a result that also reflects the nature of Israel's thoroughgoing proportional-representation system - is a measure of the task faced by Netanyahu and Livni in their horse-trading efforts to harness a sixty-one-seat coalition. In this tricky negotiating process, most experts agree that the wily and vastly experienced Netanyahu clearly has the edge over Livni. Ten years after she won her first seat in the Knesset - as a member of the Likud, led by Netanyahu as prime minister - Livni will struggle to find the numbers to become Israel's second woman prime minister.

A bumpy ride

The wider implications of the result are considered by Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group and a former adviser to president Bill Clinton. He told the France24 channel that the Israeli election had exposed complex fragmentation in the body-politic of the entire region that is going to be very difficult to deal with. "In Israel, the fragmentation is across left and right, and inside the left and the right. The Palestinians are fragmented into Hamas and Fatah", Malley said. "That means it is structurally difficult for anyone to do anything because there is no unity of decision-making on any side. Fundamentals cannot change."

In this respect Israelis, even while preoccupied with the war in Gaza and their own elections, have been keeping a wary and uncertain eye on President Barack Obama. Obama's interview with al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based rival of Qatar's al-Jazeera, was extensively covered in Israel. In it he expressed support for the Saudi-inspired peace plan of 2002 and made clear that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to solving all problems in the middle east.

"If Bibi (Netanyahu) does end up as prime minister", a European ambassador told me, "we assume he won't want to start off in a crisis with Obama, the way he ended his last premiership in 1999 in a crisis with (Bill) Clinton" (after the failure of the Wye River agreements of October 1998 with Yasser Arafat). "Obama is going to need a lot of time just to change the dynamics of the region", he added. "That's going to take him two to three years at least. Maybe there is a chance he can make some progress between Israel and Syria. That is possible, and that would leverage the dynamics with the Palestinians and Lebanon."

Bibi Netanyahu's return for a second spell as prime minister would mean another turbulent ride in Israeli politics. A hollow centre will make it even bumpier.

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