North Africa, West Asia

Final observations on Israeli elections

The question remains, even if Netanyahu can form a workable government, can he repair the damage he has done to Israeli society and to his own and the State of Israel’s image.

Efraim Perlmutter
20 March 2015
PM Netanyahu claims victory in Israeli election.

PM Netanyahu claims victory in Israeli election. Demotix/Dan Bar Dov. All rights reserved.A week before the election, I was asked to host a visit of several Labor Party candidates. This involved reserving our village meeting hall, setting up chairs, purchasing refreshments and so on. On the night of the event the crowd that attended was sparse, numbering at about 25 people. The candidates talked and after the meeting ended, I was left with two Zionist Union (Labor Party) posters. On the Sunday before election-Tuesday, I hung them up on fences at the entrance to our village and the village next door.

I had been asked to be the “house father” for the voting station in my village. In general, that meant I would be responsible for the physical elements of the voting station. So the day before the election, I found myself checking that the meeting hall, where the polling station was set up, had enough tables and chairs for the voting booth, ballot box and poll workers. 

Finally on election day, I arrived at 7:00 AM, opened the doors, arranged the tables and helped the poll workers in posting signs to direct people and placards designating our meeting hall as one of several thousand places where the will of the Israeli citizenry could be expressed.

Given the nature of Israeli political parties, interpreting the will of the Israeli voter is not as easy as it is often assumed. First, a two dimensional left-right continuum cannot be easily applied to Israeli parties. Though some parties, such as Naftalli Bennet’s Bayit Hayehudi can be classified as right wing, on both foreign policy and economic issues; the Zionist Union (Labor Party) can be viewed as center left on these issues. However, others are more difficult to define.

Starting with the Likud; a traditional right wing party that has made some effort to position itself more towards the center, especially on foreign policy. The Shas party votes left on economic issues while on foreign policy it has voted both on the right and the left. This party, for example, split in this election and the faction led by Eli Yishai is extremely right wing on foreign policy while Aryeh Deri’s faction is left on social welfare issues and slightly right of center on foreign policy.

Moshe Kahlon is a break-away former Likud personality who is left of center on economic and social welfare issues and centrist on foreign policy.

Meretz is a firmly left wing party on all issues and can best be described as a Marxist-Zionist party.

The United Arab List is united for this election but its political stance ranges from mutual existence and recognition to Islamic supremacy and all stations between.

Avigdor Lieberman’s party is difficult to categorize. He expresses hatred for Arabs and out of that hatred wants to see a two state solution with Arabs in a Palestinian state and Jews in an Israeli state; both nations going about in their own independent way. I leave it to the reader to place him on a right-left continuum as I can’t.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party is a centrist party on both foreign and domestic policy.

The Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Religious Party sympathizes with the right but aligns with whichever coalition promises to direct more government funding to its religious institutions. In the first 30 years of statehood, they aligned with the Left and since then, the Nationalist Camp on the Right, despite the fact that the Ultra-Orthodox are anti-Zionist.

The situation is even more complex than described above, as there are also personality differences as well as personal and party histories that come into play. However, generally speaking these were the realistic options (out of the more than two dozen parties actually on the ballot) available to the Israeli voter on election day, and even more importantly, the kind of building blocks on which party leaders must build a coalition.      

At 8:00 PM our voting station closed and we began to count the votes. Out of 180 people who voted, 110 voted for Zionist Union, 19 for Meretz, 17 for the Likud, 15 for Lapid’s party, eight each for Kahlon’s and Naftalli Bennet’s parties, two for the Arab List and one for Shas. Our village generally supported Labor but this was somewhat better than was expected.

The only thing left for me to do was to stack the chairs, return the tables, remove all of the official signs and in short, turn the voting station back into a village meeting hall. I was finished by 9:30 PM, which gave me just enough time to return home and watch the election results on TV. By the following morning it was clear that Netanyahu’s Likud party had come out on top with 30 seats, while the Zionist Union came in second with 24 seats. While overseas commentators viewed this as a shift to the right, a closer look at the results indicates something a little different.

Keeping in mind that the right-left continuum doesn’t make for a snug fit when it comes to all Israeli politics, let’s start by looking at what happened to the true right and left.

On the left we have the Zionist Union and Meretz. Their combined strength went from 29 (Labor, Hatenuah and Kadima which became the Zionist Union) to 29 in this election. In other words, despite appearances to the contrary, no real change.  The true right parties, Likud, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beyteinu and Bayit Yehudi, went from 43 to 44 Knesset seats, which is a very small gain of one seat. Now let’s look at the true centrist parties Kulanu and Yesh Atid. These went from 19 to 21 seats. The Ultra-Orthodox parties dropped from 18 to 13 seats. Unnoticed was that much of this drop was a consequence of the split in the Shas party and the failure of the far right wing version of that party to achieve the 3.25% cut off point and therefore getting zero seats. Finally there is the United Arab List which gained two seats by going from 11 to 13.  

The fact is that the Israeli electorate remains split and in theory a coalition government could be formed either on the right or the left. This could happen, for instance, if the center and left joined the coalition with the Arab list supporting the coalition from the outside. However, this won’t happen because the United Arab List won’t be able to agree on such an arrangement and hold together. We can see this because at the beginning of the election campaign a vote sharing agreement was worked out between Meretz and the United Arab list only to be vetoed by one of the three Arab factions, which refused to cooperate with any Zionist party. A left coalition could also be formed with the left, center and Ultra-Orthodox parties. But this is unlikely as well. So we are left with a high probability of a right wing government with the three right wing parties, Kahlon’s center party and the ultra-orthodox Shas party.

Finally, I would like to make some comments about the Israeli electorate. When I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, several decades ago, we examined many public opinion surveys of the American electorate. One fairly consistent finding was that the various ethnic groups tended to vote according to their income or economic class, with lower socio-economic classes voting Democrat (the American left) and higher socio-economic groups voting Republican (the American right). The one exception to this was the American Jewish voter, who, contrary to the mythical image of the Jew, voted contrary to socio-economic indicators. The reasons for this are probably historical and I won’t examine them here. We see a similarity between the American Jewish voter and the Israeli Jewish voter.

Generally speaking Israelis of higher socio-economic standing tend to vote left while those from the lower socio-economic levels tend to vote right. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in Israel socio-economic status tends to be associated with the geographic origin of the voter, with those coming from a European background having a higher socio-economic status and those with a lower socio-economic status comprised of Jews of Middle Eastern origin. These socio-economic differences have gradually been disappearing over the years but the attitudes arising from these differences remain when it comes to voting behavior.

The Jews of Middle Eastern origin were later arrivals and had to fight their way into upper levels of Israeli society. Many bad feelings towards what was seen as a European cultural and political aristocracy were generated during this process and, though moderated, still remain today.  

In addition, the Middle Eastern Jews arrived in Israel after having suffered extremely bitter experiences at the hands of their Arab neighbors. This generated a great deal of distrust and outright hatred of Arabs among this section of the Israeli population. These people have, over the years, formed the voter base for the Likud party, which has the image of being strong against the Arabs.

In the last few days of this campaign, Netanyahu, who was running scared, took the Likud Party two giant steps to the right and also appealed to the feelings of antagonism towards the Arabs in an attempt to win back his voter base. The election results show that his efforts succeeded. 

The question remains, even though it seems likely that Netanyahu can form a workable government, whether or not he can repair the damage he has done to Israeli society and to his own and the State of Israel’s image.      

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