Israeli Elections: Abundant Surprises

Even at the time of writing, a week after they occurred, no one knows the true results of Israel’s recent parliamentary elections. The shocking wound to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Beiteinu party and the rise of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party were hard to predict, and it will be difficult to foresee what results will come of them.


Image courtesy of Matanya, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Matanya, © 2009, some rights reserved.

The Build-Up:

After a raucous public debate over the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs from Israel’s compulsory military service, Netanyahu narrowly avoided being forced to call an early election by pulling together a loose right-wing coalition. The coalition, however, had difficulty agreeing on a new budget, and in October, Netanyahu called early elections. It was expected that the elections would shore up his already extensive support among Israelis and strengthen his party’s role in the ruling coalition. Up to the day of the election, polls appeared to show Likud Beiteinu and the right staying strong as the fractitious left wing perished.

The Elections:

I will avoid comparing the entirety of these elections to US elections, but there was at least one major similarity – the shock on the right when it lost. Like the Romney campaign he openly backed, Netanyahu seemed overconfident in his own campaign, and is rumoured to have assumed that polling predicting bad outcomes for him, was incorrect. In fairness, most media seemed to agree with this narrative.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the election results were much stranger than expected. Likud Beiteinu only won 31 of 120 seats in the Knesset, losing eleven seats. The rest of the right wing made slight gains, but not enough to make up for Netanyahu’s losses. The demise of the centrist Kadima party was no surprise. Less expected was that the center-left in general made reasonable gains, based at least partially in high levels of turnout in center-left strongholds. Social media exploded on election day, with many urging one another to turn out and vote. On the left wing and the right wing, Netanyahu’s popularity had seriously diminished.

But the meteoric rise of former newscaster Yair Lapid’s brand-new centrist party Yesh Atid was the main surprise of January’s elections. Lapid campaigned on middle-class issues, in particular ending draft exemptions. From a foreign-policy perspective, he seemed entirely silent, and most assumed he would be comparatively hawkish. It appeared that Netanyahu had been hurt, but not fatally, and those who hoped for a continuation of the peace process were not optimistic.

The Aftermath:

Now that the elections have happened, there is still much to decide. Netanyahu may be weakened, but he still has the right to try and form a government. Left-wing observers spoke briefly of a centre-left alliance, but as the dust of the elections cleared, it became obvious that Lapid would work with Netanyahu to form a government. This led to an interesting problem: despite being comprised of the two largest parties, the coalition would be eleven seats short of a majority. Again the idea of the centre-left joining the government was floated, but Netanyahu, unwilling to be the right wing of his own government, shot it down. Yesh Atid would join Likud Beiteinu in searching for another coalition partner on the right wing, most likely a former member of Netanyahu’s coalition.

When he began his negotiations with Netanyahu, Lapid announced the two new priorities of Yesh Atid in forming a government. One was the expected draft reform. The other was more surprising, considering Lapid’s domestic-focused campaign – the reopening of talks with the Palestinians. This leaves Netanyahu and Lapid with a difficult choice. There are two blocs that might fit in well with their government. The Naftali Bennett and his Jewish home party cater to settlers, who might be amenable to eliminating draft exemptions, but would be expected to oppose peace negotiations. Bennett has indicated some willingness to go along with negotiations, which would be extremely out of character. Alternatively, Netanyahu and Lapid could ally with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which would probably shut down draft reform, but might allow for peace talks.

To add an extra layer of complications, Netanyahu and his wife seem to have personal issues with Bennett, and there were recent arguments coming from the Netanyahu camp that Jewish Home would not join the coalition. Those reports have since been denied, but Netanyahu and Bennett are far from the best of friends.

No matter the final result of the election, it will have far-reaching consequences. President Obama and Netanyahu are not close friends, especially after Netanyahu openly supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections. Depending on the circumstances, Obama may be placed in a much stronger bargaining position for any future negotiations he has with Israel. At the very least, Netanyahu is no longer in any positions to berate Obama for not sufficiently supporting his positions, as he has done in the past.

Seen through the prism of British politics, it would be unwise for Lapid to give up on his efforts to reform the draft. It was the central promise of his campaign, and he would certainly like to avoid becoming the Israeli Nick Clegg, abandoned by those who were once enthusiastic for a change from politics as usual. Speaking as an individual, while I find the idea of draft exemptions strange, I hope that reopening negotiations with the Palestinians takes priority. The current situation is untenable, and movement on both sides of the conflict should be welcome. These recent elections may not be the catalyst for a continuation of the peace process, but there is reason to hope.

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