The results of Israel’s general election were not as depressing as expected, although not as good as might have been hoped. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is still firmly in the saddle, but the composition of his coalition government may be radically different from the outgoing one. At this stage, however, there’s no knowing what lies ahead, given Israel’s peculiar and unique political constellation and the inevitable horse-trading that precedes all coalitions. The bottom line seems to be that the population is more or less evenly divided between right and left, and has not shifted still more to the right, as I and others had feared.
The surprisingly large number of seats gained by Yair Lapid’s new ‘Yesh Atid’ (There is a Future) party has served to shuffle the cards in the political pack to a considerable extent. The party whose platform is an amorphous mix of ideas aimed at improving the general situation of Israel’s middle class, even though its leader is himself a very wealthy man, garnered votes from the other parties in the centre of the political spectrum, possibly because Lapid came across as more moderate, more sympathetic and better-looking than the others. He also made fewer mistakes in his campaign, carefully avoiding declaring outright where he stood on such delicate subjects as whether or not he would join a coalition government under Netanyahu (according to some pundits this was the cardinal error made by the Labour party’s leader, Shelly Yehimovich), what should be done about the Palestinian problem, the settlements, and various other thorny issues. What he did say was that the section of the population that has been getting a free ride on the backs of those who perform military service and then struggle to study, go out to work and pay taxes, i.e., the ever-growing ultra-orthodox segment, must be required to share the burdens of living in a modern society and economy. Lapid even presented a detailed programme for gradually incorporating the majority of ultra-orthodox youngsters into the military or some form of national service and eventually getting them into the workforce. This platform obviously appealed to a lot of Israelis. Lapid, who is a newcomer to politics, although his face is familiar to many Israelis from his time as a TV news anchorman, toured Israel’s length and breadth in the course of the last year, speaking to individuals and groups in his efforts to garner support.
The disappointing performance of the Labour party and Tzippi Livni’s Tnua (Movement) party has yet to be explained in full. Both are energetic and eloquent young women. Both had reasonably attractive lists of candidates, but their showing at the polls was not as extensive as expected. This may be partly due to the fact that both of them made statements about their intentions which may have discouraged potential supporters . Yehimovich’s abandonment of traditional socialist policies, and her declaration that under no circumstances would she serve in a government led by Netanyahu was a deterrent for many voters, and her own pretensions of being able to head a government smacked of delusions of grandeur. Tzippi Livni’s belated entry and somewhat lacklustre performance at the hustings may also have served to dissuade voters. The left-wing Meretz party, also led by a young woman, doubled its parliamentary representation, from three to six Knesset members, but that is still not enough to make much of a difference when it comes to government policies.
The ruling Likud party, which coalesced with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party for the elections, constitutes a solid right-wing bloc, but has failed to attract the massive support they had been hoping for. The party now known as Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) but which is really just an updated version of the traditional orthodox party that was once known as Mizrahi, had declined in previous elections but emerged anew under the new, youthful leadership of Naftali Benet. These three parties all share similar values, but are not large enough to form a government on their own. Benet himself is an interesting character, advocating policies regarding the Territories that are extremely right-wing, on the one hand, but adhering to a moderate form of orthodoxy when it comes to religion, and even being prepared to accept civil marriage in Israel. He has served in the army and has become rich by selling his high-tech company, so that he seems to represent a more modern version of the traditional Jew. Altogether, Benet and Lapid can almost be seen as mirror-images of one another, both being wealthy, self-made young men who attract support from a wide section of the population. Whether they can sit in the same government remains to be seen.
The more traditional ultra-orthodox Judaism of the Shas party also attracted a goodly share of votes, and will be well represented in the forthcoming Knesset. Their policies on settlements, the Territories and economic issues can be moderate, if the situation requires it, provided their voters continue to get the benefits (dispensation from military service, social benefits and housing concessions) to which they have become accustomed. But if Yair Lapid has his way, this won’t be possible.
It will be interesting to see how the various segments combine, and how Netanyahu will put the pieces of the puzzle together to form a government.