Israel Tilts Away from the Right After Elections, Netanyahu's Power Wanes
Well, here it is, the day after. The Israeli elections are over, but the form of the next government is not at all clear. Most likely, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu party will form a government with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party being the main partner. This is by far the most likely scenario, though others possibilities exist, even a million-to-one long shot that Lapid could form a government. Labor is likely to be leading the opposition, unless Lapid surprises everyone and stays out of a Netanyahu-led government.
The new Knesset will be somewhat less tilted to the right than the last one, but this is not likely to make a big difference in terms of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. Indeed, in some ways, it might serve Netanyahu to have a friendlier face in Lapid to cover policies that might be slightly different rhetorically but essentially the same on the ground. More than anything else, the shift in government is going to be felt domestically, in terms of greater attention to civic and economic issues. Indeed, no Israeli election in my memory compares to this one for the dominance of domestic over security issues.
Given that there’s still more to see before the full ramifications of the election are known, I’ll engage here with a few winners and losers.
Yair Lapid: Lapid comes out of this as a major power broker…for now. I suspect Bibi will try to convince him to take the Finance portfolio, because the looming budget cuts are very likely to undermine whoever takes that job. If Lapid has any sense, he will stay away from this job. Bibi might decide to make him Foreign Minister, allowing Lapid’s much more charming visage to replace both last term’s technical Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who had to quit when he was indicted) and the de facto one, a combination of Ehud Barak and Netanyahu. The idea is to improve Israel’s face in the international arena and stem of the criticism Israel has been facing, especially from Europe. Long-term, parties like Lapid’s, which are essentially cults of personality, tend to have a short shelf life. And Lapid doesn’t have much of a political program, as he wisely stuck to very broad, general and populist statements in his campaign. But for now, Lapid holds the key to Bibi’s ability to form a coalition, although it is possible for Bibi to form a government without him. Lapid had been doing well in polls and well exceeded those projections, so as of today, he is in really good shape.
Naftali Bennett/HaBayit HaYehudi: Many polls projected Bennett with the number of seats that Lapid got, so some see the 11 seats HaBayit HaYehudi won as a disappointment. But the party had all of three seats in the previous Knesset, and Bennett has put the national religious camp, as a distinct unit in the Israeli polity, back on the map. Bennett can now choose between a secondary role in the government or leading the rightward tug on Israel from outside the government. That’s not a bad place for him to be, long term. Bibi rebuilt Likud from that position after it was devastated by Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima nearly a decade ago. Either way, Bennett remains able to build himself into the face of the Israeli right for years to come.
Meretz: The only Zionist party that could remotely be called truly left-wing doubled its presence in the Knesset, from three seats to six. That’s the most seats it has won since the 1999 election. It’s still not a very influential party, but Zehava Gal-On has it back on track as the voice of the Jewish left, which has been terribly muted in Israel. Building on this momentum is likely to be just as difficult for Gal-On as halting Meretz’s downward spiral was. But she’s the best leader they’ve had in a long time, maybe ever. She is articulating a strong left-wing point of view, instead of mealy-mouthed political mumbo-jumbo, and that is bringing back leftist voters.
Barack Obama: No one will ever know how much of an effect Obama’s words to Jeffrey Goldberg, published mere days before the election, might have had on Netanyahu’s losses in this election. But count me among those who think it mattered. Yes, this was Israel’s most domestically focused election ever. And it’s also true that few Likud-Beiteinu voters like Obama. But Israelis are not fools; they know Israel needs to improve its relationship with both the White House and European leaders. Unlike most Americans, Israelis across the political spectrum know that Bibi actively interfered with the US election and, what’s worse, did so by backing the wrong horse. That has since faded from Israeli headlines, and Goldberg’s article didn’t make big news in Israel. But it did make news, and many Israelis follow the global and US media on Israel very closely. In any case, a second-term Obama will now be dealing with a chastened Netanyahu. At the very least, this was a pleasant night for Obama, and it could help support and embolden Obama if he decides to take Bibi on again.
Opposition to an Iran attack: This was actually taking shape in the election campaign. Iran was not a prominent issue at all. Israel still wants the US to take care of Iran, but the opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike among the military and intelligence brass remains just as strong as ever. A move toward the political center and, more importantly, an election that reflects looking within the country rather than outside it when identifying Israel’s biggest challenges blunts even farther the threat of Israeli action, which means less pressure on the US to act militarily. With Iranian elections looming in a few months, and the accompanying end of the Ahmadinejad era, an attack has almost certainly been pushed back, quite possibly to the point where an agreement can be reached to entirely avert one. Netanyahu’s need to use glamorous government positions like the Defense Ministry to entice coalition partners likely means Ehud Barak’s minimal chances of staying in his present job have been reduced to zero. An attack on Iran is considerably less likely today than it was before.
The Palestinians: The occupation was, at best, a minor question in Israel’s 2013 election. There were many pro forma statements from Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch, HaTnuah’s Tzipi Livni and Lapid about supporting the two-state solution, usually with something like the Clinton Parameters outline or some such. But it was always an afterthought. Livni and Yachimovitch occasionally attacked Netanyahu for letting Israel’s global image suffer due to his intransigence on the Palestinian issue, while Lapid’s Yesh Atid platform had support for two states as its final plank. What seems to be looming is a Netanyahu who might moderate some of his public statements on the subject, but will head a government that will stick to the same policies of obstructionism that it has held to these past four years, but with a less confrontational tone when it comes to the US and Europe. That’s not a recipe for progress, but rather for maintaining the status quo while blunting the only pressure that could conceivably bring about change. If Naftali Bennett is in a prominent role in the government that might have some effect on the Palestinians (Interior Minister, perhaps) it just might mean that this new government is the same as the old one. In any case, Netanyahu remains in office, leading a party that is explicitly opposed to a two-state solution and has moved to the right. A coalition partner can push the weak-willed Bibi, but Lapid has shown little interest in this issue at all, and to the extent he has, he doesn’t sound much different from Netanyahu. Yachimovitch has stayed away from the entire Palestinian issue and Livni, who engaged it more than any other “centrist” candidate, had turned down a Palestinian offer that included most of East Jerusalem, full capitulation on the right of return and Israel keeping all three of the major settlement blocs. The Palestinians are, as usual, the biggest losers in this election, but that was always a sure thing from the very beginning.
Benjamin Netanyahu: The day Bibi announced that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party would run a joint ticket, I said it was a panicked move and a big mistake. I had no idea how big. The combined party has lost 11 seats. The merger was far from the only reason. Likud’s sharp tilt even further to the right, with the accompanying loss of some of its more pragmatic and well-known leaders like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, chased some of their voters to Lapid. Bennett’s rise allowed some national religious voters to feel they could credibly express that identity in their vote for the first time in years, and that certainly cost Likud Beiteinu. Lieberman’s indictment and the in-fighting within his party certainly didn’t help. Bibi also ran a terrible campaign, one where he almost ignored the budget crisis that prompted his move toward early elections in the first place. In fact, he dealt very little with substantive issues at all, trying to run on slogans and his experience. And the fact is, Israel is facing the same budget cuts it was before and Bibi now has a government that will not share his priorities about where the cuts should come. His obnoxious manner in international affairs will be harder for him to maintain with less of a mandate at home. Every part of this gambit came up snake eyes for Bibi who came into this being sure that no matter what, he would still have his job and today is only barely going to hold on to it. Netanyahu has confirmed his legacy as a weak-willed leader, a venal politician and a poor strategist.
Shelly Yachimovitch/Labor Party: Some will say that Labor was revitalized in this election. Surely Yachimovitch will spin it that way. But this was a big bust. Keep in mind, Kadima had essentially supplanted Labor’s role in Israeli politics. In 2009, Labor won 13 seats, but this was splintered when Barak formed his Atzmaut party, leaving Labor with only eight seats. So, Yachimovitch can claim she doubled Labor’s representation, but that’s nonsense. With Atzmaut disappearing and Kadima either missing the Knesset (which is still possible) or winning only two seats, there was a major opportunity for Labor to regain the center. They finished second, in large measure because Yachimovitch is not an inspiring leader. She has almost nothing to say about security and international issues, which matter to the centrist voters in general. On economic and social issues she has more appeal, but has not proven herself to be a strong leader who can build support for her ideas, nor as someone whose ideas on implementing a social-democratic program are particularly advanced. The election result reflects the lukewarm reaction Yachimovitch produces, as opposed to the charm that Lapid reflected, despite his not having much better ideas than Yachimovitch.
Yisrael Beitienu: Avigdor Lieberman maintained his reputation as a loudmouth by predicting that Likud-Beiteinu would win 40 or more seats in the election. Oops. Lieberman also lost his position as the voice of a “new right” to Naftali Bennett. Still dealing with criminal charges of corruption, Lieberman might yet get a prominent Ministry due to his position as the #2 on the Likud-Beiteinu list, but that is less of a sure thing than that position should imply. Lieberman still holds the Russian community, but his appeal beyond that is diminishing. Yisrael Beiteinu rose to prominence by appealing to the larger right wing. That is receding at a breakneck pace and it will be heading back to being an ethnic party. It won’t disappear, but its days of being the kingmaking party are over.
The Republican Party: Netanyahu’s major setback mirrors, in many ways, the losses the Republicans took in the US in November. Bibi’s party moved further right, and like the GOP, it went further right than mainstream voters wanted. Bibi ran his campaign in a similar way to Mitt Romney’s as well, and it had a similar feel: lots of style, little substance and less reason for those not already beholden to him to vote for him. But most importantly, the whole Netanyahu-neocon-GOP nexus has been rebuked in both countries. The Republicans tried to define themselves as the “pro-Israel” party, but both American Jews and Israelis made it clear that they don’t agree and don’t want to see the issue turned into partisan football. In some ways, that is unfortunate. It would be useful to get rid of the “bipartisan consensus” and have a real debate about the US’ special relationship with Israel. But the GOP attempt to own Israel through its close ally Netanyahu has, at this point, failed.