PM’s faction slides, biggest party crashes, and yet Israel’s shift isn’t so vast

PM’s faction slides, biggest party crashes, and yet Israel’s shift isn’t so vast

New priorities, new faces, new parties, but no radical switch across the right-left spectrum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset at the opening of its winter session in October 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset at the opening of its winter session in October 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

JTA — From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to be a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of (maybe) two. The previous No. 3 party, Yisrael Beytenu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not all that much changed in the right-left split. The right wing appears to have lost a little ground. The center and left gained some adherents — especially the center, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid the day’s sensation — but it remains a minority with fewer than 50 seats; the balance goes to the Arab parties.

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues — not security — the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This is a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: about seven seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the Knesset occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid (son of the late politician Tommy Lapid).

Women: The new Knesset will see the number of women rise, with the biggest representation from Yesh Atid, eight of whose new representatives are women. At the time of writing, the Likud-Beytenu list has seven, Labor has four, and Jewish Home and Meretz each have three. Hatnua and Hadash each have one. Among the new women in the Knesset will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age three during Operation Moses.

The collapse of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima party leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction all the way down to the lowest number it could hold, two, in the 19th Knesset (again, at time of writing). The party was hurt by a variety of factors: The rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel — Yesh Atid proves that — but it is very nearly the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Beytenu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again (now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition-building), but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time around, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 12 seats, up from just three (as the NRP) in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift farther right on security issues.

And hello, Yair Lapid: Yesh Atid’s was the most spectacular success of these elections, rising from nowhere to become the Knesset’s second-largest party. Lapid marshalled a list with no previous Knesset members, making a virtue out of that lack of experience. His “victory” speech promised an effort to push for the broadest possible coalition. His platform, with its stress on universal conscription, may mean the ultra-Orthodox parties won’t sit easily alongside him in government. But Yesh Atid has the numbers, and thus the leverage, to play a key role in the coalition-building process that starts the moment the vote count is over.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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