Watching from abroad, especially from countries with no tradition of coalition government (you lucky, lucky people), these Israeli elections must look pretty dull.
Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday and the new prime minister is going to be the same as the old prime minister. Thank you, and good night.
In fact, the few weeks of the campaign have highlighted fascinating trends in Israeli sentiment and affiliation, including the public’s apparent readiness to vote for fresh, unfamiliar faces, with no dependable track record. More notably, lots of Israelis — especially young Israelis — are evidently ready to vote for fresh, unfamiliar faces with very specific policies which, if implemented, would fundamentally change Israel.
All the signs remain that Benjamin Netanyahu will be prime minister on Wednesday morning, poised to cobble together a new governing coalition. But the momentum is emphatically not with his Likud-Beytenu list. Were elections still a few weeks away, there’s no telling how much more support would have ebbed away. Poll after poll has shown that Israelis really see no alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister, but the vote on Tuesday seems set to underline that they’re not particularly happy about that.
“There’s no enthusiasm,” Yossi Ben-Zimra, a Likud party member sitting on the sidelines of a poorly attended Netanyahu rally in Rishon Lezion, told a Channel 2 interviewer for a report shown on Friday night. “People are telling me they can’t be bothered to vote. They speak of lots of promises that were made but not fulfilled. It’s bad economically… People are worried about getting food for their children’s school lunches.” So why are you supporting Netanyahu, the interviewer asks Ben-Zimra. “What can I do?” he responds wearily. “Is there anyone better?”
The cameras moved on from Ben-Zimra to the bustle of Netanyahu’s arrival at the hall, and thence to his speech, in which he confidently assured his Rishon audience that Likud-Beytenu is back on the rise, its numbers recovering. But as the prime minister spoke, the “unthinkable” was occurring, the reporter told us, and the footage appeared to confirm: In drips and drabs, people were leaving, walking out in mid-address on a prime minister who brings Congress to its feet.
The Likud held a not terribly impressive 27 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu held 15. But far from raising their joint total beyond 42 in these elections, the polls show the two parties, running together as Likud-Beytenu, can expect no more than 34-38 seats. The Netanyahu-Liberman alliance seems to have alienated many of the Likud’s traditional and Orthodox voters, who are switching in droves to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. And pro-settlement voters are switching to Bennett too, concerned that Netanyahu is not reliably committed to expanding settlements — which is somewhat ironic, given President Barack Obama’s reported assessment that Netanyahu’s insistent settlement-building plans will come to spell an existential threat to Israel.
In these final weeks of the campaign, while Netanyahu limps toward the finish line, the momentum is emphatically with Jewish Home — boosted, not harmed, by Bennett’s assessment that an IDF order to dismantle settlements is fundamentally illegal; and undeterred by US-born Jewish Home prospective MK Jeremy Gimpel’s documented relish for the theoretical prospect of a new Jewish temple replacing a “blown up” Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount.
And along with the unproven right-wing party leader Bennett — whose party is said to be so popular among young Israelis that he’d be a prime ministerial contender if the vote were limited to those under 35 — the momentum is with the unproven centrist party leader Yair Lapid. Both men project a certain likability, both are articulate and quick thinkers, both are running slick campaigns with a heavy social media presence. Both have the supreme advantage of carrying no Knesset baggage. And thus both are proving popular among voters for whom greater familiarity might, in time, come to breed contempt.
Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, by way of contrast, is weighed down by years of Knesset baggage. She touts her experience and assails Bennett as an extremist neophyte. But her political career seems to be counting against her. Her shifts from Likud to Kadima to Hatnua. Her failure first to defeat Netanyahu, and then to build a coalition with him, four years ago. Her resignation from the Knesset after she lost the Kadima leadership to Shaul Mofaz last year. A woman of rare integrity she may be — a leader who, remarkably, chose not to become prime minister because she wouldn’t cut a costly deal with the political extortionists of Shas — but that quality is plainly insufficiently compelling for many Israelis.
Strikingly, it is Livni alone who has placed heavy stress in this race on the perceived imperative for an attempt to make progress with the Palestinians — writing passionately in an op-ed for The Times of Israel on Sunday that she’s fighting for “a sane peace” and seeking to reverse a situation in which, under Netanyahu’s wrong-headed leadership, “the government negotiates with terrorists” — Hamas, to achieve a ceasefire after Operation Pillar of Defense — “yet freezes talks with those who work to prevent terrorist attacks on us” — Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
Yet it’s all to little or no avail, if the polls are accurate. Netanyahu vows he won’t dismantle settlements in the coming four years. Bennett dismisses the notion of Palestinian statehood, and wants to annex most of the West Bank. Lapid offers merely a bland commitment to a Jewish and democratic Israel. The Labor Party largely abandons the issue altogether. And still Livni gains no traction. Her campaign ads proclaim that she has “returned” to give us all new hope. But the voters aren’t buying, perhaps because her “return” to save us sounds so condescending, and perhaps because 40% of Israelis doubt she’ll hang around this time either if things don’t pan out her way.
In the decline of Netanyahu’s Likud, in the relative indifference to Livni, in the expected Tuesday turnout of sixty-something percent — compared to over 80% in Israel’s early years — lies the evidence of Israelis’ disillusionment with the political establishment. The rise of Bennett and Lapid illustrates a thirst for something fresh and untried, for a cause to believe in.
But while Lapid is an appealing candidate, a disarming mix of casual charm and a demonstrable work ethic — he’s been campaigning relentlessly nationwide month after month after month — he stands largely for reallocating national financial resources to benefit the middle classes, for ensuring that ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis perform national service, for lean and responsible government, as he tells Times of Israel readers in a new op-ed. Laudable causes they may be, but they do not sculpt Israel’s ideological and physical contours.
Bennett, by contrast, comes with a firm ideology — a desire to reshape Israel practically and religiously, to expand its borders, to deepen its Orthodox fealty. He heads a motivated camp of energized nationalists, believers, the new pioneers. Nobody’s walking out of his campaign rallies.
So yes, boringly, Israel on Tuesday will vote in such a way as to leave Netanyahu best placed to head its next government. On the surface, nothing much may have changed. Don’t be fooled. Look a little deeper.