Analysis10 quickfire pointers

Israel’s elections: What just happened?

Israel voted for change, and moved a little from right to center; Lapid is the big success but Netanyahu is still a winner, albeit battered and constrained

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Happy chaos: Supporters of the Jewish Home party respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel Aviv on January 22, 2013 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)
Happy chaos: Supporters of the Jewish Home party respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel Aviv on January 22, 2013 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

Trust the Israeli electorate to produce a surprising and acutely complicated electoral result, at the end of an exemplary, empowering exercise in democracy. Here are some quickfire pointers through the initial post-vote fog.

1. Israel did not move to the right

Remarkably, given the regional instability and consequent Israeli wariness, the right-wing bloc took a bit of a pasting. It’s a more hawkish right-wing bloc, but it’s a smaller one, somewhat less able to get its own way. Instead, Israel moved a little to the center, as exemplified by the remarkable debut of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. What does this mean for the big regional issues, and especially for interaction with the Palestinians? Well, that depends on the nature of the coalition. And for that, we may have to wait a while.

2. Netanyahu is battered but he’s still a winner… almost certainly, with some serious caveats

You go into national politics because you want to lead your nation. And once you’ve made it to prime minister, you go into your next elections in order to remain prime minister. That’s what Netanyahu has apparently managed, unless the soldiers’ votes and other final adjustments in the next couple of days improbably change the delicate Knesset arithmetic to his detriment. This despite Netanyahu not being particularly popular and being a very well-known quantity in an election where many voters plainly favored the fresh, inexperienced and unsullied candidates. Tuesday’s was a vote for change. Dozens upon dozens of sitting Knesset members were swept aside. But Netanyahu rolled with the wave, and here he is again.

3. But his Likud party is a big loser

The Likud held 27 seats in the last Knesset. Now it will have only 20 — out of the 31-strong incoming Likud-Beytenu faction. Brace for lots of bitterness in the Likud. Lots of recriminations. The partnership with Avigdor Liberman meant that Netanyahu heads the biggest faction, so that’s hunky dory for him. But Likud lost right-wing votes to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beytenu lost Russian votes to Yesh Atid. Many of the prime minister’s party colleagues are feeling rather less celebratory than he is today.

4. Yair Lapid is a resounding success

At its height, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid’s secular Shinui party managed 15 Knesset seats. In his first foray into politics, son Yair has outstripped that achievement, with a gentler, more gracious approach. He’s the power broker now. Netanyahu can barely cobble together a coalition without him, and doesn’t want to. But voters took a gamble on Lapid, and he could turn out to be a disaster. We’ll see how effectively he can stand up for his principles, notably his insistence on achieving universal conscription, and how well he can maneuver among the experienced political sharks. So far, Lapid has charted an impeccable course, showing real nous, notably by dodging a formal alliance with Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua before the elections. A partnership with either or both of those parties could only have cost him votes. It’s hard to imagine that many Israelis who think of themselves as coming from the center or center-right of the spectrum would have backed a Yesh Atid that was allied with center-left and left-wing parties, but many such voters clearly did opt for his independent party. His repeated declarations that he was not hostile to ultra-Orthodox Jews, however much derided by commentators and doubted by the ultra-Orthodox themselves, may well have boosted him too — and underline the difference between his approach and that of his overtly feistier father. He also wisely steered well away from his Machiavellian family friend Ehud Olmert.

5. Yesh Atid shows there may actually be an Israeli political center

Lapid’s party has taken 19 seats from all over the spectrum, with a canny mix of candidates and an inclusive approach that evidently resonated with much of the electorate. It’s easy to be cynical about centrist parties — they’re flashes in the pan, pundits often say with good reason, looking at their track record of rapid combustion. But unlike Shinui or Yitzhak Mordechai’s Center Party, Yesh Atid is not a collection of political opportunists in search of a new home, but a group of fresh, diverse talents, with plenty of experience in the real world, who are now turning their attention to politics. Their lack of parliamentary expertise plainly didn’t matter to their voters; if anything, it was an advantage. Look how badly the experienced and egotistical Livni performed, with her assembly of too-familiar faces.

6. Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich has strictly limited appeal

The “revitalized” Labor party under social justice champion Shelly Yachimovich fared only two seats better than the tired old Labor Party under security expert Ehud Barak four years ago. Many Israelis care a great deal about economic and social inequalities, but they wanted a party inside the coalition to champion them, and she had ruled out a partnership with Netanyahu. Other potential Labor voters felt the lack of compelling policies from Yachimovich on peace and security. The hard-core peaceniks went to Meretz; Lapid, with ex-Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri at his side, may well have attracted many of the Yitzhak Rabin-style Labor hawks. Livni took some Labor votes too. Yachimovich is vowing to lead a “fighting” opposition; she first has a fight on her hands to retain the party leadership. Nobody saw her as a credible prime ministerial alternative to Netanyahu. That’s a dismal truth for the long-time party of government.

7. Naftali Bennett can fly higher

So elevated were the expectations in the Jewish Home that a final result of 11 (or maybe 12) seats is seen by some in the party as a disappointment. It’s anything but. In barely two months, Bennett lifted a party that won just three seats in 2009 and — by force of will and personality, and by dint of his mixture of experience in the army’s most elite commando unit, at Netanyahu’s side in the prime minister’s office, in business and in running the settlers’ council — quadrupled its Knesset strength. Voters seeking change were torn between Bennett and Lapid. Young voters were torn between Bennett and Lapid. Even many secular, not particularly right-wing voters were torn between Bennett and Lapid. Bennett remains a man with a mission — to infuse his stream of Orthodox Judaism into secular Zionism. He isn’t done yet.

8. Israel’s Arabs do themselves a disservice

While we wait to see whether the three Arab parties wind up with 11 or 12 seats between them, the fact remains that the Arab community punches below its weight because of its relatively low election turnout. If Israel’s Arabs came to the polls in greater numbers, they’d get more representatives into the Knesset, and they’d be able to advocate for their own interests as effectively as the ultra-Orthodox community has done over the decades. Even the Arab League internalized the simple virtues of Israel’s vibrant democracy this time and urged Arab Israelis to turn out and vote. To little effect.

9. The right-wing/Orthodox camp threw away several crucial seats

The biggest party to fall below the 2% Knesset threshold was the far-right Otzma Leyisrael. The second biggest was maverick ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem. There was lots of talk before polling day about the costly disunity on the center-left. It seems that the costlier disunity was in the right-wing/Orthodox bloc. The three or four more seats that might have been won had these splinter groups attached themselves to larger parties could have done wonders for Netanyahu’s coalition-building options.

10. We remain a very divided nation

The weeks of intense coalition-building negotiations we likely now face might be seen as reflecting an unwieldy electoral system that is again putting a dozen parties into a 120-seat parliament. But ours, in turn, is an unwieldy, sectoral public, with its mix of Jews, Arabs, radical righties, radical lefties, the ultra-Orthodox, the fiercely secular and all manner of folk in between and far beyond. If Netanyahu is indeed the (battered) winner of the tortuous election process, his next task is still more arduous — putting together and maintaining a government that can represent the domestic interests of a wide proportion of our divided electorate and steer Israel effectively through the complexities of an unpredictable, threatening region. Within hours of the polling booths closing, both he and Lapid were articulating a desire for a wide government. Lapid specified that it be a grouping of “moderate” parties. Now we wait to see what he meant by that vision, and whether he and the prime minister, spurred by a fascinating election outcome, can find the common ground to implement it.

Most Popular
read more: