NB: This post was scribbled out by your humble writer at 3am on election night and relies on the early exit polls for seat numbers. I wanted to retain the raw reaction to unfolding events so the piece hasn’t been updated to reflect final seat tallies.
On election night 1977, as the votes poured in and it became clear that Menachem Begin’s Likud had brought to an end 29 years of left-wing government in Israel, the television anchor Haim Yavin proclaimed to his viewers “Gvirotai ve’rabotai – mahapach!” (Ladies and gentlemen – a revolution!)
Flashforward to election night 2013 and the Right and Left have drawn each other to a dead heat.
Ladies and gentlemen… a mess!
The biggest winner is Yair Lapid, a newcomer who leads the centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and until now was best known as the playboy TV presenter son of Tommy Lapid, a late, much missed giant of the secular centre, who chaired the liberal Shinui (Change) party. Most polls had slated Lapid fils for 11 or 12 seats. It looks like he’ll take 18 or 19, making him the de facto kingmaker of the next coalition. Lapid ran a fuzzy campaign, focussed on little other than including the Haredim in national service, and his views on security and economics will now come in for more scrutiny. What he is not, however, is a left-winger of the Meretz/Haaretz/Ben Gurion poli-sci department stripe. He is pro-peace but is no pushover, supporting a united Jerusalem and placing Israel’s security at the heart of any deal with the Palestinians. It’s inconceivable that he won’t be in the next government and this fresh, centrist voice could save the Israeli centre-left from the cul-de-sac of relativism and irrelevance into which it has retreated in recent years.
The biggest loser is Bibi. As things stand, he is going to remain Prime Minister but his Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc has shrunk from 42 seats to around 33. The right of his party is already blaming his alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home Israel) and his failure to articulate a more nationalist position. (The former, given Lieberman’s legal woes, is reasonable; the latter, divorced from the fundamental centrism of Israeli voters.) Netanyahu’s reduced status is largely his own doing, the result of a series of unforced tactical errors, including his borderline hysterical attacks on Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) leader Naftali Bennett and his failure to identify Yair Lapid as the biggest threat to his party. “Bibi speaks American” has always been the Prime Minister’s unique selling point and if his vaunted US-style political and strategic nous has failed him, he is no longer unassailable within his party. Netanyahu will probably face a leadership challenge before the end of the 19th Knesset and this time it could be someone more substantial than Moshe Feiglin.
Naftali Bennett, the California-born hi-tech mogul, has taken the tired old Mafdal, renamed Bayit Yehudi, and boosted its numbers and appeal to young voters. Far from the caricature of a right-wing fanatic, Bennett is a bright, passionate leader committed to Jewish education and Zionist values. If Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit Yehudi merged into a super-party, Bennett would be a prime candidate to lead it, though such a party would have to articulate a Zionism relevant to the young without alienating traditionalists.
Elsewhere, the ultra-Orthodox parties have held up their vote but Bibi could feasibly form a coalition without them. Frozen out, unable to buy votes with welfare subsidies and housing, Shas and UTJ would find themselves much weakened. This could be the start of something interesting in the relationship between the Haredi parties and the Israeli political system.
Shelly Yachimovich has taken the Labor Party from 8 seats to 15/16, an impressive feat for a party that looked near extinction in recent years and for a leader constantly under fire from the unreconstructed leftists in her ranks. Her campaign focused exclusively, almost obsessively, on socio-economic issues to the exclusion of security and the peace process. This was a canny calculation on her part; Labor had become tainted by the failures of Oslo and more so by its failure to recognise these failures. She has taken Labor back to its socialist roots — too far for economically centrist voters, hence Lapid’s success — but her gains, like Lapid’s, put paid to the counter-evidential superstition that a winning left must place peace with the Palestinians at the apex of its policy platform.
That is the other story of this election: The Left as represented by the op-ed pages of Haaretz is a minority of a minority of a minority now. The far-left Meretz is poised to take 6 seats and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua 7, an unlucky contingent of 13 MKs who have not absorbed the lessons of Oslo, the disengagement, and Palestinian diplomatic belligerence. Peace with the Palestinians is essential, to say nothing of a moral imperative, but the stale prescriptions of the land-for-no-peace crowd have been thoroughly discredited. Kadima, which won the 2009 elections with 28 seats, came to this realisation too late and now finds itself with 2 mandates. Shaul Mofaz is a good and brave man and the Knesset is better for having him in it. If Bibi is smart, he’ll try to lure Mofaz into Likud to act as a balance for MKs like Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon.
The Arab parties have done more or less as well as last time but their uniform anti-Zionism, and the dominance of extremist demagogues like Ahmed Tibi, Hanin Zoabi, and Jamal Zahalka, means that the presence of an Arab party in government continues to be unlikely. An Arab Zionist party, one that champions equality and human rights while identifying unequivocally as Israeli rather than Palestinian, is desperately needed.
The media, particularly international outlets, beclowned themselves with their dark intonations of a “lurch to the right” which never happened. This is a product of the caricature journalism that defines the coverage of Israel in the New York Times, Guardian, and BBC. Obsessing over fringe parties and figures might appeal to the anti-Israel prejudices of journalists and their readers but it gives a wildly skewed perspective on Israel and how its politics works.
A dead heat between the left and right-wing blocs highlights the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy. It also shows that the electoral system is fakakta. Israel is not Finland. It lives in a tough neighbourhood. It needs strong, democratic governments and that means decisive election results. Bigger parties and a higher threshold for entry to the Knesset would make Israel stronger and safer while still representing the spectrum of viewpoints in a diverse and disputatious country.
The 19th Knesset, and whatever government dominates it, is going to be interesting to say the least, and what it will mean for the moribund peace process and the booming economy remains to be seen. But there’s a sadness also tonight. The Palestinians, whose national elections have been suspended by Mahmoud Abbas since 2009, should be enjoying this coffee-driven, exit-poll-crunching, coalition-arithmetic-guestimating insomniac madness. They deserve a healthy democracy and a state in which to conduct it. They just have to choose it.