Before the Elections: the False Winds of Change
As the various runner ups for the Israel elections raced to the top, the spirit of the people of Israel seemed to be one determined on change. And yet, despite the optimist nature of this widespread claim, it should have been clear that change was not on the foreseeable horizon. Even before the polls, a quick look at the alternatives to Netanyahu in the right and the possible success of Herzog in the left, would have left us in no doubt.
In the center-right wing, the only possible alternatives to “Bibi” Netanyahu featured Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and perhaps Jewish Home. While the final polls showed these parties clearly bled dry by Netanyahu’s campaign, it should first be noted that, in the off chance of their success, the government coalition would still feature these very same parties, as they did in the last government with the exception of the relatively new Kulanu. Much more relevantly, their various programs do not differ substantially from each other, save a certain variety in the priority given to the real estate crisis. With the exception of Netanyahu, none of these even touched some of the more concrete problems Israel faces today, such as the Palestinian conflict or its internal ethnic tensions, or the fact that a third of its population is deprived of basic civil rights, including the right to vote.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have an Israeli left-wing which seems to freshen the political environment, while even having some overlaps with the right wing, such as Kulanu’s high priority regarding the real estate crisis. However talking the talk is not walking the walk.
Herzog’s Zionist Union, while a definite novelty in a predominantly conservative nation, would have lacked the necessary means to enforce its program. Let’s reverse the roles of the actual results, and pretend for a moment that Zionist Union (with Herzog) won 30 seats and Likud (with Netanyahu) 24, the opposite of what indeed happened. In the best possible, though unlikely, scenario of Herzog indeed managing to unite the entire Israeli left with Arab List (14 seats), and Meretz (4 seats), that still would have left him 13 seats shy of a working government coalition, which requires 61 seats…and we’re looking at the best possible scenario.
The Campaigns: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly
In a twist, Isaac Herzog took inspiration for his campaign from American politics, and revamps the famous question asked by Ronald Reagan when he ran for the White House: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” His campaign ad went on to interview some bystanders in the streets of the Tel Aviv, asking to list some of the positive results obtained by the 6 year term of “Bibi” Netanyahu as Prime Minister; the answers are prolonged silences and “uhms”, with a plethora of head scratching and pupils screwed tight in concentration.
Though certainly effective in highlighting the perceived lack of effectiveness of Netanyahu’s leadership, three crucial obstacles determined Herzog’s downfall. First and foremost, the Isreali electoral, institutional and political setting is very unlike that of, for example, the US; thus, weakening one candidate does not automatically strengthen the other, and the repercussions are much more complex and seldom straightforward. Secondly, while the Zionist Union certainly proved more than capable of using various types of media to bring new arguments to the table and involve the electorate, its lead figure, Isaac Herzog, lacks the necessary charisma and strength of character to fully convince what is, after all, a rather conservative elective body. Thirdly, while the mantra “anyone but Netanyahu” had been, erroneously it seems, tagged as the trademark of these elections, two main problems arise: on the one hand, the right lacked a competitor up to the challenge of taking over Netanyahu’s incisive character and legacy, while on the other, the majority of Israel, in a Middle East dominated by instability and conflicts, preferred a right wing leader with a strong rule.
While admittedly Netanyahu’s defeat would hardly have proven revolutionary, what with either a right wing dominance leading to a relatively similar program or a de facto impossibility to create a working coalition for the left, Netanyahu’s closing remarks in his campaign hardly bode well. Twice in the final days of the campaign he clearly stated that he would not, as long as he stayed in power, allow the birth and recognition of a Palestinian state. Well, so much for conflict resolution. Additionally, on voting day, he published a Facebook video warning that the “government is in danger [because] Arab voters are coming in droves to the poll”. Other than a heavy handed racially motivated discrimination of a large portion of his very own citizens, for which he had to apologize on Monday the 23rd, it is not a good omen when a Prime Minister, regardless of what country, is worried because his citizens are voting. Where I am from, we usually worry if they are not.
The Arab List Rises
Regardless, the situation cannot be defined exactly peachy. Likud itself does not have the numbers to create a fully stable and operational government, and must strike a deal with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu if it wishes to stay in the safezone. The only question remains, what does Kahlon demand in return, and will Netanyahu be willing and able to meet these requirements? In this setting, President Rivlin has announced his will to put pressure on the resulting government to launch an initiative aimed at reforming the electoral system, in order to avoid, in his words, “turning into Italy”.
On a canvas that seems unable to promise a shred of peace neither within nor outside Israeli borders, there still are hopeful details moving in the background. The United Arab List, a secondary collection of parties representing the Palestinian and Arabic minorities of the country, has pulled off an astounding 14 seats, making it the third largest gatherer of consensus, compared to the only 11 conquered by Yesh Atid, or the 8 seats of the historic Jewish Home. More surprisingly, compared to the 19th Knesset elections of 2013 (where it only gained 4) the Arab List has more than tripled its share of political power, despite the presence of a very strong left wing competitor, Herzog’s party, arguably contending for some share of similar electorates. At this point, the List finds itself in an excellent position to head the opposition in the coming years. At the very least, it represents a portion of a nation which has chosen to say enough to occupation and violence, by seeking and managing to be an active part of local politics.
At the end of the day, the signs are surely ominous.
There is some definitely new political impulse coming from the left, but the fact that Netanyahu ran and won with a campaign specifically based on the rejection of a Palestinian state, not to mention racial undertones, has symbolic value.
It means that he, and thus his program, can boast the support of the majority of Israelis, and the absolute majority of the Jewish population. For years, the international community has repeated that, for Israel to be a true democracy, it must first close its historical chapter of occupation. Here, on this side of the world, we can only hope. But this election shows that, for the time being, for better or worse, Israelis have made their choice.