Israel’s unexpected election results

Aya Fasih reports on two discussions last week of the Israeli elections:

Israeli elections have always had wider implications for the Middle East.  But last week’s elections were fought mainly in terms of domestic issues.  The outcome was unexpected:  Prime Minister Netanyahu did less well than anticipated and the center did better than expected.

The Brookings Institution and George Washington University’s Elliot School held separate events on the outcome, their implications for Israeli politics and for relations with the United States.  The Brookings event focused on what the upcoming coalition might look like and what this will mean for future U.S.-Israeli relations.  The George Washington University event focused on the changes in Israeli society that brought about the election results.

The Brookings Event:

With Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow and Research Director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, as the moderator, the panel, comprised of Natan Sachs and Martin Indyk, focused on these questions:

  1.  What are the possible scenarios/coalitions that may arise from the election outcome?
  2.  What are the implications for U.S.-Israeli relations.?
  3.  Do the results disprove the widespread perception that Israel is moving to the right?

Natan Sachs, a Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of Brookings, noted the 19 seats that Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid—a new, centrist political party focusing on improving education, providing low-cost housing, and supporting small businesses—won.  The parties comprising the “center” of Israeli politics did much better than expected.  Lapid will be a necessary but not sufficient partner in the new governing coalition.

Two coalition scenarios are possible:

1) Likud-Yisrael Beytenu (Netanyahu and Liebermann’s parties, which ran candidates on the same party list), Yesh Atid, and the ultra-orthodox, or

2) Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, Yesh Atid, and the right-wing “The Jewish Home.”

The first option is reminiscent of 10 years ago in 2003, when a Likud Prime Minister (Sharon), a centrist party headed by Lapid’s father had 15 seats, and the modern-orthodox (presented today by Bennett’s Jewish Home) formed a coalition.  This formula can be stable provided the government focuses on domestic issues (the “civilian agenda”), where Bennett and Lapid can agree, and avoids contentious issues such as the peace process and settlements (the Palestinian issues).

Israeli voters are disinterested in the Palestinian issue, which has been quiescent.  Those parties that paid attention to it in the campaign lost out.   Only a major event like a Third Intifada or developments on the Iranian front will reverse this.  Israelis have lost hope for a satisfactory negotiated settlement.  Domestic issues, not the Palestinians, determined the result of elections.

Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, assistant to President Clinton, and founding director and Senior Fellow at Brooking’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, agreed with Sachs that any coalition must include elements other than Likud-Yisrael Beytenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid but thought it might be “more restricted.”  Indyk focused primarily on U.S.-Israeli relations.  Netanyahu has mishandled his relationship with the U.S.  The election results are good news for the American government, but “until Israel runs into a brick wall on the Palestinian issue…the Israeli government won’t take seriously the idea of an…American initiative.”  U.S. influence is waning, and President Obama seems to prefer it that way.

The Elliot School Event:

The Elliot School event, which gathered three Israeli political scientists and one sociologist, was focused on discussing the implications of the election results within Israel. The panelists tried to elucidate the changes and trends in Israeli society that brought about unexpected election results.

Ilan Peleg, Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College, doubts that there will be much change from the past.  Any new coalition government under Netanyahu’s premiership will be a status quo government. The center did well, but it faces difficulties:

  1.  the four centrist parties are unable to unite, leaving the impression that they are based on leaders rather than ideology,
  2. their message tends to be “uni-dimensional” and focused on single issues,
  3. their broader agendas are not clear.

Divisions on the right helped the center do better than anticipated, not the center’s own strength.

Yoram Peri, Chair of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, said that these elections were expected to reveal a shift in Israeli society to the right.  It did not happen.  Important changes occurred within the right, with Netanyahu weakened.  Young voters are disillusioned with the old faces and uninterested in the Palestinian issue, unless and until there is a Third Intifada.  For older Israelis, the Palestinian issue remains important.  The Arab Spring will make Netanyahu willing to compromise.

Gershon Shafir, Professor of Sociology at the University of California San Diego, also noted that the remarkable strengthening of the center in these elections is the result of the younger voters.  They have been suffering from economic problems and took to the streets of Tel Aviv two years ago.  They are particularly dissatisfied with the benefits the ultra-orthodox get—mainly exemption from military service.

Jonathan Rynhold, Visiting Professor of Israeli Studies at the George Washington University, said  it is not Israeli society that is moving to the right, but rather the Israeli elite. “Israel moved to the right security wise and not ideologically.” Rynhold said that the stagnation of the peace process is what allowed other issues, such as education and the cost of living, to rise as the main issues of this election.

All agreed that the success of the center in these elections cannot be entirely attributed to the strength of the center.  Peleg attributed the center’s success to the weakness of the right, Peri and Rynhold attributed it to a generation gap and the lack pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, while Shafir attributed it economic problems and animosity towards the ultra-orthodox.  All four stressed that the Palestinian issue should once again rise to the top of the agenda for the Israeli public and politicians, despite its absence from this election campaign.

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