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Analysis: The consequences of Israel’s vote

by Uriel Heilman, JTA

January 22, 2013 | 3:26 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Jan. 23. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Jan. 23. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

A few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not much: From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of zero. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 18 or 19 seats, according to exit polls.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much changed in the right-left split. The right wing appears to have lost a little ground -- from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 62 seats in the new one. The center and left gained some adherents, but remains a minority with fewer than 50 seats (the balance goes to the Arab parties).

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 17 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This is a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni's Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: 6 seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the Knesset occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid (also son of the late politician Tommy Lapid).

Women: The new Knesset will see the number of women rise, with the biggest representation from Yesh Atid, eight of whose new representatives are women. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, and Jewish Home and Meretz each have three. Hatnua and Hadash each have one. Among the new women in the Knesset will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima party leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction all the way down to zero: Kadima failed to win a single seat in the 19th Knesset. The party was doomed by a variety of factors: The rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it is the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again (now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building), but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time around, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 12 seats, up from just three (as the NRP) in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift farther right on security issues.

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