These were the most interesting-boring elections one could ever hope for. Boring – as the top job was secured early on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Fascinating – as the parties, unburdened of having to compete for the top job, were free to combat one another for votes. And, obviously, Israelis paid attention: an intensive, almost hysterical campaign to convince them to go to the polls – preceeded by recent declines in voting turnout and a growing worry that Israelis no longer care as much as they once did – clearly succeeded. Or maybe the hysteria was unnecessary to begin with; maybe the worry was unfounded. Israelis turned out in large numbers to vote in this election; we don’t know why, but we know that they did.
They sent Netanyahu a message, one that he must understand: We – the voters – know that you are the only possible PM for the time being. No other candidate of the needed stature was available for us. We are not sure if you’re really the best candidate to be found, but right now you are the only game in town. However the rules of the game need to be changed. Netanyahu can be Prime Minister, but he can’t be the PM of the right-religious coalition. He can’t be the PM of harsh rhetoric; he can’t be the PM of wild legislation; he can’t be the PM of Haredi power; he can’t be the PM based on a coalition of which he is the most leftist member.
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As this article is being written on election night, final results are not yet available. But even if the right-religious bloc can retain a majority large enough to form a coalition of 61, or 62, or even 63 mandates – even if Netanyahu can barely survive based on the traditional “base” of supporters – that isn’t the outcome he was hoping for. It isn’t a vote of affirmation. Netanyahu is lucky to have been the only PM-caliber candidate in the race, and he is lucky to have Yesh Atid – Yair Lapid’s party – as the big surprise of this election. Yesh Atid, unlike other parties on the center and the left, is a partner Netanyahu can live with.
It is a partner that is even comfortable for him. Netanyahu wanted a moderate coalition and now he has an excuse with which to convince his partners to his right that there really is no other choice. He can tell the leaders of Shas that a compromise on the Haredi draft is what the majority of voters forced upon him. He can tell Habait Hayehudi – the right-Zionist-religious party – that with all due respect to the settlements and to building in E1, the voters didn’t give him a mandate to rule from the right. So while the outcome of the elections is hardly an achievement for Netanyahu – it is hardly a compliment for the ruling coalition – the PM can make it work for him.
Most voters should consider this good news, because most voters want Israel to have a centrist policy. Centrist – not leftist. Those supporting the left voted for Meretz -- and to the left of Meretz. The left benefited in this cycle from Netanyahu’s inevitable projected victory. When there’s no one to challenge Netanyahu, left-wing voters are not left with the quandary of comprising for a Livni, or an Olmert, in the hope that Netanyahu can be toppled. They can vote their conscience – and they did. The growth of Meretz, a party with dedicated clean-handed and energetic parliamentarians, is good news. Don’t take it from me: Uri Ariel, the settler-supporting right-wing number-two of the Jewish Home Party offered gentlemanly congratulations to Meretz on election night when he was interviewed live on his party’s achievements.
Other voters who didn’t want Netanyahu to remain in office voted for the Labor Party, and for Shelly Yacimovitz. Supporters of Lapid – which appears to have gained close to 20 mandates (not final) – want Netanyahu, but a different version of him. A Haredi-less Netanyahu; a Settler-less Netanyahu.
So the Prime Minister has a choice: If he wants to regain his footing and stay in power -- and maybe convince more Israelis that he is the right man for the job and not just the no-alternative default man until someone better comes along – he’ll have to reconsider his “base.” This isn’t going to be easy for him – Netanyahu has relied on his current base for many years and was planning to hold it together for years to come. The result is that this current cycle may present Netanyahu with a short-term vs. long-term dilemma: If he holds onto his longtime base, he won’t quite be able to form a stable coalition in 2013. But if he dumps the base, he could pay a high price for it in 2014, 2015, 2016.
In the short term, coalition talks are going to be fascinating and tough. Netanyahu is going to pay a price, and his old partners are going to pay a price if they want to have a viable coalition. Some of them might decide to sit this one out – Shas is a candidate for such a possibility. And the new coalition will be made up of many, many fresh faces – possibly 50 new Knesset members.
This is a parliamentary tsunami -- and a headache for the managers of the coming coalition. It is a recipe for instability. It is a recipe for contention and rough relations. The 2013 coalition is going to be fun to watch and easy to dismantle. And it will not last as long as the more coherent – but unacceptable – outgoing coalition.