January 23, 2013
Israel is a moderate country: 20 short notes on the election
First things first: late on election night I wrote a long article for the print edition. The headline is: Voters to Netanyahu: Get new friends. Since I don’t want to repeat myself, I’m going to send you there for the overall picture:
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.
Read it in full right here and see my corrections and additions to it bellow.
First correction: when I wrote the print story, we were still under the impression that voting percentage was especially high this time. But it wasn’t. The wonderful weather apparently sent many Israelis to the polls to vote early during the day, before they used their day off for other things. So there was a lot of early voting, from which we concluded that the final tally is going to be high. Eventually, it was barely higher than the voting percentage four years ago. You can see a graph with voting percentages in recent election rounds in my open post from yesterday.
Second correction – the numbers. Exit polls were pretty accurate but not totally accurate, and the count is not over yet (the votes of soldiers and prisoners and some other groups were not yet counted). So after 99% percent of the count one has to take yet another look at the results:
I believe we may be justified in discerning five of them now, rather than just two. The right – Likud and Habait Hayehudi; the religious – Shas and Yahadut Hatora; the center – Lapid, Livni, Mofaz (Kadima); the left – Labor and Meretz; and the so-called Arab parties (which are in some cases more 'Jewish and Arab' than simply Arab).
Why five? Because five blocs paint a clearer and more accurate picture of the way things are headed: the right, the religious and the center are potential Netanyahu coalition partners, the left and the Arab parties not as much (even though both Netanyahu and Lapid still entertain some hope regarding Labor).
At this point in time the two traditional blocs- right-religious and center-left- mean little. The center – or parts of it - is likely to join Netanyahu. The left isn’t likely to do that. But it gives one a sense of the number of voters rejecting the old Netanyahu coalition – voters that might be willing to tolerate the Prime Minister for four more years, if his coalition changes (and remember, this isn’t final, one mandate or two can still change).
Now you can go back to my post from last night and play the coalition building game with the four options I presented. The Minimum coalition, the Maximum coalition, the Left-leaning coalition and the Plus Haredi coalition. Most likely, the real coalition will be some kind of mix between two options, or maybe even three.
Not 50, as I said last night, but rather 52 new members are likely to serve in the next Knesset – 52 out of 120. Almost half of the Knesset will have to go through on-the-job-training while the more experienced managers of the coalition will be running circles around them.
Winners and losers. The list is long (I don’t agree with everything Ben Birnbaum of TNR writes, but his summary is quite good).
Netanyahu: Not a winner, but the next Prime Minister. So the outcome is murky. He did not increase his number of mandates by merging two parties, but thinking this was his main goal would be a mistake. The electoral outcome is hardly an achievement for him, but the important goal – remaining the PM– was met. Bottom line: mixed.
Lapid and Yesh Atid: More mandates, a lot of power.
Meretz: More mandates and still no power – one wonders if they even want any power.
Bennet and Habait Hayehudi: While they can still definitely expect to have a major stake in the next coalition, they were hoping for more mandates. Bennet peaked a little too soon and did not eventually get as many votes as the polls predicted (even though the hype did get him that nice profile piece in the New Yorker).
Yahadut Hatorah: We know that demography plays well for the Haredi parties, and finally, we see it in numbers. That being said, while YH will have more seats in the next Knesset, it will have much less political clout. The needed revision in the relations between the state and the Haredim is the most important common denominator between the members of the next coalition, and the ultra-Orthodox are going to face a tough choice: compromise or fight. This is a fight that they can’t win forever.
Shas: Aryeh Deri didn’t make them stronger, and their bargaining power is not nearly what it used to be. But they were ready for a defeat, and with eleven mandates the party is still alive and kicking.
Livni: she isn’t going to be PM. She isn’t going to play a major role in the coalition. With a small number of mandates, and a party that is hardly united behind her, Livni’s political future is not clear.
Yachimovitch and Labor: the Labor party's main disappointment is the fact that it was surpassed by Lapid and ended up quite weak. But the failure will be Yachimovitch’s. She was the one setting the agenda and the tone, she was the face of the new Labor – and she didn’t quite deliver the goods. I will not be surprised if by the next election the Labor Party is going to have a new leader – Gabi Ashkenazi comes to mind as a potential savior.
Israelis by and large rejected radicalism and voted for moderation. Economically, they opted for Lapid, not for the much more combative (at times socialist) message of Yachimovitch. On the peace front, the hard right disappeared. The right became stronger but not as strong as it was hoping to be, and one must remember that it got stronger by putting on a more moderate appearance. Both Bennett and Lapid understand that moderation is what the voters want.
The question is: Did Netanyahu get the message? Does he understand that taming Likud radicals is a mission he must attend to, or else… The days of the Elkin-Danon-Levin coalition of anti-supreme court, anti-press, anti-left harsh rhetoric are over, or else… the days of a Foreign Minister that is in the business of burning bridges rather than building them are over, or else…
Note this: I don’t think that the policies are going to change much. But the tone has to change – the music has to change.
Lapid needs to have one achievement which he'll be able to present the voters next time around. If he doesn’t deliver any goods, his success will be short lived – centrist voters are short tempered and will be looking for someone new unless they are truly convinced that Lapid is worthy of such a high number of mandates – Livni is the proof.
The most realistic goal for him to insist on will be the Haredi issue. It is visible, highly troubling to a majority of Israelis and ripe for action. All other goals are much more vague (improving education) or hopeless (peace).
You have to see this:
Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv, the five top parties for which the people of these two cities voted:
These are not two different cities, these are two different universes.
The items I hate the most are the “what does it mean for the peace process?” bunch. You’ll see a lot of those in the coming days and weeks. That’s because 'the world' finds it hard to understand that Israel is about much more than the peace process and the “conflict”. The truth is that the elections were not about the peace process, in which Israelis by and large don’t truly believe at the moment. The new coalition is going to be less contrarian on the Palestinian front, but it is still going to have a lot of settlers taking care of their own, and a lot of right wingers making sure that no concessions are made. The moderates joining the coalition would have to make a choice: they can have impact on the Haredi issue- the one major area on which they and the settlers agree- or they can pick a fight over the settlements. If they choose the latter the coalition is going to crumble fast.
For Netanyahu – as I explained in my print edition piece – it might be convenient to be forced by the moderates to, well, moderate his party and his coalition. He’ll have to make sure not to lose his party in the process. So – Moshe Yaalon’s chances of becoming the next Defense Minister are higher today than they were two days ago. He is clearly expecting it, and is going to firmly resist any attempt to take the job away from him. And while Netanyahu isn’t enthusiastic about giving Yaalon the exposure and the stature intrinsic to this important position, I’m not sure he will have much choice.
What I say above is also a reason not to take too seriously the “weakened Netanyahu” line of argument. Yes, the voters put him on probation but it might not be bad for him. He is weaker if one thinks about the general voting population, but has a stronger case when it comes to making members of his party comply with his policies rather than make mischief. A lot depends on the willingness of Likud Huns to behave themselves and enable a new coalition that is not exactly what they were dreaming about, but is much better for them than the alternative.
Check out this video chat from last night in which I talk with Rob Eshman from my house in Tel Aviv about the outcome of the elections. There is some mumbling involved – the hour was very late – and I don’t quite look at the camera. Nevertheless, Rob had some good questions, and I did my best to answer them...