The Israeli Election: Some drama but little change


In the months leading up to the January 22 Israeli election, polls consistently predicted an easy win for the religious-right bloc under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The recent vote, however, generated a little drama with the unexpected rise of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, headed by television journalist Yair Lapid, and the decline of the parties on the right to only 60 seats in the new Knesset (the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – has 120 seats). Yesh Atid won 19 seats, coming second to Netanyahu’s list and ahead of Labor that won only 15 seats. In the new Knesset, centrist and leftist parties now hold 60 seats and are tied with the religious-right bloc. Netanyahu needs the support of at least 61 Members of Knesset in order to continue as Prime Minister and therefore must reach beyond his traditional allies on the right in forming a new coalition. So while the election results are in, the composition of Israel’s new government is still uncertain. In the coming weeks negotiations between Netanyahu and potential coalition partners will determine the shape of the new governing constellation.

There are a number of possible scenarios for a new government. The first, and most likely, is a centre-right coalition. Such a coalition will include the right, represented by Netanyahu’s party, Halikud Beitenu (with 31 Knesset seats), the religious-settler party Habayit Hayehudi (11 seats), the ultra-orthodox Shas (11) and Lapid’s centrist party (19). Since Lapid’s positions are mostly antagonistic to the ultra-orthodox religious agenda, a second scenario in which Shas is not a part of the new coalition is also possible. Both of these options are not likely to produce any significant change in Israel’s foreign policy. Lapid’s election campaign focused almost exclusively on domestic affairs, stressing the cost of living and the need for the integration of the ultra-orthodox religious population into the workforce and military service, from which it is generally exempt. Lapid expressed vague support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has avoided making any specific comments on the contours of such a solution or on the steps required to achieve it.

Lapid could have a moderating effect on Netanyahu’s government, which in the last few years has taken a hawkish, confrontational line with the Palestinians, the European Union and the Obama administration. His presence may tame the new government’s discourse on foreign policy but it will not lead to significant changes to the status-quo or to a renewed Israeli effort to reach a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Not surprisingly, rumours currently hint that Netanyahu considers offering Lapid the position of foreign minister in return for joining the government coalition. As foreign minister, Lapid will serve as Israel’s moderate face abroad. He will help to reduce international pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians without pushing for meaningful policy changes. Lapid, however, might request a different cabinet position that will allow him to concentrate on internal social and economic issues which are of most concern to his constituency.

A less likely coalition that could emerge out of the current negotiations would be a centrist unity government with Netanyahu, Lapid, Labor and two other smaller center parties – Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and Kadima. Such a coalition would leave out the settlers, the ultra-orthodox and the parties on the left and will generally be a status-quo government. Though it will have a strong majority in the Knesset that will allow it to make positive advances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu’s Halikud Beitenu party is currently dominated by ultra-right members who will oppose any move on this front. A centrist coalition will therefore be similar to the center-right coalition described above. Its only distinguishing feature would be its greater ability to work on internal reforms such as addressing the relation between religion and state in Israel and the economic concerns that were at the heart of the enormous 2011 social protest movement in Israel (and to which Lapid largely owes his electoral success).

Finally, a technically possible but practically impossible center-left coalition would include Lapid, the centrist parties Hatnua and Kadima, Labor, parties to the left of Labor and the Israeli-Arab parties. This coalition could unseat Netanyahu and create a real shift in the direction of Israel’s foreign and domestic policy. However, such a government would face a fierce opposition in the Knesset that could block any initiative. It will also be weakened by its reliance on the ultra-orthodox Shas and on the Arab parties. Many in Israel do not consider the latter legitimate coalition partners and reliance on them could therefore further undermine the legitimacy of attempted policy initiatives. Lapid, whose electoral success made him the king-maker in the post-election scramble for coalition construction, stated on January 23 that he will not join a coalition with the Arab parties. Without Lapid a centre-left coalition is not viable.

This latest Israeli election reflects a trend of shifting concerns inward, toward internal social and economic issues and away from foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even with Netanyahu’s earlier efforts to place Iran at the heart of the public debate, and even with a recent war in Gaza that brought rocket fire to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, a large proportion of Israeli voters seemed more interested in the cost of living and the distribution of duties and benefits between the different sectors of Israeli society. This sentiment found its expression in the 2011 social protest movement that was directed against Netanyahu’s economic policies. Ironically, Lapid, who is poised to be Netanyahu’s partner in any new government, was the biggest winner of that protest movement. Although Labor included some of the leaders of the movement on its party list, it was unable to draw in the large number of Israeli protestors who demanded “new” politics. These voted for Lapid, a newcomer with no experience in politics, who promised to bring new faces, a new style and a new, domestically-focused, agenda to Israeli politics.

Netanyahu, recently crowned “King Bibi” by Time Magazine, suffered a mild blow in the election, losing votes to the religious-settler party Habayt Hayehudi under the energetic leadership of Naftali Bennet and to Lapid’s centre party. However, it is likely that Netanyahu will be Israel’s Prime Minister for the coming four years and would continue to entrench a status-quo of no progress on the peace front. A partnership with Lapid might entail milder rhetoric coming out of the new government but this will probably serve to reduce international pressure on Israel and would in fact strengthen Netanyahu’s peace rejectionist stance.

On the Palestinian side, the Israeli election results with Netanyahu remaining as Prime Minister will further undermine the power of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is already lagging behind Hamas in the recent opinion polls. A weak Abbas, or a Hamas government, elected if the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas progress on their reconciliation efforts and agree on new election, will be another obstacle for the renewal of the peace process. In addition, the Obama administration does not, at the moment, prioritize a push toward Israeli-Palestinian negotiation – a wise decision given the current makeup of Israeli and Palestinian politics. Under these conditions, the next four years will look a lot like the past four years. The latest election gave rise to some political drama that will continue to unfold in the coming weeks, but will bring little policy change in the long run.

Dr Lihi Ben Shitrit has Phd in Political Science with special focus on the Middle East and teaches at DePaul University