Open Zion

01.23.13

What Israel’s Election Outcome Means—And Doesn’t Mean

The ballots have been cast and counted and the Israeli election is now over. Post-election reporting and analysis have been rife with speculation and misinformation. Here is what the outcome of this election actually means and doesn’t mean:

It does not mean Israeli voters have rebuked Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians. Many have characterized this outcome as a setback for Netanyahu. In a sense they are right in that his party has fewer seats, but his policies toward Palestinians and Palestinian territory remain largely unchallenged. It is important to keep in mind that the new star of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid, whose party garnered about 19 seats to become the second largest party, did not run on a platform that distanced him from Netanyahu’s policies on Palestinians. Rather, his campaign was focused primarily on two issues: redistribution of social responsibility—particularly as it relates to exemptions for religious communities—and redistribution of wealth through programs for middle-class Israelis. It was a platform that largely resonated with the significant outpouring of protestors in 2011 demanding economic reforms. Of course, those protests were far more about the price of cottage cheese than anything relating to Palestinians, the occupation or colonization. Likewise, the rise of Lapid just reinforces the reality that popular mobilization in Israel in opposition to Netanyahu is only coalescing around economic issues and not in opposition to his policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Lapid and Netanyahu know that Yesh Atid’s mandate isn’t one of peace, and thus, while Lapid’s seats offer him some leverage in coalition negotiations, it won’t be in areas that ultimately matter for peacemaking.

It does not mean there is a half-half split between Right and Left. This is perhaps the most common misconception I’ve seen in post-election commentary and analysis. There are some who lament the rightward trend in Israeli politics who would like to see things this way; the reality is it just isn’t the case. Americans, familiar with what a former professor of mine used to refer to as our “system of donkeys and elephants,” are particularly susceptible to this misconception. Israeli politics, however, involves far more actors, cleavages and ethno-religious interests. Anyone using the right-left spectrum should be able to define what this spectrum is. Few actually do.

The half-half divide is more appropriately described as a split between Netanyahu’s natural allies and his political opposition. This should not be conflated with an ideological divide or even a policy divide, particularly as it relates to the occupation. Further, the “left” bloc that some have referred to includes non-Zionist Arab parties, which picked up about 9-12 seats. These parties have never, in the history of the Israeli political system, been included in a governing coalition. While their presence places some limits on the largest party’s (in this case Netanyahu’s) ability to shape a coalition, including them in an ideological voting bloc with Zionist parties displays a fundamental misunderstanding of their politics and their place in a hostile Zionist political system. Just like in 2009, when Netanyahu’s was the second largest party, it is still he and only he who is in a realistic position to cobble together a coalition. Yes, the coalition that emerges will either be slightly different from the last due to the inclusion of Lapid, or less stable due to the loss of seats, but it will nonetheless have Netanyahu at its center of power and his control of policy toward Palestinians will remain largely unchecked.

It does not mean the prospects for a renewed diplomatic process increase. The diplomatic process, albeit fruitless when in motion, was at a complete halt in recent years. Many believed that certain variables needed to be defined before the parties would set their diplomatic strategies and these included the outcomes of the American and Israeli elections. Well, now we know the outcomes. President Obama has been re-elected and so has Netanyahu. Netanyahu has survived four years of Obama’s tepid initiatives at engaging the Palestinian issue with excuse after excuse.  From the saga of the settlement freeze that wasn’t, to advancing the Iranian nuclear issue to the top of the U.S.-Israeli agenda, to propagating the notion that the most cooperative Palestinian Authority in history is an insufficient negotiating partner, Netanyahu has managed to evade even a semblance of progress while continuing colonization of Palestinian territory. Of course, Netanyahu’s allies in the U.S. Congress and public sphere have been instrumental in keeping the President in check. Think the second term will be any different? Maybe you should ask Chuck Hagel about that.

Netanyahu has to dodge and parry for about two more years before all attention turns to Obama’s potential successor. During this time many of the same excuses will likely be employed and two others might be introduced as well. Netanyahu may use a fragile coalition as an argument that he cannot make any significant moves on settlements. Potential changes to Palestinian leadership, should reconciliation actually occur, will also be easily exploited by Netanyahu as yet another reason to maintain the status quo.

This election outcome does mean that Israel has shifted right. Some breathed a sigh of relief when Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party only garnered 11-12 seats instead of the expected 14-15, and believed this meant that the notion that Israel was shifting right was unfounded. Well, there are two significant problems with this. First, the Jewish Home party significantly exceeded the number of seats—seven—that its components (remnants of the National Union and Jewish Home of 2009) received in 2009. The number of seats they received this time would have been higher if not for an increased turnout in the Tel Aviv bubble, where voters are largely oblivious to the occupation but wary of anything religious.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the number of seats Bennett’s party receives is not the only metric of rightward shifts in Israel. Take for example the fact that during the primaries for the Likud—which led the self-proclaimed most pro-settlement government in Israeli history—that party elected even more pro-settler elements into its leadership. The Likud, which then merged with Avigdor Lieberman, the man who was routinely referred to as “far-right” and “ultra-nationalist” only one election ago, is the largest party in the Israeli political system and now has others to its right. Last, keep in mind that while the members of the governing coalition and some of their natural allies were openly and staunchly pro-colonization and even annexation, no party in the Zionist opposition vociferously challenged the Israeli settlement enterprise—with the possible exception of Meretz, which took in a grand total of 7 seats. Those 7 seats, by the way, were considered a remarkable and unexpected triumph.

It does mean that Israelis overwhelmingly deemphasized peace as a priority. The opposition parties that emphasized socio-economic issues and deemphasized peace, Labor and Yesh Atid, were the biggest winners. Labor focused on reaching out to female voters as well as economic issues. Lapid’s Yesh Atid stuck mostly to economic issues and reforming conscription laws to include religious communities. Parties that stressed a resumption of negotiations, even under staunchly Zionist terms, like Livni’s Hatnuah, performed significantly worse. If Israeli voters rejected anything about Netanyahu’s stances in this election, it wasn’t his pro-settlement policies and hawkishness on Iran, but rather the degree to which the government prioritized these matters over economic matters affecting the average Israeli. That successful opposition parties did not dare link the two is an indictment of just how much the polity has deemphasized peace, and has become complacent about the military occupation of millions of souls.

It does mean that the Apartheid system will be further entrenched. Ultimately, this election will bring little change in the status quo. The incentives for the next Israeli government, just like the last Israeli government and the one before it, are tilted heavily toward perpetual occupation—that is, Apartheid. Even before the ballots were counted, Washington made clear that the outcome of the election would not change its stance toward the issue. Domestic U.S. politics, as evidenced by the prostration of Chuck Hagel to pro-Israel interest group demands, is likely to ensure that U.S. policy continues to alleviate the costs of perpetual occupation through unwavering military, economic and diplomatic support, so that Israel’s colonial enterprise is always a politically and economically profitable one. Israeli politics can then continue to focus inward, debating how best to ensure prosperity for Jewish Israelis, while walling off Palestinians and the vast majority of the rest of the world.

Half the people living under Israeli state control, Palestinians, either cannot vote or are treated as second-class citizens. The outcome of these elections shows that Israelis will not challenge that reality. It must be our duty to ensure that the counting of some ballots does not act as a fig leaf for the disenfranchisement of millions of others.