It certainly surprised many in Israel and the global commentariat that current Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing Likud party, Bibi Netenyahu, won the recent Israeli Election, and with the 6-seat margin over the Labor-dominated Opposition Zionist Camp unity group.
The significance of the win resonates strongly within a number of overlapping circles of interest: Israeli domestic politics and constituencies, the Palestinian Authority and the future of the West Bank, the United States, the European relationship with Israel, the United Nations, the war against ISIS, the Sunni alliance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even Australia.
Where else but with Israel does the democratic ballot of a 7 million person electorate reverberate so loudly in corridors of so many countries and elites?
In a Knesset (Parliament) of 120 seats, Likud won 30 mandates, Labor’s unity-ticket with Hatnua Zionist Camp won 24, and the third placed Arab-based Joint List winning 13.
The polls had been running the Labor-Zionist Camp ahead of Likud for weeks before the election. Television exit polls had even reported a neck-and-neck struggle of 24 seats each to Likud and Labor.
Where did Likud’s extra votes derive from? Not from Labor, which had grown its own mandates by 3, but from other right-wing parties, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s Russian community based Yisrael Beteinu dramatically falling from 15 to 6 seats, and settler-based party Habayit Hayehudi led by Naphtali Bennett also falling from 11 to 8 seats. At the same time, a third new centre-right party, Kulano, led by ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahalon, grabbed a swag of 10 seats.
In a word, the right aggregated around Likud, specifically, Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister following a last-minute fear campaign that shocked Israel and will continue to reverberate for months if not years ahead.
It is now well known that Bibi issued 2 dramatic announcements 48 hours before the vote; the first was to agree to a reporter’s statement that a Palestinian State would not occur on Bibi’s watch, to which he replied, “Indeed”. This was clearly interpreted as precluding the establishment of such a state.
The second was a Facebook video clip and sms texts to supporters that “the Arabs were voting in droves” and this pulled a huge number of votes from other right-wing parties into Likud.
As a journalist reported, “people knew that Bibi had let Israel down on domestic cost-of-living and social issues, but were too scared in the end to vote against him”.
And in the background, running like a growing infection in the anxious psyche of Israel, was the confrontation with President Obama.
While it is true that polls had the majority of Israelis disapproving of Bibi’s speech to Congress taking the White House to task for the forthcoming deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there is no doubt that the Israeli public are genuinely concerned at Obama’s changing relationship with the region (a policy of withdrawal), and his attitude to Iran.
From the Israeli perspective, they see Iran as Hamas’s funders and armers, Iran proxy Hexbollah expanding its threat to Israel on the Northern borders from Lebanon through southern Syria, Iraq under Iranian domination, Yemen falling under Iranian control, and through all of this Shiite ambition and expansion, the development of nuclear weapons. To the Israeli’s, and for that matter Egypt, Saudi and the rest of the Sunni world, the Obama deal with Iran is not a deal between 2 pacific states; it is between America – once the central guarantor of international peace and security – and a regime dedicated to religious and territorial Empire through apocalyptic violence.
Bibi played to these multiple fears as ‘Mr Security’, and did so dividing Israeli society from within, and the international community from without.
For Labor, the singular challenge remains: Labor has only won Government twice since 1977 and both times their candidate for Prime Minister was an Israel Defence Force Chief of Staff (Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak).
The Israeli electorate’s need for Labor to prove it’s security credentials is axiomatic post-Oslo. It is a widely held given of Israeli society that the dividend of the failed Oslo peace process was the terrible suicide bombings and random terror of the second Intifada unleashed by Rabin’s “partner for peace”, Yasir Arafat. Those who lived through those very difficult days have not yet fully forgiven Labor, and many who had voted Labor have moved to the political centre.
Israel’s centre, which recorded dramatic growth last time through the virgin election of the Yesh Atid party, led by ex-TV personality, Yair Lapid, who served as Bibi’s Finance Minister until sacked late last year precipitating this election, dropped from 19 to 11 seats. Yet the new right-of-centre Kulano attained 10 seats. The total Centre is 21 seats – 28% of the total Knesset.
Social issues – the high cost of housing and dramatically growing inequality of wealth and opportunity – run as an electric current through the Israeli electorate, and that is the reason why the polls kept focusing on a possible Labor-Centre coalition win.
But given Bibi’s harpooning of anything else but the anxiety of existential security fears, and playing the ‘race’ card targeting the Arab population, ensured the electorate gave Likud a surprise victory and increased mandate.
What does this mean for the next Government of Israel, and for Israel as a whole? Key trends are already apparent.
Bibi has been back-tracking as fast as he can on his election comments regarding the Palestinian State and Arab voting patterns. Still, those who have no truck with Bibi are happily beating him around the ears, and by extension, putting more pressure on Israel to do a deal with the Palestinians or have 1 imposed. President Obama has already flagged a “review” in policy toward Israel.
No matter what the Israeli electorate think about the Palestinians and Settlements (with the majority of Israelis consistently saying they would trade settlements and withdrawal for real peace and an end of conflict with the Palestinians), it is a sine qua non of international politics that the Israel-Palestine conflict must be resolved for moral and geo-political reasons. Even more so, the conflict must be resolved for Israel’s own benefit if it wishes to stay both a Jewish and Democratic state. And it is feared within Israel that the Obama White House accord with the rest of the world will mean the withdrawal of the US veto when it comes to unilateral pro-Palestine declarations at the UN Security Council.
On the other hand, a recent infographic by US PAC J-Street shows clearly the overwhelming support for a 2-State solution in the new Knesset. This fact is often overlooked by those who toss about canards such as “Israel is Apartheid”. The best guide to the essential nature of Israel is in the little known fact that the head of the Central Electoral Commission of Israel is an Arab citizen,
The discourse in Israel is clear: solve our deep-seated and existential security concerns (and after 12 wars, 2 Intifadas, and multiple random bombings, stabbings, lynchings and car attacks that fear is well grounded), and we will do the deal with the Palestinians and withdraw along the lines of the Clinton Parameters.
In the meantime, Israeli democracy has proved again it’s robustness amidst the tumultuous Arab Winter that continues to engulf the Region. After all, the head of Israel’s Central Elections Committee is a Justice from Israel’s High Court – Salim Joubran, an Arab Citizen.