March 18, 2015 - Israel’s Knesset elections


 This week, Alpher discusses what happened in these elections*; what the next government is likely to look like; how Netanyahu engineered such a dramatic come-from-behind victory, despite the polls giving Labor (Zionist Camp) an advantage almost until election day; whether there are winners here, besides Netanyahu; how Herzog and Lapid are likely to respond to their setbacks, and what “losers” on the right who are nevertheless likely to join the coalition are going to do; how to explain the phenomenon of Israel's seeming to be set on a right-wing course, with no end in sight; and assuming Netanyahu now forms a fairly cohesive right-wing coalition, what are the main challenges it will face.

(*Based on 99 percent of the vote; soldiers’ votes, not included, could change the outcome by a mandate in any direction within a day)


Q. What happened in these elections?

A. These were Netanyahu’s elections to win or lose, and he won a major victory. Israeli politics remain dominated by the right wing. As in previous elections, we witnessed an unexpected last minute surge that fell “under the radar” of the polls. We will now almost certainly have another right-wing government that leads Israel in the same direction as its predecessor.


Q. What is the next government likely to look like?

A. Based strictly on the political right, it could comprise Likud (30 mandates), Kulanu (10), HaBait HaYehudi (8), Shas (7), and Yisrael Beitenu (6). That would give it the necessary Knesset majority of 61 mandates. Netanyahu could then negotiate from a position of strength with the centrist Yesh Atid (11) and Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox Yahadut Hatorah (6).

In view of these calculations, it is extremely unlikely that Netanyahu will feel it necessary to offer to form a unity government with Labor (24). Nor would Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who despite coming in second succeeded in significantly enlarging Labor’s Knesset faction, be likely to agree to provide a dovish international fig leaf for such a government.


Q. The polls gave Labor (Zionist Camp) an advantage almost until election day. How did Netanyahu engineer such a dramatic come-from-behind victory?

A. Regardless of what we think of his politics and ideology, Netanyahu remains far-and-away Israel’s most adept political manipulator. A few days before elections he realized that Likud was slipping behind a surging Labor (awarded 27 mandates to Likud’s 19 by an unpublished Labor poll a week before elections) and that the only way he could salvage the election was to move drastically to the right and take votes from Naftali Bennet’s HaBait HaYehudi (which consequently dropped from 12 in the outgoing Knesset to 8), Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (13 to 6), the Sephardic ultra-orthodox Shas (11 to 7), and even Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (19 to 11, the biggest single setback in this race).

Accordingly, Netanyahu announced dramatically that under current circumstances he could no longer support a two-state solution, thereby ostensibly reversing his Bar-Ilan speech of 2009. And he viciously attacked Arab voters and the Arabs’ United List, thereby appealing to the raw racism of some rightists. One outcome was particularly heavy support among West Bank settlers.

Concerning Netanyahu’s abandonment of the two-state solution, two remarks are in order. First, it was always hard to believe his Bar Ilan speech insofar as he has constantly sabotaged any reasonable two-state solution with his settlement policies. Second, his public renunciation of two states was a direct response to leaks (from the left? by the PLO?) showing that in secret contacts with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Netanyahu had seemingly offered far-reaching territorial and other concessions. In other words, a leak ostensibly intended to hurt Netanyahu by challenging his right-wing credentials ultimately backfired badly by pushing him into a vote-getting extreme right corner.


Q. Are there winners here, besides Netanyahu?

A. Only Moshe Kachlon and his new Kulanu party, which won 10 mandates, and the United Arab List, which gained 14.

Kachlon, who made his name as a monopoly-busting communications minister and ran on a platform of reducing the cost of living for the lower middle class, was already promised the Finance Ministry by Netanyahu during the elections in an effort to ensure his post-election adherence to a right-wing bloc and perhaps to poach some of his votes. Netanyahu will presumably hold to this commitment in order to ensure that Kachlon joins the coalition.

The United Arab List features a charismatic new leader, Ayman Odeh. The singular achievement of Arab citizens of Israel in agreeing on a joint list delivered the third largest party in the Knesset and brought out Arab voters who had never bothered before. It is fair to assume that one or two of the list’s mandates can be attributed to Jewish voters, who saw a unique opportunity to upgrade representation in the Knesset for some 18 percent of Israel’s citizens. Now the united list faces two serious challenges: first, holding together its disparate Islamist, communist and ultra-nationalist elements; and second, exercising parliamentary influence vis-a-vis what is likely to be a uniformly right-wing government.


Q. What about the losers? Meretz leader Zahava Galon has already resigned. How are Herzog and Lapid likely to respond to their setbacks? And what about “losers” on the right who are nevertheless likely to join the coalition?

A. Herzog can take credit for radically improving Labor’s fortunes--he took over a party with 15 MKs and now has 24--and probably won’t feel threatened as leader. Lapid has seen the fortunes of Yesh Atid plummet. Will it now go the way of earlier centrist parties (Dash, Shinui, Kadima), fragment and dissolve? Will Lapid compromise his principles in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition, or seek to survive in the opposition?

Moving to the right, Shas lost votes, but at least its leader Aryeh Deri witnessed the demise of a rival Sephardic extremist party led by Ely Yishai, which failed to pass the four mandate threshold. Like Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet (HaBait HaYehudi) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) rule their parties as virtual dictators, hence their leadership positions won’t be challenged even if Netanyahu is now in a position to offer them little but relatively low-level ministries.


Q. Israel seems for some time now to be set on a right-wing course, with no end in sight. Leaving aside Netanyahu’s last-minute racism and hawkishness, how do you explain the phenomenon?

A. In recent years and even decades, Israeli public attitudes have been heavily influenced by developments in the Palestinian sphere: intifadas, attacks from Gaza, exorbitant negotiating demands, and rejection of reasonable Israeli offers by leaders like Ehud Olmert. Demands by the Israeli Arab political and intellectual leadership that Israel cease to be a Zionist state have contributed to Jewish racist attitudes. The settler population in the West Bank is approaching an irreversible critical mass. All these trends and developments have come together to generate a high degree of skepticism regarding a two-state solution.

The wholesale collapse of entire Arab states since 2011 has also taken its toll: why, at this time in history, set up yet another unstable Arab state in the West Bank and possibly the Gaza Strip? Widespread barbarity and violence in Syria have also sent a depressing message regarding Israel’s capacity to coexist with the Arab world, particularly if it is called upon to offer concessions toward that end. Then there is the Iran threat, exploited in the extreme by Netanyahu by playing on existential fears and Holocaust memories. Strategic mistakes in the region by the Bush and Obama administrations have reduced confidence in American support for Israel, thereby generating tough go-it-alone attitudes.

Here two remarks are in order regarding seeming paradoxes. First, along Israel’s borders with a fragmenting and violent Arab world, Netanyahu’s response has generally been cautious--in sharp contrast to his aggressive settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and his in-your-face approach to the Obama administration regarding Iran. Second, yesterday’s elections were ostensibly fought far more over economic and social issues than over the Palestinian issue, which was downplayed. Obviously, the public’s core hawkish and skeptical mood regarding the two-state solution and Iran played a more significant role than was reflected in campaign rhetoric. And Netanyahu’s speech to Congress two weeks ago with its open challenge to the Obama administration apparently helped his campaign more than the polls reflected.


Q. Assuming Netanyahu now forms a fairly cohesive right-wing coalition, what are the main challenges it will face?

A. In the Palestinian sphere, Netanyahu will seek to keep expanding settlements--in effect, keep advancing the apartheid agenda these elections have ostensibly mandated. But for tactical reasons, he will remain open to international initiatives. Now that he has won the elections, he may even find it convenient to allow the two-state solution back onto the agenda as long as he can manipulate the negotiations and “outlast” the Obama-Kerry team (if it now dares try again). In parallel, he will confront an accelerated PLO agenda, with some European support, of internationalizing the conflict by turning to the UN, ICC and other bodies. The outcome is almost certain to be greater Israeli-Palestinian tensions, boycotts, and conceivably violence.

A US-spearheaded nuclear deal with Iran will present a serious challenge. Netanyahu has no mandate whatsoever to take military action against Iran’s nuclear project. But Israel may find itself challenged by Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria who feel empowered by a nuclear deal to push their expansionist agenda in the Levant. This complex of issues could constitute the biggest strategic challenge to the next Netanyahu government. It could involve military escalation on Israel’s northern border and a complex of delicate US-Israel nuclear and regional issues. Another round of warfare against Hamas in Gaza pales in comparison, even if Netanyahu again mismanages it for lack of a coherent strategy.

In short, assuming Netanyahu now forms a right-wing coalition, we can expect heightened tensions with Washington, Brussels and Ramallah. In stark contrast, the ongoing Islamist threat probably means continued low-profile strategic cooperation with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, at the domestic level Netanyahu could seek to placate the ultra-orthodox by undoing at least a portion of the commendable legislation passed during the last two years that mandates compulsory egalitarian military service for yeshiva youth. And he faces massive public pressure to reduce housing costs, a cause spearheaded by the dynamic Kachlon. Since Netanyahu represents trickle-down economics and big business interests, and because he fears competition from up-and-coming politicians on the right, Netanyahu-Kachlon tensions could quickly come to characterize the new coalition.

If indeed, as anticipated, Netanyahu forms an extreme-right government and it draws international pressure and suffers from internal contradictions, it will probably not last its allotted four-and-a-half years. But not before seriously worsening Israel’s overall strategic situation.