Letter From Jerusalem: Center of Gravity

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Letter From Jerusalem: Center of Gravity

Gershom Gorenberg

March 11. Election night, January 22, 2013: Between midnight and dawn, while saner souls slept, Israelis truly obsessed with politics sat awake, amazed, constantly refreshing their screens, waiting for the next ballot count to appear with results even further from pre-election expectations than the startling exit polls broadcast as soon as voting stations closed. 

It was supposed to be an un-portentous election, mostly marking continuity in Israeli political history. Yes, some new faces were expected to lead new or rebranded parties into the Knesset. But if right-left balance changed, it was sure to tilt rightward. Benjamin Netanyahu would therefore emerge strengthened as prime minister.

Instead, the election produced a near tie, and the day was a watershed. News analysis written the day before became quaint, a reminder of what people thought in an earlier era.

One striking example of the election’s impact: Throughout the campaign, the Likud Party never issued a platform. That would have required it to say whether it stood by Netanyahu’s guarded acceptance of a two-state solution in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. The speech, a painful concession to Washington, signaled a break with the Likud’s commitment to the whole Land of Israel. Neither the party nor, it seems, Netanyahu wanted to reaffirm the Bar-Ilan message, yet disavowing it risked tension with Washington and other friendly capitals.

So the Likud ran without any formal position at all on the future of the West Bank. Then, three weeks after the election, Netanyahu spoke to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and explicitly stood by “what I outlined in my speech in Bar-Ilan University: two states for two peoples.”

The vote tally made all the difference. The Likud ran on a joint ticket with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) Party. Together the two parties lost a quarter of their strength—a rebuke from voters, especially since the election was largely a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. The Likud itself sank from 27 to 20 seats. Together with what are often called his “natural allies,” the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu barely held onto a slim majority of 61 in the Knesset—less than the majority of 65 in the last Knesset, much less than expectations for the new one.

During the campaign, the competition with which Netanyahu seemed most concerned was from the right: Naftali Bennett, a young ex-businessman and Army officer, a kippa-wearing version of Netanyahu when he started out in politics. Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) Party ticket did win 12 Knesset seats, matching the historic peak of its predecessor, the National Religious Party, but not rising any higher. The new contender who turned out to really matter was Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) Party. Lapid called for economic changes to help the middle class, for drafting the ultra-Orthodox, for electoral reforms—and for returning to peace talks. Lapid’s party became the second largest in the Knesset, with 19 seats, and Netanyahu appeared to have little choice but to bring him into the next coalition. Hence, the prime minister’s suddenly remembered commitment to a two-state agreement.

All this yields some important lessons. The first is never to bet on a sure thing in Israeli politics. Election polling here faces some built-in problems, including the fact that voters are choosing between a dozen or more parties, rather than two candidates. A respondent’s answer of “undecided” can mean she is undecided between Labor and Meretz on the left, not that she might vote for the Likud. Moreover, the law prohibits publishing polls during the final five days of the campaign, so last-minute trends are invisible.

The second lesson is to remember that in Israel, it matters how much you win by. Whether an American candidate for president wins by a tenth of a percent or 10 percent—actually, by one vote in the Electoral College or 100, he’s president for the next four years. For Netanyahu, the margin of victory has made all the difference. If his list had won 40 seats instead of 31, if the right and the religious parties together had a majority of 70 instead of 61, his hand would have been much stronger in coalition negotiations. Instead, Netanyahu found himself the captive of potential coalition partners with incompatible agendas.

The next lesson is that economic discontent did not vanish after the mass protests of 2011. At the time, some commentators mocked the protest leaders as children of the safe, satisfied middle class. But that was precisely the point: The middle class was no longer safe. Years of free-market policies—of which Netanyahu was the most prominent proponent—had raised the price of university studies and put apartment prices outside the reach of young people who did complete their education. Using temporary workers to cut costs, the government and corporations eliminated the job benefits and job security that had given stability to middle-class life, even as government spending on schools and health care fell. The downwardly mobile children of middle-income Israelis demanded renewal of the social contract between the state and its citizens.

This anger helped shape the election. On the left, Labor returned to its social democratic roots and featured two leaders of the protests, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, high on its list of candidates. (At 27, Shaffir is the youngest member of parliament; Shmuli is 33.) Yesh Atid refrained from a full critique of Netanyahu’s economics, but called for more socially responsible capitalism. The party’s promises included increased investment in education and a government-backed program to build affordable housing. Lapid handpicked a ticket studded with candidates who list “social activist” in their résumés. Despite differences in philosophy, both parties appealed to the spirit of the protests.

Nor did the country lurch rightward on the critical issue of peace and territory. The predictions that it would do so were based on short memories and on the fragmenting of the left and center into five parties, which left Netanyahu as the only real candidate for the premiership. A longer look at Israeli electoral trends shows a swing of the pendulum between hawks and doves in nearly every race since 1992. The voters who create those shifts want more serious peace efforts than the right provides—but smaller concessions and less trust of the Palestinians than they believe the left is offering. Those mixed feelings result in perpetual dissatisfaction with the incumbent.

This time Yesh Atid successfully recruited much of that constituency. Lapid, formerly a media star, became the new political star. Again, though, a wider view is helpful. The Zionist left—Labor and Meretz—gained five seats. The center holds one seat less than last time; the major change is that Yesh Atid and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatenua (The Movement), replaced Kadima on the political map. The right as a whole shrank by four seats. Naftali Bennett’s major achievement for Habayit Hayehudi appears to be regaining religious Zionist voters who for years had drifted to the Likud.

So here there is another lesson: The center is a fixture of Israeli politics, but the parties that represent it regularly implode and make way for new ones. Shinui (led by Lapid’s father Tommy) suddenly rose in 2003, then collapsed. In 2006 and 2009, its place was taken by Kadima. This year, Kadima barely made it into the Knesset with two seats.

Clearly, there’s a constituency for a middle-of-the-road party. But the positions such parties present during a campaign are hard to maintain once they are in the Knesset and cabinet and need to make decisions. When a new party is born, the leader or organizer picks a list of attractive candidates who haven’t worked together in the past and who are often bereft of parliamentary experience. Outside the Knesset, the party lacks an organization and voters with long-time loyalties to it. The ties between the new politicians are weak; the party collapses and makes room for the next one. Yesh Atid faces a strong risk of the same fate. All of its Knesset members are new to parliament—though most have more political or executive experience than their leader. Lapid will have to show rare skill to keep them united.

And one more lesson: Yesh Atid was fortunate that the electoral changes it proposes were not law on January 22. The party calls for raising the threshold for entering the Knesset from 2 percent of the vote today to 6 percent, in an effort to reduce the number of parties. It also wants to assign the task of forming the government to the leader of the largest party, regardless of who has the widest support in parliament. That is intended to push people to vote for large parties rather than their smaller potential partners. Both changes would benefit established parties and work against new ones—especially against an upstart party in the center.

The election defied expectations by producing a deadlock. It also revealed a certain strange stability in Israeli politics: The center changes faces and names but stays with us; the big issues of economics and peace don’t just go away; the country isn’t slipping ever more rightward. None of that tells us how politics will play out over the months ahead. It would be very foolish to make predictions.

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