News + Politics
Israeli Life: Looking for Resolution
What can be gleaned from the recent Israeli elections? Insights into the country’s social fragmentation and attitudes toward women—and that, in Israel, one expects the unexpected.
When the votes were counted in Israel on February 11, the only winners of Israel’s latest election were confusion, ambivalence and surprise. The polls had misguessed the outcome. The leaders of three different parties could claim to be the real victor.
Defying expectations and months of surveys, Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima Party received one more Knesset seat than Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. Normally, the leader of the party with the largest Knesset delegation is assumed to be the person who will form the next government, meaning that Livni had won an upset victory. This time, though, a collection of six right-wing parties held 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. As leader of the largest of those parties, and their presumed preferred choice for prime minister, Netanyahu also proclaimed himself the winner, with a stronger numerical case.
Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu Party (Israel Is Our Home) grew to 15 Knesset seats, making it the third-biggest delegation in parliament. By throwing his support to Netanyahu, he determined who would form the ruling coalition. As kingmaker, Lieberman was, arguably, the real winner of the election.
Murky as these results were, and difficult as the coalition building became, the elections of 2009 do yield some significant lessons about Israeli politics. Politicians, and foreign observers, would do well to take notice.
Let the outsiders in. Lieberman’s party has grown from four seats when it first ran in 1999 to fifteen seats this time. To Israel’s complex political questions, he offers voters simple answers: Weak government and the country’s Arab minority threaten Israel. The main planks of his platform are a law that would effectively disenfranchise Arab citizens and another that would give the prime minister nearly unchecked power.
Lieberman made aliya from Moldova in 1980. His core support comes from former Soviet immigrants who arrived in the 1990s. Many were professionals who found themselves working at semiskilled jobs and living in towns that became immigrant ghettos. Nearly a third of the immigrants are non-Jews, allowed entry because of family ties to Jews.
The name of Lieberman’s party speaks to the immigrants’ insecurities, assuring them that they are real Israelis. The anti-Arab platform has the same function, by labeling another group as the real outsiders. It is the same gambit taken by far-right European parties who appeal to the marginalized by attacking ethnic minorities.
In another, more gradual trend, parties backed mainly by Arabs have grown from five seats in the 1992 election to eleven seats today. That is one sign that Arab citizens feel increasingly set apart from the Jewish majority. Politically, they regard mainstream parties as patronizing them rather than representing them. Lieberman’s rhetoric increases their fear.
If Israeli leaders want to stop the extremism and fragmentation, they cannot support one group over the other. They need to promote a more inclusive, multicultural view of Israeli society. Russians—including non-Jews—and Arabs need reassurance that the word “Israeli” includes them.
Failure of the dove-hawks. In late December, as Israel began Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, speculation was rife that Defense Minister Ehud Barak would get an electoral boost from the war. Beforehand, polls showed that Barak’s Labor Party was sinking into oblivion. The public strongly supported the military response to rocket fire from Gaza, and at first Labor’s poll figures did rise, from a projected 11 seats to 17.
In the end, though, Labor got just 13 seats, its worst showing in history. Meretz, Labor’s traditional partner on the left, sunk to three seats, its own nadir. If even political doves said that the only option was war, voters apparently preferred more hawkish parties to do the work.
Barak’s problem as a dove-hawk goes back further. He was elected prime minister on a peace platform in 1999. But after the collapse of the Camp David summit in 2000, he rejected reports that put the blame partly on him. Barak said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lacked “the character or will” to make peace.
However historians eventually judge that issue, Barak largely convinced the Israeli public. In the process, he undercut Labor’s own peace platform. No wonder many Labor voters migrated to Tzipi Livni, who seemed more committed to negotiating peace, and perhaps more capable.
Oops, voters have memories. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives,” never applied to Israeli politics. Netanyahu was an unpopular prime minister in the late 1990s and lost by a landslide to Barak, who in turn lost by a bigger landslide to Ariel Sharon. Nevertheless, their parties chose them again as candidates for the top job.
In Netanyahu’s case, it seemed voters had forgiven everything. During the campaign, polls showed him leading the Likud to as many as 35 Knesset seats. That was an illusion. Though the actual vote showed that the electorate preferred the right, Netanyahu still had to endure the embarrassment of winning fewer seats than Livni.
No chauvinism, please. Last summer, as Kadima prepared for a primary to pick its candidate to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister, rivals picked on Tzipi Livni’s lack of military experience. It was a thinly hidden argument against electing a woman. “Behind closed doors or conveyed in anonymous briefings with journalists,” veteran journalist Emmanuel Rosen wrote in an article on Ynet online news service, her rivals say that “Livni is weak, can’t withstand the pressures, [and is] too sensitive and too soft.” Livni, a former Mossad agent and former corporate lawyer, nonetheless beat ex-general Shaul Mofaz in the primary.
Netanyahu tried the same strategy with different words. The job of national leader, said Likud campaign ads, “is too big for her.” Translation: Let a man do it.
Livni never ran a feminist campaign, and women’s groups did not mobilize visibly to support her. Nonetheless, the fact that she edged out Netanyahu in the one-on-one contest for votes suggests that his strategy of treating her as the maidele failed.
As for the new coalition, the immediate postelection expectation in Israel was that it would be unstable and short-lived. Given the murky outcome, that is logical. But if there is one more lesson from the vote, it is that Israeli politics rarely turns out as expected. H
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