Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent victory in Israel’s general elections will serve to inform political science professors and analysts for years to come. From the months of campaigning, to the election-day electioneering, the lessons range from the expected to the astonishing.
Here, I’ll present five points I believe are the key lessons that emerge when analyzing the process and results of this most recent election. In addition, I’ll list five expectations for the future of the 20th Israeli Knesset.
5 ELECTION LESSONS
1) 90 percent of polls are meaningless
Perhaps the most obvious election-day failure belongs to the polls: both pre-election surveys and election-day exit polls. Both sets were off — by a long shot.
Sure, there are many excuses for why poll results could differ from actual election outcomes; as polls cannot be released in the final four days before the election, it is entirely possible that many people change their minds in that final stretch, and that doesn’t get reflected in any updated polls. Most likely, of course, is that certain subsets of voters are unwilling to divulge for whom they cast their vote, skewing the exit poll samples. Let’s also not forget that polls, being purely quantitative, lack the qualitative depth necessary for analyzing something as complex as a national election.
Whatever the cause of faulty poll results, they reinforce a public lack of confidence in surveys in general, and election polls in particular.
2) Security of life vs. quality of life
While Israel’s parliamentary system of governance makes it extremely difficult to eke out a mandate that represents a true majority of citizens, Netanyahu’s position of security as his top priority garnered the single largest voter affirmation (30 seats) of any single political platform. Many Israelis voted for parties that focused on social issues and quality of life (Yesh Atid, 11 seats; Kulanu, 10 seats), nationalistic zeal (Bayit Yehudi, 8 seats), religion (Shas, 7 seats; UTJ, 6 seats), or an antiquated Zionist dream (Zionist Union, 24 seats). But an overwhelming portion of the Israeli electorate clearly stands on the political right, and has proven that, in the age of a looming nuclear Iran, with ISIS knocking at the door, a U.S. global visage that looks less and less willing to engage the big threats of the 21st century, and an ever-growing hostility toward Israel emerging from the White House and Europe, the existential concern for life far supersedes the effort to enhance its quality.
3) Foreign funds can’t buy influence in Israel
If one Jew has two opinions, it’ll take a lot more than the efforts of the brightest minds of the Obama campaign machine and loads of cash to sway the Israeli electorate. Despite the best efforts of One Voice’s subsidiary V15 — which is an NGO staffed with some of the top Obama campaign operatives and minds — to “unseat the ruling party,” Israelis have shown — again — that not only won’t they take their cues either from well- or badly-masked organizations, they’ll reject them outright. If anything, the higher voter turnout for the right indicates that Netanyahu’s day-of-election warning against “foreign-sourced funds” that were trying to topple the government was taken very seriously.
It’s extremely tough not to look at the traces left behind by V15, and wonder aloud if the White House had anything to do with the recent funding bequeathed to One Voice by the State Department. What is absolutely certain, however, is that an organization funded by the American government actively took a position to influence and change the outcome of the Israeli elections.
Even if Obama himself can’t be fingered as the source, he’s still on the losing side of the Israeli elections, as his disdain for the Israeli premier is already the stuff of legend. He couldn’t stomach Netanyahu and was hoping, probably praying (and possibly paying) so that he wouldn’t have to anymore.
“There are many thoughts in man’s heart, but it’s G-d’s instruction that will stand.”
4) The Left is losing
If we determine the Left’s waning influence by the total number of seats held, then the 6-seat loss (59–53) in the newly elected 20th Knesset is a staggering failure; however, the decrease in seats is only a partial view of the picture. The fact that Netanyahu was able to mobilize his base at the eleventh hour is a strong indication that the Right is currently galvanized and motivated to respond to calls for their participation.
The last real Leftist prime minister of Israel was Ehud Barak, who served a brief two-year term ending in 2001. That’s over a decade of the Left being in the doghouse. In broader historical context, ever since Menachem Begin’s ascent to power in 1977, seven out of 11 prime ministers were from the political Right.
In the last several decades, the Left has continually failed to modernize their ideology, and has therefore suffered a severe decrease in adherents. For Left-leaning Israelis, Netanyahu’s victory was a major blow to their aspirations. There’s nothing to indicate that Israel’s national movement to the Right won’t continue for the foreseeable future.
5) Israel’s Arabs are a growing electoral force
There is one electoral camp on the Left, however, that did make serious gains: the Israeli Arabs. Previously scattered throughout three parties garnering a combined 11 seats, the Arabs of Israel wised up and strengthened their election prospects when they united and formed the Joint Arab List. They won 14 seats, and are now second only to the Zionist Union in size and influence (on the Left).
Even if Netanyahu’s election-day comments that the “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” was pure demagoguery, it turned out to be true.
Truth be told, the number of seats held by the Arab bloc (13 of 120) represents 10.83 percent of the Knesset, although they’re 20 percent of the populace. So it’s not as if they’re suddenly over-represented, but their strength and influence is certainly growing and it raises serious concerns. On one hand they’re equal citizens, and the fact that they have fair representation is a good thing. On the other, members of the Knesset like Ahmed Tibi and Hanin Zoabi who’ve been openly hostile to Israel’s sovereignty and supportive of Palestinian rule, make it difficult to envisage an Israeli cabinet that would be comfortable with such MKs in highly sensitive positions (think defense and intelligence committees or ministries).
This election is likely to prove a stepping-stone for the Arab vote as they continue to wise up and realize their electoral strength. Israel is naturally concerned about how that growing strength will be used in a democratic, but Jewish, Israel. Israel will have to continue developing its tolerance levels and proving to the world why, ironically, Israel is the safest country for Muslims. It’s in Israel where Arab women can drive if they choose. It is Israel in which Arab adults vote in elections. It is in Israel where Muslim holy sites are protected. Out of the entire Middle East, it is in Israel where Arabs — Muslim, Christian, and otherwise — enjoy the most freedom and civil rights.
If Israel works to improve communication between it and the Arab community, the Arab electorate won’t have to be considered a threat or a nuisance. We’ll know if that happens, because if it does, it’ll manifest in a split of this false “unity” into two camps: the ardent anti-Israel Israeli Arabs, and the moderate coexistent Israeli Arabs.
It’s important to remember that this united Arab party is a new concept in Israeli politics, so even they don’t know what they’re doing or how they’ll split the power between so many limelight-hungry members. This party could fail in many ways before it ever has the chance to become a serious force. If it does manage to stay together, Israeli politics will continue to shift by the decade as the Arab population growth continues to outpace that of Israeli Jews.
5 EXPECTATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
1) The White House needs a win
After what many consider a White House loss in these Israeli elections, there’s no better way for it to come out a winner than by sticking it to Netanyahu. And if Netanyahu won under the banner of Mr. Security, there’s no clearer way for President Obama to tell Netanyahu who (he thinks) runs the world than to strike a deal with Iran.
If you’ve been following the war of words between Netanyahu and Obama (including statements made by his minions throughout the State Department and press corps), it’s become quite obvious that it’s dangerously personal. The entire U.S.-Israel relationship is at risk and it has more to do with what Obama thinks of Netanyahu than what could possibly be in the United States’ best interests.
Consider this: Obama insists that after Netanyahu’s election-day statement to the effect that “under his leadership there would be no Palestinian state” there’s no room for clarification and therefore Netanyahu, and Israel by association, will suffer the consequences through a revision of “all aspects of the relationship.” In other words Obama is telling Netanyahu, “No backsies.” And, to punish Netanyahu, Obama threatened to withhold the de facto U.S. veto of bogus anti-Israel UN resolutions.
Consider further: this same president who’s caught up in a global war of words with his only “ally” in the region seems to show no compunction whatsoever when, only days after wishing the Iranians well with the “historic opportunity,” that his silver platter of a nuclear agreement could offer them, the Ayatollah publicly responded to a massive crowd’s shouts of “Death to America” with “Yes, of course, death to America.”
Finally, consider: Obama took no issue with Khamenei’s words and ordered no revisions and, instead, through his State Department mouthpiece, reaffirmed his dedication to coming to an agreement. A nuclear agreement. With a tyrannical despot who just said “Death to America.” Yet, even after Netanyahu clarified his statements by saying the reality in Israel has changed and with ISIS filling every Middle Eastern territorial vacuum now is not the time to play games and attempt Muslim democracy (something that there’s currently no existing model for) near the heart of Israel, the Obama administration refuses to recognize any clarification. It doesn’t matter that there was a brutal election that sought at all costs to rid Israel of its prime minister, for as far as POTUS is concerned, the U.S., if it so chooses, can lead Israel and force its hand regardless of and in spite of its leader.
I will only be surprised if, by some miracle, an Iranian nuclear deal doesn’t materialize. When it does, we can be sure that it’ll come with stern warnings emanating from the White House reminding Israel that, because of the deal, there is no longer any “military option” on the table, and that any Israeli action in Iran would be a direct hit on a U.S. strategic relationship and agreement, and therefore an attack on the U.S. itself. Israel — Netanyahu — will be disarmed and unable to respond to the Iranian threat — thanks to the U.S.A.
The White House (read: President Barack Obama) wins.
2) The pressure is on
While the world accepts Netanyahu as the newly-elected leader of Israel, they don’t really “accept” him. Taking their cues from the U.S., Europe is showing increasing hostility toward Israel, with Sweden recently taking dangerous steps toward the recognition of Palestine.
The real danger for Israel is in sanctions. Israel’s economic growth has been increasingly dependent on foreign investments and injections of cash, and sanctions can do serious economic harm. And, while Europe has seemed to bark louder than it is prepared to bite, it is clearly in step with U.S. foreign policy wishes and takes its cues from Washington. If the White House ever decides to use Europe to force Israel to a negotiating table, it’ll find many European countries eager and willing to castigate and sanction Israel.
In addition to Europe taking cues from the U.S., the BDS movement will grow in force with every negative step the White House takes against Israel. We could verily see an environment of hostility grow exponentially in a very short time. So in addition to dealing with the real and present dangers that lurk in Israel’s environs, the next Israeli government will have to carefully navigate a sea of nations ready to serve it up as a sacrifice in a global game of power.
3) The new coalition will govern more effectively
In the recently dissolved 19th Knesset, although the ruling coalition was largely controlled by the Right, it included just enough Left (Lapid and Livni) to make real governance nearly impossible. Instead of a cabinet that pulls in all directions when the big challenges arrive, we can expect the next ruling faction of the Knesset — formed by parties that are all naturally right of center — to govern more cohesively and with unanimity … something that’s been terribly absent from Israeli governance for many years now.
4) Portfolio distribution — a political game
There’s no better way to describe the political finagling that takes place during negotiations for party partnerships in the ruling coalition than as a circus sideshow. This political feeding frenzy pits all the secondary and tertiary party leaders against each other as they vie for top ministerial posts. It becomes comical to see ministers with absolutely no experience in a given domain insist on occupying its top position; case in point, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman has placed a demand on the defense portfolio. The fact that Liberman has absolutely no military leadership experience doesn’t seem to concern him, because the title of defense minister is one he’d like to add to his resume.
Ultimately, the shenanigans that will play out as top MKs become unlikely ministers are not of major concern, so long as they don’t derail the formation of a ruling coalition. If too many parties tussle for the same positions (Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi also demanded the defense portfolio, as did the ruling Likud who wants the experienced Moshe Yaalon to continue in that post), it could get ugly. If a tertiary party plays hardball, the coalition can be reduced to the very minimum of 61 seats. If a larger secondary party like Kulanu or Bayit Yehudi isn’t satisfied, the blow to the coalition could prove fatal.
Here’s to hoping the next cabinet is truly qualified…
5) Netanyahu’s last chance to lead decisively
Finally, this may very well be the last chance Benjamin Netanyahu has to lead the Israeli government. While he’s proven to be the man of the hour — the one Israelis expect will rise to meet current challenges — he’s not politically immortal. And although Israelis demonstrated that security is a top concern, during this new term he’ll have to make serious inroads on quality of life and social issues.
The unrest prior to the election that chased Netanyahu’s sense of power and dominion from atop his prime ministerial throne was a good thing. And the electorate coming out in force to support him in rejection of foreign influences is also a good thing. Combined, it should signal to the prime minister that he’s not only entrusted with the task, but, more importantly, he’s expected to deliver when and where it concerns the very lives of Israel’s citizens.
The nationalists will expect that Netanyahu won’t prevent the building of homes in Yehudah and Shomron. The Right assumes that Bibi won’t make dangerous territorial concessions for an elusive and illusory peace, or divide Yerushalayim’s sovereignty. Chareidim will insist on a change in government posture to one that is supportive of the chareidi cause, and never again hostile toward young yeshivah students who wish not to don the uniform of army fighters. The center will demand that the prime minister deal with the rising cost of living, poverty, and a wealth gap that’s leaving many hard-working Israeli families faltering well below the poverty line. The Left will continue to protest for a Palestinian state. The Arabs will demand their fair share. And the Diaspora will continue to vacillate between reminding Israel of its existential threats, and that it doesn’t represent all of Jewry.
That’s a tall order, so here are words from the wise for the prime minister of Israel: “The day is short, the work is great… It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avos 2:18)