When Israelis went to bed after yesterday’s election, the biggest surprise was that—contrary to previous campaigns—there had been few surprises. The exit polls had largely mirrored those published days earlier, with the notable exception that Isaac Herzog’s slight lead over Benjamin Netanyahu had become a dead heat.
But Israelis woke up to a different reality. The Labor-Likud tie had morphed into a Likud blowout (30 seats to 24). The “magician,” as Netanyahu was once called for his uncanny ability to escape political crises, had pulled off the most brilliant act of his political career. And the right-wing bloc had increased its Knesset majority from 61 to 67. There are still some votes to be tallied, and a coalition will likely take weeks to form. But last night’s results permit several conclusions about the race and about the state of Israeli politics.
Right-wing voters came out—and came home
Over the past week, as polls showed Herzog opening a lead of three to four seats, Netanyahu waged a wall-to-wall media campaign to convince traditional Likud supporters that they did “not have the luxury to vote for small parties” if they wanted to avoid a “left-wing government backed by the Arabs.” In so doing, he swung sharply to the right, saying that he no longer supported a two-state solution.
The campaign worked. Turnout—apparently fueled by right-wing fear—surged to its highest point since 1999. Likud, whom many party activists feared would drop below the 20-seat mark, finished instead with 30—three more than when Netanyahu swept back into office in 2009. Bibi, who only a year ago flirted with signing away the West Bank in American-led peace talks, won a majority of votes from the settlements.
The bump came mostly at the expense of hard-right Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who earlier in the campaign had been polling just behind Netanyahu. The party finished sixth, with eight seats. Bennett, who will turn 43 in a week, is likely to remain a force in Israeli politics for decades. But his hopes of Jewish Home displacing Likud as the dominant force on the right seems increasingly farfetched.
The Labor Party is back
In 2011, when then-Labor leader Ehud Barak bolted his own party, obituaries abounded for the party that had built the Israeli state and ruled it unchallenged for four decades. Since the 2000 collapse of the peace process, the party that signed the Oslo Accords had been discredited in the eyes of most Israelis. And in the elections that followed, it ceded the mantle of largest anti-right party first to Kadima and later to Yesh Atid. It contented itself with serving as a junior member of nearly every government.
Last night’s results were a disappointment when compared to the buoyant polls of a few days earlier. But compared to what was expected when Netanyahu called early elections three months ago, it was a miracle. The party’s 24 seats marked its best finish since 1999, when Barak reached the prime minister’s office with 26.
All signs point to Labor joining the opposition. The question is whether the party’s primary voters will reward Isaac Herzog or, as they have more often done, search for a new savior. There will be no shortage of candidates for the role. Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin—one of the subjects of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers—is somebody to watch.
The center lives
The biggest trend in post-intifada Israeli politics was that the long-polarized electorate converged on the center, as many left-wing Israelis came to distrust Palestinian intentions and as many right-wing ones came to see permanent occupation as undesirable. After Ariel Sharon left Likud to create Kadima in 2005, centrist parties enjoyed a heyday (Kadima won a plurality in 2006 and 2009; and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid was the largest party in the outgoing Knesset).
With the Netanyahu-Herzog horserace drawing all the attention, this election seemed likely to cripple the center. But the double-digit takes of two centrist parties—the left-leaning Yesh Atid and Likud exile Moshe Kahlon’s right-leaning Kulanu—prove that the Israeli center is alive and well. Indeed, had Kahlon agreed to Lapid’s plea for a joint ticket, the two might now be forming the government.
Of course, this observation comes with a caveat. While Lapid, Kahlon, and other party leaders are placed on the political spectrum by their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, voters increasingly make their choices for other reasons. Most Lapid voters stuck with him for his crusade against the ultra-Orthodox; Kahlon came to prominence for his economic populism. The former, who had a rocky stint as finance minister in Netanyahu’s last government, will likely find himself outside his new one. Kahlon will inherit Lapid’s job and may well find himself the most left-wing member of the new government.
Israeli Arabs: Still politically irrelevant
One of the more pernicious aspects of Israel’s political system is that, by granting Knesset representation to any party that can scrounge up a few percentage points, it sorts the nation into ideological ghettoes represented by niche parties that are often more extreme than their constituents. Nowhere has this dynamic had more damaging consequences than in Israel’s Arab minority. A few months ago, after the Knesset threshold was raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, many feared that some or all of Israel’s three Arab parties would be wiped out.
But by running on a joint list and mobilizing increased Arab turnout, the three parties actually increased their strength from 11 to 14 seats. Next to Likud, they were perhaps the biggest winners of the election. The question is what they won. And the answer is not much. The Arab parties, by rejecting the notion of a Jewish homeland and by fronting candidates like Haneen Zoabi—who openly supports Hamas and wishes for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons—have made themselves permanent members of the opposition, impossible coalition partners for even the most left-wing leader.
There was a time when Arab citizens of Israel voted en masse for Labor and other left-wing Zionist parties. If now more than 80 percent of them do not, it is not because these parties have become less welcoming to minorities, but because Israel’s Arab community has grown more insular—in large part because racism in Israeli society has increased (witness Netanyahu’s shameful Election Day plea for his supporters to get out because “the Arabs are voting in droves”). Most Israeli Arabs have decided that it is better to operate outside the mainstream establishment than to lend support to any party that has a connection to Zionism. This notion reached absurd heights when the Joint Arab List refused to sign a surplus-vote agreement—a pact for sharing excess votes—with Meretz, the leftist party that has done more than any other to promote Jewish-Arab equality (a decision that likely cost Meretz a fifth seat). Despite a wave of Palestinian nationalism and an uptick in extremism, most Israeli Arabs remain quite moderate. Most would have loved to see Herzog replace Netanyahu. Had just half of them voted for him, they would have gotten their wish.
This was Benjamin Netanyahu’s last election victory
Despite his victory, the campaign was a public-relations disaster for Netanyahu. There was the Paris anti-terror rally, where Netanyahu—who had been asked not to come—was filmed cutting in line and shoving his way to the front line of the march to be filmed with Hollande, Merkel, and Cameron. There was the brouhaha over his Iran speech to Congress, which most recognized as a political stunt. There was the State Comptroller’s Report on the Netanyahu family’s abuse of public funds, with such highlights as a $5,200 breakfast and wife Sara’s pocketing of thousands in recycled-bottle deposits. And then there was the report which revealed that Netanyahu had promised the Palestinians—among other concessions—an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with land swaps on a “mile-for-mile” basis (a report Netanyahu swiftly denied despite what he and his interlocutors have repeatedly told Obama-administration officials.)
By the end of the campaign, Netanyahu was being compared to a dinner guest who had overstayed his welcome. “Let’s say I once loved tahini,” one Likud activist put it to Haaretz’s Yossi Verter, “but now I hate tahini. I can’t stand to look at it, or to smell it. And then a waiter comes and plies me with tahini, only tahini, all the time tahini!”
It remains to be seen how the Netanyahu era will end. Perhaps, having surpassed David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu will retire of his own accord. Perhaps he will be replaced in Likud leadership primaries (most likely by former Interior Minister Gideon Saar). Or maybe, just maybe, he will be defeated in the next election by a more experienced Herzog or a stronger left-wing candidate. Last night was not the end. But it was almost certainly the beginning of the end.