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So, Who Won?

Israel’s election yesterday was full of the usual drama, confusion, and politicking. But one thing was missing: clear winners. Right-wing Likud--hoping for a landslide victory--came in second. Centrist Kadima, the party now in power, won the most votes, but will probably remain unlikely to form a governing coalition. Even Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman’s dark horse ultra-right party, which came in third place, won fewer seats than has been apocalyptically predicted for the past few weeks. The leftist Labor Party ended up as the fourth largest party, with only 13 seats out of 120.

Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, hoping to be Israel’s Barack Obama, ended up as Israel’s Al Gore--more votes but no viable path to governing. Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu, hoping to resurrect his image by presenting a new, mellower persona, is stuck with the coalition of his worst nightmare--religious, radical, and combative. The public went to the polls to elect a new government and will now watch, helplessly and reluctantly, the unappealing process of political horse-trading. The elections have proven once again that Israel’s electoral system--a parliamentary mess gone wild that rarely produces stable coalitions, and that forces Israel, time and again, into early elections--desperately needs to be reformed.

Though there are no clear winners from yesterday’s polls, the clear loser in this election is ideology. The hardnosed right-wing parties are fairly small--the National Union, presumably representing the settlers and the people who, three years ago, opposed the withdrawal from Gaza, will only have four seats. The left-wing “Peace Now” party, New Movement-Meretz--supported by celebrity authors Amos Oz and David Grossman--won a meager three votes, the worst outcome since its inception. The religious parties lost votes and influence. If a unity government will be formed--which is looking like an increasingly likely possibility--these fringe parties will have almost no influence.

The relative consensus that has been crystallizing among Israelis in recent years means that it is difficult to categorize Israel’s major parties as “left” or “right.” The country’s political landscape consists of very large “center”--to which belong most voters of Likud, Kadima, Labor, and some voters of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu--all in all, about 75 seats out of 120. The margins are now populated by a number of fairly small parties: The Arab parties (7-8 seats), the tiny “left” (Meretz, elements in the Arab-Jewish Hadash, and maybe a member or two of Labor, totaling 6-7 seats), the “right” (National Union, some voters of Yisrael Beiteinu, and some Likud voters, adding up to 15 seats), and the “religious” parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism, with their 15 seats).

This large center rules, but can’t quite decide which party it wants to represent it. In the 2006 election, the newly created Kadima stole centrist voters from Likud to its right, leaving Likud with only 12 seats. In the 2009 cycle, Kadima stole the centrist voters from Labor to its left, leaving Labor with only 13 seats. This is not the result of ideological battle; the Israeli public is not turning rightward. Since 2006, most Israelis have remained skeptical of the peace process, but fairly committed to the idea that the occupied territories will not remain in Israel’s hands permanently.

The change is driven more by the particular politicians running for office. Kadima suffered from its disgraced prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Ehud Barak mistakenly thought that the Israeli public would give him a second chance eight years after the end of his failed term as prime minister. Netanyahu mistakenly believed that he could reclaim the mantle of the articulate maverick that brought him into power in the mid-90s; but as his Likud colleague, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, used to claim (to Netanyahu’s annoyance), Bibi has a glass ceiling limiting his support, since too many people will vote for any party to stop him. (This is mainly his fault, as I recently argued in The New Republic.)

How this all ends is anybody’s guess. Ask the public, and the answer will be clear: unity government. The Israeli center knows that nuanced differences can easily be overcome, and that stability can only be achieved with a centrist coalition. The problem, though, is that at this moment, there are two leaders claiming that they should be the ones leading this coalition. Yesterday’s election was largely about personal preferences, not ideology; the post-election negotiations are likely to be dominated by the same concerns. It’s not a question of right or left, but rather of Bibi or Tzipi.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily for The Jerusalem Post.

By Shmuel Rosner