Alpher offers a preliminary assessment of the Israeli election and discusses the broad ramifications of the narrow victory for Binyamin Netanyahu and surprise showing for Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, the coalition possibilities, and what characterized this election in contrast with previous ones.
Israel votes: preliminary assessment
Near-final results of Israel's elections (soldiers' votes won't be counted until Thursday):
Likud Beitenu: 31; Yesh Atid: 19; Labor: 15; HaBait HaYehudi: 11; Shas: 11; Yahadut HaTorah: 7; HaTnua: 6; Meretz: 6; Raam-Taal: 5; Hadash: 4; Balad: 3; Kadima: 2.
Q. Israel's Knesset elections appear to have produced a narrow victory for Binyamin Netanyahu and a surprise showing for Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. What are the broad ramifications?
A. First, we have a 60-60 tie between the right-religious bloc and the center-left-Arab bloc. This means that Netanyahu cannot create the kind of right-religious government that appears to constitute his "natural" political environment. In this sense, this is a narrow and surprising victory for the center-left.
Second, and somewhat in contrast to the above assertion, Lapid's surprising showing--which clearly reflects the inability of traditional pre-election polling to focus on the kind of facebook and twitter campaigning conducted by Lapid--leaves us with many question marks. Yesh Atid insists it has broken the usual left-right mold in Israel, which is based primarily on the question of what to do on the Palestinian issue. None of its 19 new members of Knesset has ever served in the Knesset. Lapid's primary platform planks call for reforms in the allocation of national financial resources (anti-Haredi), the system of government, and the education system. He could easily sit in the same government with Likud Beitenu and HaBait HaYehudi--not a peace coalition.
In short, while Netanyahu is almost certain to form the next government, Lapid will to a large extent be able to determine its direction. And we don't know how he will behave.
Third, the strong showings of Yesh Atid, Meretz and HaBait HaYehudi reflect the real meaning of the social justice protest movement of the summer of 2011. Secular and national religious (orthodox) Israelis voted for values, including a radically different approach to the growing Haredi population and its asymmetric privileges, and gained. Labor and the social justice movement's leaders, two of whom are now MKs on the Labor list, carefully avoided getting into issues of religion and state (meaning Haredi entitlements and draft-dodging) and the peace issues, and did not do nearly as well. Netanyahu did little to engage social justice demands, and paid.
Fourth, the Arab parties (taken together) and Yahadut HaTorah (Ashkenazic Haredim) each grew by one or two members of Knesset. This represents demography, pure and simple: these are Israel's fastest growing populations. The Arab parties' growth is particularly striking in view of the low voter turnout of Israeli Arabs.
The overall voter turnout was 66.6 percent of some 5.6 million eligible voters, which is consistent with recent years' performance. There will be some 50 new MKs this time around, which is extraordinary and could, at least initially, affect Knesset efficiency.
Q. So what are the coalition possibilities?
A. A center-secular-national religious coalition base (no Haredim) comprising Likud, Yesh Atid, HaBait HaYehudi and Kadima would have 63 members and could deal forthrightly with issues of religion and state, national service, education and perhaps electoral reform. It could probably bring in Labor as well, although this would require Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich to back off from her pledge not to join a Netanyahu government. It would not be interested in or able to sustain a peace process, hence would be blamed for isolating Israel regionally and internationally even further and potentially bringing about security deterioration.
Alternatively, Netanyahu could form a government with Yesh Atid, HaTnua, and/or Labor and even Meretz and Kadima that is dedicated to both social justice reforms and a peace process. In this case, Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman would be hard put to keep their 31 MKs in line, given the proliferation among them of right-wingers and settlers.
Finally, Netanyahu could form a 60-member right-religious government with HaBait HaYehudi, Shas, and Yahadut HaTorah's external support (for halachic-religious reasons, the Ashkenazic Haredim do not actually "join" a government and receive ministries). It would exist at the mercy of its own internal contradictions and the aspirations of the 60-member opposition to bring it down. It would quickly collapse. But demands put forth by the center parties, led by Lapid, coupled with rightist pressures from within Likud Beitenu, could force Netanyahu to consider this short-term option.
Into these equations, factor in the Iran issue, Israeli-American relations, and the danger of security deterioration emerging from Syria. In view of the electoral dead heat, Obama administration pressure could definitely affect the formation of Netanyahu's next coalition in the direction of peace and moderation; conceivably, the Goldberg leaks last week concerning President Obama's opinion of Netanyahu already had this effect. Still, it's hard to believe we are looking at a period of political stability in Israel.
Q. What in particular characterized this election in contrast with previous ones?
A. This election featured personalities--Netanyahu, Naftali Bennet, Yair Lapid, Shelly Yacimovich, Tzipi Livni--over issues. Likud Beitenu's election slogan, "A strong prime minister in a strong Israel", placed alongside photos of Netanyahu, emphasized strength, stability and personality--nothing more. Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Israel's two greatest strategic challenges, were barely mentioned. Nor was the growing chaos in neighboring Syria, which could soon affect Israel's border security.
Rather, the more prominent issues were social and economic. When Netanyahu did publicly take credit on a billboard for delivering on a policy question, it was for lowering cellular costs or stopping the infiltration of Africans from Sudan and Eritrea seeking work and asylum. Obviously, this fell short of voters' expectations.
Secondly, the election featured a fragmented and disunited political center-left whose internecine feuding precluded any possibility of generating a list that could compete quantitatively with Likud Beitenu and vie for President Shimon Peres' green light to try first to form a governing coalition. Had Netanyahu foreseen this development, he might not have combined the Likud list with that of Yisrael Beitenu with its heavy Russian-speaking voter base--a tactical move that ultimately lost many votes for both lists
Finally, the unusually strong showing by Lapid and Bennet bespeaks a desire on the part of the public to support young and charismatic leaders who boast of "new" agendas and new politics. Either or both could gain another mandate once the soldiers' votes are counted.
One upshot of these developments, coupled with the certainty generated by the merger on the right that Netanyahu would again be prime minister--thereby "freeing" some voters to opt for smaller "boutique" parties--is an unusually fragmented Knesset. That means less governability under the next coalition, no matter what it looks like, because the ruling Likud contingent in the Knesset is so small that it will almost certainly have fewer than 50 percent of the ministries in its own Cabinet.