Israel Election 2015

ISRAEL’s ELECTIONS are over and a process of coalition building is underway. The NCF’s Chief Media Officer, Ms Deborah Pout, analysed the elections and their aftermath. We circulate her conclusions:

The recent Israeli elections saw Benjamin Netanyahu pull a clear and impressive fourth victory from the jaws of defeat. The polls had been narrowing between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the opposition Zionist Union party led by Yitzhak Herzog but many wrote off Netanyahu too early.  Netanyahu has been an adversary never to be underestimated and a master of political wizardry throughout his career. Netanyahu’s victory was in part driven by personality and a populist message. Netanyahu also skilfully managed to take votes from smaller parties such as the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and Habayit Hayehudi, the religious party. This election brought into sharp focus how the israeli media and the pollsters got the elections so wrong and failed to identify the underlying political trends amongst the electorate which led to Netanyahu’s victory.

Yitzhak Herzog was the John Kerry of Israel’s politics, an urbane, thoughtful intellectual who never quite had the popular touch. The Zionist Union was a joint ticket between Herzog’s Labour Party (Hebrew: Avoda) and Hatnuah led by Tzipi Livni. The alliance put Labour back on the Israeli political map with the Zionist Union ending up with 24 seats (Labour itself only had 15 seats in the last Knesset – it’s 13 years since Labour were last able to play a lead role in Israel’s politics). The electorate did not like Herzog’s acceptance of Livni’s condition that the Premiership would “rotate”. All the more so because of the perception amongst some sections of the electorate rightly or wrongly that Livni had changed her political allegiances on one too many occasion (jumping from party to party four times in the space of four elections). Livni, a constant supporter of the peace process, had started her political career in Likud.

The election of Netanyahu (he won 30 seats as opposed to the Zionist Union’s 24) masks a range of dissonant underlying trends. This election shows that Israel is in practice now centre/right in its politics rather than hard right. One new and important factor on the scene was The Joint List which united Israel’s Arab political parties on one ticket and thus became the third largest party in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, with 13 seats. The new centrist party Kulanu (All of Us) founded by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon which champions socioeconomic issues gained an impressive 10 seats in the Knesset. Kahlon, a popular politician and rising star of Israeli politics, could be a kingmaker in the formation of Netanyahu’s new government. The natural alliance for Netanyahu’s Likud would be a right wing coalition. But he may consider another option, that of a “national unity” government together with Herzog and Livni. Such a coalition might be an appealing option to Netanyahu as it would make his government more attractive on the international stage. Such an option is currently being examined in “back channels” though it will be very hard to bring all of Labour (Avoda’s) MPs to this wedding.

Interestingly Israel’s public opinion on a two state solution and the peace process continues to be nuanced. The Israeli Democracy Institute which follows Israel’s public attitudes towards the peace process published a poll just before the elections showing the contradictory attitudes of Israelis. Two thirds of respondents expressed support for continuing to hold peace negotiations but 65% of respondents said they did not believe such negotiations would lead to peace in the coming years. Netanyahu is still in the process of building his coalition which may of course be a coalition of right wing parties. If so prospects for a meaningful resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians seem slim while Netanyahu is at the helm.

Netanyahu’s fourth victory was greeted with disappointment and disquiet in many quarters of the international community  who saw his re-election as signaling the end of any hopes for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians while he leads Israel. During the last days of his increasingly desperate campaign, Netanyahu declared his opposition to a Palestinian State (a change from his Bar Ilan speech and a position he quickly recanted after his victory.) Netanyahu correctly calculated that there were votes to be won by outflanking the right on this issue. Netanyahu’s current position on a Palestinian state seems to be that with the perceived weak leadership of President Abbas it would be a target for regional predators including Hamas from Gaza, “Islamic State” (ISIS) from the East and Hizbollah which is Iran’s proxy to the North. Iran’s nuclear programme is also seen as a severe threat, making it very unlikely that a two state solution can be achieved.    Netanyahu’s bloody and costly military campaign in Gaza in the summer of 2014 also came in for criticism domestically and condemnation internationally. It should be noted that Netanyahu’s popularity initially increased during the military operation in Gaza. Netanyahu used this to his political advantage by cultivating his image as the only credible leader currently in Israeli politics. His poll ratings fell after the summer and Netanyahu’s leadership came under increasing political attack.

A leaked EU document claimed that the deadlock in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and continuing settlement expansion had left Jerusalem on the brink of ‘polarisation and violence’. Some Fatah politicians have expressed fears that frustrations on the Palestinian street may boil over into a Third Intifada. Palestinian protests did turn violent last summer over Israel’s actions in Gaza and the building of more settlements. These issues didn’t seem to play a prominent role in the recent Israeli elections even though there were some attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank. There have been murmurings that Netanyahu may revive and continue Ariel Sharon’s policy of a one sided separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it is unlikely that Netanyahu will be able to implement such unilateral moves either politically or militarily. The main obstacle to a peace process will be the possible formation of a right wing coalition. Therefore if he did return to the negotiating table over a peace process and achieved a deal he wouldn’t have the majority in parliament to implement it.

On the international stage Netanyahu’s policies and diplomacy have led to US/Israeli relations being at an all time low. Many within the Israeli political and security establishment fear that Netanyahu’s leadership is jeopardising Israel’s national interest. They believe his reckless diplomacy vis à vis the United States is threatening Israel’s most important strategic relationship. The election campaign saw Netanyahu’s leadership come in for an unprecedented chorus of public criticism from numerous former senior security officials who called for his ousting as Prime Minister. Netanyahu has indicated he will use his new term in office to try and mend relations with the Obama administration but it may be too little too late. The levels of mistrust and rancour between Netanyahu and Obama are well documented. Many within Israel’s political and security establishment are concerned that Netanyahu’s diplomatic collision course with Obama has weakened Israel’s ability to be heard in Washington over the country’s legitimate concerns regarding the US/Iranian nuclear deal. Israel will also be coming under further scrutiny with attempts to isolate the country diplomatically now that the Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court and may seek to indict  Israelis for war crimes.

The Israeli media and Netanyahu’s political opponents thought that the election would be a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness for the job of Prime Minister. They were sure that the Israeli public was fed up with his rhetoric and lack of ability to deal with the crucial issues. The results prove they were right in their analysis but wrong in their conclusions. When Israelis headed to the polls and had to decide between Herzog and Netanyahu they didn’t really see any alternative.  There is a huge difference between the way the Israeli Prime Minister is seen by his political opponents and the international community, as opposed to how he is seen by ordinary Israeli citizens. In short, the election results mean that Netanyahu’s attention will be primarily focused on domestic socioeconomic issues including the housing crisis and the increased cost of living as well as other internal issues.

For many Netanyahu’s re-election signals more of the same but in the world of Middle Eastern politics if there is one certainty it is uncertainty.

For reference, the following are the final election results as recorded in Wikipedia:
Elections for the 20th Knesset
17 March 2015

Party Leader  % Seats +/−
Likud Benjamin Netanyahu 23.40% 30 +12
Zionist Union Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni 18.67% 24 +3
Joint List Ayman Odeh 10.54% 13 +2
Yesh Atid Yair Lapid 8.81% 11 -8
Kulanu Moshe Kahlon 7.49% 10 +10
The Jewish Home Naftali Bennett 6.74% 8 -4
Shas Aryeh Deri 5.73% 7 -4
Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman 5.11% 6 -7
United Torah Judaism Yaakov Litzman 5.03% 6 -1
Meretz Zehava Gal-On 3.93% 5 -1
(Total number of seats) 120
Note – The above list contains only the parties which passed the threshold.