On Jan. 22, Israelis voted and, depending on the sources you consult, the results were either a ‘victory’ or a ‘disaster’ for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This highlights the lack of understanding of the electoral process in Israel and the degree to which our media is quick to project our own concepts of winning and losing on a system that is not like ours. Several points:
• American’s notion of winning and losing doesn’t project well on the Israeli system. The loss of a number of seats by Likud-Beitenu, the dominant party going into this contest, was within an acceptable range, allowing Bibi Netanyahu to more than likely retain his leadership position. While there still might be some turbulence because the mechanics of the system call for President Peres to convene a meeting with the largest vote getting party’s leadership and that is yet to happen, Netanyahu will likely retain his post.
• The key strategic element in this year’s election positioning was the merger of the two right of center parties, Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor LIberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. These two parties held a combined 42 seats in the last Knesset. The recent election created a joint party that retained 31 of those seats — still the largest entity in the Knesset. Two new right of center parties surged to fill the void.
• The explanation: Indictments of politicians running for office in Israel are unfortunately very common. Judicial inquiry, it seems, is an active election tool. This contest was no exception and featured a pending indictment of Avigdor Lieberman. Unknown, prior to full disclosure, was the severity of the indictment. If it was manageable there would be little harm. A severe problem would be posed if the indictment cost too many seats to retain power. In the end, many of the elements were either previously disclosed, weak or already disproven, and the damage while still present was limited.
• The merger of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu was to some extent a way of managing this process. Preserving the basic strength of both parties was preferred to gambling with the deeper loss that might ensue if the indictment turned out to be the focus of the campaign. Lieberman’s immediate resignation from government on release of the less than disastrous indictment, spoke to the coalition’s effort to limit the damage. It is rumored that Arthur Finkelstein, Avigdor Lieberman’s adviser and former Netanyahu strategist, oversaw this risk management effort and the end result fell in line with his expectations.
— Another key element: While many in the media like to paint the results of almost all elections in Israel as being dominated by ‘right wing extremists,’ one only has to look at election results going back 30 years to see that this isn’t true. From Begin to Shamir to Netanyahu and Sharon, Israeli voters have opted for the party or combinations of parties that have made a secure and safe Israel their top priority. In fact, they’ve voted for that interest in increasing numbers. Other considerations do come into play. At time, religious and secular prerogatives or economics dominate the polls and affect the elections, but the Israeli voter is capable of discerning differences in priorities and places his or her priority into line relative to the context of the time.
• With an almost 70% turnout, no one drags Israelis to the polls. The dialogue in Israel about things political is constant and each interest group clusters around its own media. Still, the Israeli electorate has opted for a center right coalition in every election since 1983 with two exceptions. The problem with outside analysis is that the Israeli center is further right than most observers are willing to acknowledge.
• One of the highlights of this election was the decline of Labor Left parties. While attributable to some extent to the personalities involved, this too does not portend a major shift. It simply means that on national security issues — the ones that dominated this and several previous elections – these parties were found wanting. When the other issues of import to the Labor Left constituency come to the fore, they are likely to gather more rather than less support and reassert themselves in the person of political voices with which we are not yet familiar. New faces tend to rise up quickly in Israel. That is part of the dynamic of the Israeli parliamentary system.
• Lastly, in times of danger, Israelis tend to close ranks. Not surprisingly, the existential threat of Iran is more dominant in their thinking today than it has been at any other time. The turmoil in the Israeli/American alliance also weighs on the electorate’s consciousness. It is these concerns rather than any ideological lock step, as characterized by some in our media, that bring Israelis together.