By Judie Jacobson
The Israeli election has come and gone – with surprising results. Now, the task of forming the next government begins. A few days after the election, we asked two Connecticut professors – Donna Robinson Divine and Ron Kiener – whose areas of expertise encompass Israel and the Middle East, to analyze and interpret the results, and map out the road ahead.
In the coming month, as the government continues to form, we will check in with them for their thoughts and analysis. (Since this interview, both the Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu parties announced that they will join Likud’s coalition.)
Dr. Donna Robinson Divine (DD) is Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College, where she has been recognized several times for her scholarly achievements and excellence in teaching. An expert on Middle East politics and cultures, Divine is the author of three books including Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine. She has held visiting appointments at Yale, Harvard and Hebrew University, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and several Fulbright grants. She is a resident of West Hartford.
Dr. Ronald Kiener (RK) is a professor of religion at Trinity College and currently chair of its Department of Religion. Previously, he served as founding director of Trinity’s Jewish Studies Program, which he led for its first decade. A member of the Trinity faculty since 1983, he was also the founding coordinator of Trinity’s major in Middle Eastern studies. He teaches an annual course entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” He is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mellon Fellowship in Medieval Studies.
Kiener is co-author of The Early Kabbalah, has published articles in the field of medieval and modern Jewish and Islamic thought in a variety of scholarly journals; and is author of several entries in the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. A member of the Association for Jewish Studies, the World Union for Jewish Studies, and the American Academy of Religion, he has also written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs for the Washington Post/L.A. Times wire service. OnTwitter, he is @bingoprof. He lives in West Hartford.
JL: Now that the dust has settled in this rather surprising election, can you help us understand what happened?
DD: Let’s start with the observation that is uncontestable: Namely that the exit polls were wrong. The polls pointing to a much tighter race were wrong, in the sense that they saw both the Likud and Zionist Union either even or, in the last polls that were allowed to be published, even pulling ahead by a few seats. So, even though everyone recognized that it might be much easier for Likud, even with fewer seats than the Zionist Union, to stitch together a coalition, it still was conceivable that the Zionist Union would produce enough seats so there would be a national unity government. But the Likud pulled off a very decisive victory and they have a path to establish a right-wing or what they call a nationalist government. In some ways, the reason this was possible is very simple: Bibi Netanyahu. In Israel it is illegal to publish polls in the last few days before the election, but it’s not illegal to take those polls. So, the [political] parties were still polling, but they can’t publish them, and there were rumors that Likud’s internal polls had shown the number of seats they would win as falling even below 20. Now, whether or not that was true we don’t know, but what Netanyahu did in the last few days of the campaign was to go on a kind of media blitz, giving more interviews probably in the last few days of the campaign than he had given in the six years of his two most recent tenures in office, and using what might be called the politics of fear, which resonate with many Israelis.
Netanyahu essentially said to the electorate, “If you want me as prime minister you cannot vote for any of the parties that would be partners in the coalition” – like Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home] led by Naftali Bennett, or [Avigdor] Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, or even [Moshe] Kachlon’s Kulanu. That seemed to resonate with people. So, Likud did it by cannibalizing its satellite parties. In fact, Ayelet Shaked, the number three person on the Jewish Home list, said that the party ”donated organs” to save Benjamin Netanyahu. That was the metaphor she used.
RK: I’m not surprised [at the election outcome]. I predicted this 60 days ago. I wrote a blog piece in January saying “Benjamin Netanyahu, next prime minister of Israel.” I could see from the polling numbers that even if he had lost by three or four votes and had come in second place he was still going to form the next government. There were a couple of surprising things in this election, but not the outcome. Now the big JLuestion will be whether this is going to be a national unity government, which will be the best possible outcome and I think unlikely, or a hard right religious government, which I think is very likely. Netanyahu is now the longest serving prime minister in the history of the country. He now will have served longer than [David] Ben-Gurion.
JL: What are the “couple of surprising things” you mention?
RK: Israelis vacillate back and forth between going for the big parties and going for the little parties. This was an election in which they went for the big parties; that is to say, over 45 percent of the electorate voted for the two biggest parties. Between Likud and Zionist Union they’re splitting 54 seats. That was not the pattern from the last election. In the last election we had the surprising Yesh Atid victory. This is the least number of parties in a Knesset in a long, long time. There are only nine parties this time – which sounds ridiculous to the American ear, but given the fractured nature of Israeli politics… For those hoping that the country eventually could mature into two, three or four parties, this at least is a move in the right direction. So that was a surprise.
The other surprise is the relatively low number of seats that went to religious parties. The trend over the last eight elections is for the religious parties to pick up more and more seats, but because of the problems with Shas [the ultra-Orthodox party experienced a split late last year] the numbers are the lowest they’ve been in four election cycles. We have to go back to 2003 to see only 22 seats go to religious parties. That doesn’t mean that the Israeli electorate is becoming more secular – I would describe the Israeli electorate as moving to the right and moving closer to God. But there were these new rules that raised the threshold level – you now had to get 3.25 percent of the vote in order to qualify to be included and at that point you would get four seats.
What is not surprising is that the country as a whole shifted to the right in a clear way. When the Israeli electorate is subjected to a war in its immediate past it breaks to the right every time.
JL: But supposedly the big issue in this election was socio-economic. Is that not so?
RK: It’s not so and it never was. That was a smoke screen. First of all, both of the big parties have nothing to really offer on the existential question of Israel/Palestine or Iran. So, the Zionist Union was basically saying ‘anybody but Bibi.’ They really didn’t have anything to run on but domestic issues. But lurking behind every Israeli mind is a month and a half war with Hamas that placed the country in great trepidation with no decisive resolution. And neither side talked about it. Although, in the last 48 hours of the election Netanyahu showed his true colors, if you will, by renouncing his commitment to a two-state solution and by this very ugly call that Arabs are massing in droves at the polls so people need to come out and show their support for the right.
JL: If Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid had made the same sacrifice on behalf of the Zionist Union that the right-wing parties made on behalf of Likud would that have made a difference in the outcome?
DD: Well, in the last few days [Isaac] Herzog [head of Zionist Union] tried to appeal to Yesh Atid. Both parties, Likud and the Zionist Union, were trying to siphon off votes to some extent from their satellite parties – the parties that would be reasonably close to them. But there’s enough of a difference between the supporters of Lapid and those of Herzog so that Herzog wasn’t as successful. Herzog is not a charismatic speaker; he doesn’t project the kind of power that Bibi does and is probably not as good a speaker as Yair Lapid. For people who want someone who projects a little bit of a macho image, an image that he can take on the Palestinian terrorists or be a hard negotiator, Herzog may qualify as all of that, but he doesn’t project that. Herzog is not as appealing as Lapid. He’s just not as good on the campaign trail.
There is a policy issue as well. Lapid supporters probably place a much higher priority on the issue of haredi control over personal status and not serving in the army than the Zionist Union. It was fairly obvious that if Herzog had a shot at forming a government, he would have to convince haredim to support him. So, Yesh Atid voters were not transportable. Second, for Bibi to cannibalize these right-wing parties, he had to adopt their language. He did so in his interviews during
the last days of the campaign. Hence, his statement that indeed there would not be a Palestinian state established during his term of office, mimicking Bennett’s claims, and his alert about the Arab vote adopting the rhetoric of Lieberman. Herzog could not do that with Yair Lapid.
RK: Herzog did appeal to Lapid’s people, but it didn’t work because the overall electorate is fearful and jittery over the security situation. And so, there was no one for the Zionist Union to pull from other than Meretz. If you take a look historically at the size of Labor, [now the Zionist Union] 24 seats is not unusual for them. But where does the party go from here? Whom does it draw from? There’s going to have to be this muscular approach that a right-wing government would take. It’s going to have to somehow, in a tragic way, bottom out before the Israeli electorate will try something else. Herzog just didn’t have a program to run on. Tzipi Livni [who shares leadership of the Zionist Union with Herzog] is certainly the Obama White
House’s favorite Israeli politician but she is becoming a kind of toxic figure in Israeli politics. This isn’t the first time that an Israeli politician is more popular overseas than he or she is in-country. An indication of how bad things were going was the last minute announcement by Herzog and Livni that they would drop their rotation agreement. They were not the dynamic duo.
JL: Given his big win, what kind of coalition can we expect Netanyahu to construct?
DD: There are many questions, but among them is what are the satellite parties, who feel that Bibi siphoned off their constituents, going to demand for supporting the coalition, particularly the settlers and the very hard-liners? Netanyahu historically has liked to balance the extreme hard-liners with more moderate centrist people so he can swing between the two. It’s not clear how broad a coalition he will establish and what he will do vis a vis some of the international and security issues that he will definitely confront.
Netanyahu is not stupid. He knows the international situation. He knows that American support is critical. I don’t think he’s going to want to be totally beholding and dependent on the settlers, some of whom want to push the envelope in terms of building. The first hint of what will happen is what happens with Kachlon’s party [Kulanu]. Kachlon ran a campaign highly focused on socio-economic issues. To have that kind of focus you can’t put your money into settlements and religious yeshivot near Hebron. He won’t be able to accomplish what he wants. And, not only would Kachlon have to have a strong say on financial policy, but a strong say on housing as well. In [Kulanu], the number two spot is held by Yoav Galant, who knows the security and military issues, and number four on the list is Michael Oren, who knows the international situation. They’re not lefties, but they are pragmatic centrists. It’s going to be interesting to see what Bibi does with that party and how he balances that with some of the right-wing people.
RK: Even if the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, thinks that it would be best for Israel’s democracy to have a national unity government, I don’t think that’s the direction in which Bibi is headed. This gives Bibi the opportunity to put together a coalition more to his liking. Which was the whole point of this election. He has a chance now to create a government without the two major irritants that befouled, as he sees it, his last government: Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni. He will in all likelihood create a government at least without one of them and he hopes without either of them.
I’m worried that a hard right government and a more right-wing security cabinet will make real the possibility of an Israeli airstrike on Iran – something that I never believed would have happened. For years, with all this talk about ‘will he or won’t he,’ I’ve always thought he was constrained by pragmatic members of his inner security cabinet. But he’s now going to get a new inner security cabinet, and they will be much more inclined to overrule the generals and the intelligence community and take a shot at it. There is the real potential here for a shift on Iran. If he creates a right-wing, religious government, which is I think what he wants, then you will see international isolation, no reset with the U.S. and an increased likelihood of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
JL: What’s up next for the Zionist Union in light of its defeat?
DD: Labor will go into the opposition and I hope they learn from this. They need to build up their connections with the Israeli electorate in order to build local organizations; so that they’re not just coming to them when there’s an election. They may have to sort out a new kind of leadership. If Herzog is effective he can bring together the opposition – the Arab List, Yair Lapid, etc. – and raise questions about some of the policies with which they disagree.
RK: There is already horrible fall-out in the so-called Israeli left. The leader of Meretz, Zahava Gal-On, announced her retirement [two days after the election]. She ran an awful campaign and so she took responsibility for the lowest performance for Meretz since the party’s existence. The Israeli “left” is in the doldrums. Look, there’s 10 percent of the Israeli electorate that’s locked into the Arab vote; about 35 percent that’s locked into the center-left; and about 40 percent that’s locked into the right. That leaves us with 15 percent or so. Those are the undecideds. If the security situation is hospitable, they might break to the center. But when the security situation is threatening – and it’s certainly threatening now, with the war with Hamas not even a year old, and ISIS to the left and to the right in Syria and in Sinai – I have no doubt that the Israeli electorate is going to break to the right. And that’s what happened.
JL: Some say that Kachlon’s party, Kulanu, is holding all the cards. True?
DD: I think he holds a lot of cards but there is not a choice but that he’ll have to negotiate with Netanyahu. The ultimate card would be “Well, if you don’t give me what I want I’ll go to Herzog.” But he can’t do that now.
RK: This notion of Kachlon the kingmaker is preposterous. Netanyahu can create a government with or without him. Kachlon is naturally a Likud person. Remember, he was the minister of communication. He’s Likud through and through. He’s been offered the Finance Ministry, which is a very dangerous position to hold – as Yair Lapid learned. He might ask for a little bit more, but I don’t see him as the king-maker. He doesn’t have a blocking strength to prevent Netanyahu from forming a hard right government or from forming a national unity government.
JL: It seems the Arab parties did quite well by joining forces to create the Joint Arab List.
DD: They did quite well. They have 14 seats and there are three other Arabs who ran on different Jewish parties who got in. The Joint Arab List is headed by a very, very impressive politician named Ayman Odah. While he has a lot of criticisms of Israel and a lot of criticisms about the way the Israelis treat the Arabs, he has stood for producing something for the Arabs. A heavy percentage of the Israeli Arabs – the Palestinian citizens of Israel – want their parties to deliver more goods. They’re not as interested as some of their politicians would suggest in the national rights of the Palestinians and Islamist movements; there are some of those, but by and large most Israeli Arabs want more benefits for their towns and villages in housing and more job opportunities.
There are a couple of problems. The 14 Joint Arab List members of the Knesset represent four different parties. Not all of those parties are really interested in working on these bread-and-butter issues. Some, like Haneen Zoabi, are more interested in making a point of delegitimizing or denouncing Israel. That doesn’t allow you to be brought into the right committees to broker agreements for your constituents. So, the big question is can they stay united, because the four factions that comprise the Arab list hate one another. They have long-standing disputes. With Netanyahu reelected, their opposition to him might keep them more easily united. The question is will they be able to work effectively with Herzog.
RK: They did do well. The 17 Israeli Arabs going into this next parliament are the highest number there have ever been. The engagement of the Arab Israeli in Israeli democracy has always been a point of contention within the Arab Israeli community – and they came out in numbers higher than the overall turnout. There hasn’t been a voter turnout like this since 1999, and the Arab turnout was even higher than the Jewish turnout. So, conceivably, that bodes well, unless the conclusion that the Arabs draw after such a high turnout and such an awful conclusion, at least as far as they go, is “who needs it.” Then, in the next election – which I can assure you will occur in less than four years because this is not going to be a long-lived government – may be that they choose to stay at home.
JL: Why do you think that this won’t be a long-lived government?
RK: Because there are social issues. Let’s say, for example, that Kachlon gets the Finance Ministry and discovers that the reforms he promised to make in real estate prices, in cost of living, are impossible to achieve in an Israel in economic isolation internationally and because of the demands of the defense needs of the country. At some point he may say “I’m out of here.” In other words, even a hard right government has internal conflicts that will likely result in dissatisfaction amongst the various constituencies. Since 2003 there have been five governments; we’re reaching the point where there’s an election on average about every three years. So, I don’t expect this government to last.
JL: At press time, Rivlin was in the process of consulting with the various parties to determine whom he will ask to form the next government. Clearly, that will be Likud. What is the process after that?
RK: Netanyahu then has a time period of, I believe, 30 days, to form a government. And he can then ask for an extension. My guess is, to be a bit of a statesman, Netanyahu will go through the motions of trying to create a national unity government as he did two years ago. But he’ll either set up impossible demands that the Zionist Union would never agree to or, in any case, the Zionist Union has already said that they’re going into the opposition. But all of this is sort of positioning. Netanyahu will sign a series of coalition agreements. Then the real negotiations occur – who gets which ministry – and certain basic principles of what the government commits itself to. Then he announces the government.
JL: Can you comment on Netanyahu’s statement at the end of the campaign disavowing the two-state solution and warning of Israeli Arabs coming out in droves to vote?
DD: In the last few days, in an effort to gather votes, Netanyahu made very strident comments about his opposition to a Palestinian state — at least the way it was reported, particularly in the Western press. When you parse what he said actually in the Hebrew context and what he had said in the past, the two positions are not all that different. He had stated his support in principlefor the idea of a Palestinian state, but had hedged it with all kinds of caveats and security demands that made an agreement very unlikely. The statement he made in the last days of the campaign, which was reported as Bibi having reversed his position, was a little more ambiguous in the way it evolved. He was talking about the general security situation in the Middle East — the problem of ISIS and the Islamists on the borders, and terrorism, and the role of Hezbollah in the Syrian war. He was talking about this general problem in the context of Israel’s having withdrawn from territory that then became used as bases for attacks against Israel. Within that context, the reporter interviewing him said, “Does that then mean you would be opposed to a Palestinian state?” And he said, “Indeed, under my watch a Palestinian state will not arise.” Now, in fact, it’s unlikely that a Palestinian state would emerge under the watch of even the most extreme leftist politician – namely, if someone from Meretz became prime minister — because of all sorts of demands that the Palestinians feel they have to make about a right of return that no Israeli leader has been able to comply with. But that’s a whole other story. This was taken as some grand reversal.
He also made a statement — again during election day — that the Arab citizens of Israel were going to the polls in droves, which in fact was not necessarily so accurate. He walked that back a little bit during the day by saying he was opposed to the fact that they were being bussed by foreign NGOs with foreign money and that, of course, Arab citizens of Israel should vote. So, he saw that he had stepped over the line. He’s known for strident rhetoric and much more moderate action, but still, that doesn’t make him popular with Europe and President Obama.
RK: On Israel and Palestine, he can walk back diplomatically his campaign promise to never implement a two-state solution, but no world leader is going to believe him after what he did in the last few days; and very few believed him in 2009 when he made the commitment to a two-state solution. But I think the dream that American Jews have that Israel is open to a two-state solution as a matter of principle and that what has happened is they have probably confronted an implacable Palestinian foe has fallen apart here. The next prime minister of Israel has retracted his commitment to a two-state solution. That’s really all you’ve got to say about that. So, there will no forward motion; there will be no reset with the Obama administration.
JL: As a result of those comments, the rift between Netanyahu and Obama has deepened, with Obama stating that the U.S. is going to reassess its stance on Israel. What can we expect?
DD: A lot depends on whether Netanyahu makes some sort of statement in the next few days and kind of moderates his stand on the Palestinians [which he subsequently did]. A lot depends on what he says and the policies that he seems to endorse in terms of forming the coalition; what price he’s going to have to pay to create a government internally and what the message is to the U.S. Part of the problem with Netanyahu is that he’s been so demonized internationally that the Europeans will be watching for what these statements and policies that he proposes will be. I’m sure he doesn’t want Israel to have to face sanctions or economic boycotts from the European Union. He will want the U.S. to continue to shelter Israel from adverse Security Council resolutions with U.S. veto. If he forms a very right-wing government and engages in much more robust settlement building and things that have created difficulties with the Europeans and the U.S. it could be very damaging to Israel.
RK: I think two or three things are going on simultaneously. First, I have no doubt that the President was deeply offended by the “Arabs are voting in droves” election-day comment by Netanyahu, and rightly so. These two men have anti-chemistry for each other.
But if I were sitting in the White House right now, I’d use the next four or five weeks to try and “manage” this problem in a way that produces an Israeli government it thinks it could work with. It’s really quite reminiscent of what happened back in January-February 2009, when an incoming Obama was expecting to have Tzipi Livni as PM, and then when the results of the election became clear, tried desperately to influence the Israeli coalition negotiations towards a national unity government. And failed. By using the dreaded “R” word -”reassessment” – Obama is signaling to responsible Israeli politicians that there will be predictable consequences for Israel if it goes the direction of a narrow right-wing government. So I am not overly troubled by the nastiness Obama is projecting, and one can see that it is working a bit with Netanyahu, who has tried to walk back his campaign rhetoric in an effort to calm the international community.
The best outcome remains a long-shot national unity government, and that depends on having two parties willing to tango. Neither Netanyahu nor Herzog have indicated the slightest proclivity towards national unity. But it’s very early in the process. Let’s see what happens over the next four to six weeks – the time most seasoned Israeli political pundits say it will take to strike a coalition deal. I expect the rhetoric and signaling between Washington and Israeli politicians will be extremely disquieting for the next 30 days, but if it results in an Israeli government that includes moderating forces, opening room for a renewed American arbitrated peace process, it will be an uncomfortable period quickly forgotten.
If responsible Israeli leaders ignore this signaling, and agree on a narrow right-wing coalition, the last 22 months of the Obama administration will rival the lowest points in US-Israel relations, going back to the Eisenhower administration.