Legislative elections were held in Israel on January 22, 2013. All 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, were up for reelection. Israel uses a slightly modified type of d’Hondt proportional representation in a single national constituency with a 2% threshold for parties to qualify for seats. Israeli politics are remarkably convoluted, understanding the complexity of Israeli politics and the conflicting ideologies of the various parties are challenging for any casual observer. My preview post tried to explain every party, who they were, what they stood for and what was at stake for them on January 22.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking a third term in office and a second consecutive term. To boost his chances, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud allied with Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing nationalist party led by his controversial (now former) foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has often been described by his opponents as a racist, a xenophobe and hard-line radical nationalist. Netanyahu allied with Lieberman’s party in a move to secure support on his right. Netanyahu is often painted by the western media as an arch-nationalist, a hardliner opposed to any negotiations with the Palestinians and possibly the most right-wing leader which could come out of Israel. In Israel, however, Netanyahu is widely seen as a moderate within his party and certainly more moderate on the Palestinian question than many on the right. Many on the right were dismayed when, in 2009, Netanyahu endorsed – tepidly – a two-state solution for the first time; even if he has since done next to nothing to walk the walk on this issue. His attempt to secure his right by allying with Lieberman was unsuccessful, because Netanyahu found himself overwhelmed by a surge in support for the far-right Jewish Home coalition, led by the young ex-military software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, whose tough, uncompromising stance on the Palestinian question attracted many right-wingers. Bennett’s surge forced the Palestinian issue back into the election, which Netanyahu and his main opponent – Shelly Yachimovich of the Labour Party – had wanted to be about the economy (and social policies).
The Israeli centre and centre-left – which tends to be more dovish on the Arab-Israeli conflict – was widely seen as being headed to a very disappointed election which would confirm that Israeli society is shifting to the right, favouring arch-nationalist hardliners. Labour expected to come a distant second, a mediocre result which would have allowed it to lick its wounds and slowly heal itself after a disastrous election in 2009. Kadima, the centrist party which governed between 2006 and 2009, was fighting for its political survival; while ormer Kadima leader Tzipi Livni hoped that her reinvention as a quite dovish peace-focused centre-leftist could allow her to return after losing the Kadima leadership in 2012. Finally, Yeir Lapid, a journalist who entered politics a year ago with his new centrist party, Yesh Atid, hoped that his campaign focused on socio-economic matters and targeting the middle-classes would propel him to a strong showing.
Turnout was 67.07%, up from 65.2% in 2009 and 63.2% in 2006. This is fairly high turnout, though it is lower than what was predicted from earlier turnout results throughout the day. Two hours before polls closed, turnout was up 4% since 2009 and it was expected that final turnout could reach 69-70%. Unlike in 2009 and 2006, there was not a substantial number of voters who voted in the last two hours. Turnout increased by only 3.5% in the last two hours, against 5.5% in 2009 and 6% in 2006. Interestingly, this was despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute plea to his supporters to turn out and vote. As the poll closing drew nearer, Netanyahu and the Likud openly voiced their worries about the result and feared that they were heading for a worse result than expected. On the other hand, Yair Lapid was optimistic about his chances.
The results currently stand as (votes compared to 2009, seats compared to dissolution and 2009):
Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 23.32% (-9.99%) winning 31 seats (-11)
Yesh Atid 14.32% (+14.32%) winning 19 seats (+19)
Labour (HaAvoda) 11.39% (+1.46%) winning 15 seats (+7, +2)
Jewish Home-National Union 9.12% (+2.91%) winning 12 seats (+7, +5)
Shas 8.75% (+0.26%) winning 11 seats (nc)
United Torah Judaism 5.17% (+0.78%) winning 7 seats (+2)
Hatnuah 5.17% (+5.17%) winning 6 seats (-1, +6)
Meretz 4.54% (+1.59%) winning 6 seats (+3)
United Arab List-Ta’al 3.65% (+0.27%) winning 4 seats (+1, nc)
Hadash 2.99% (-0.33%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Balad 2.56% (+0.08%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Kadima 2.10% (-20.37%) winning 2 seats (-19, -26)
Otzma LeYisrael 1.76% (+1.76%) winning 0 seats (-2, nc)
Am Shalem 1.2% (+1.2%) winning 0 seats (-1, nc)
Ale Yarok 1.15% (+0.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 1% 3.0% (+0.29%) winning 0 seats (nc, nc)
Right-Religious Bloc 48.12% (-4.28%) winning 61 seats (-4 since 2009)
Centre-Left, Left and Arab Bloc 47.92% (+3.39%) winning 59 seats (+4)
including Arab Parties 9.20% (+0.02%) winning 11 seats (nc)
As predicted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘won’ the elections on January 22, though he suffered a major setback. He comes out of these elections weakened, challenged both by a rejuvenated centre/centre-left led by a new face and by a slightly weakened but also more radical right (both inside and outside his party). Netanyahu is a winner and he will have his third term as Prime Minister of Israel, but these results are quite bad for his party. Netanyahu was ‘reelected’ only because he lacked an obvious credible challenger who could take him on. His main opponent throughout the campaign, Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich never really proved herself as a strong, credible alternative to Netanyahu; while the star of the hard right, Naftali Bennett, was too polarizing and too right-wing for the wider electorate to emerge as a serious threat to Netanyahu’s position as Prime Minister. Therefore, even if the electorate was eager for a change and many embraced new leaders or new parties, they could not find an alternative to Netanyahu and the result is that he remains where he is, even though he comes out quite roughed up.
Netanyahu and the Likud-YB’s campaign was uninspiring and unexciting, characterized by a general dearth of new ideas. In fact, Likud-YB did not even present an updated platform in this election. He stuck to mildly hawkish language about defending the settlements and presenting himself as the strong leader who would be best positioned to resist American pressure to freeze the construction of new settlements. He emphasized an economic record which he claimed has kept Israel out of the crisis. Voters to his left were looking for a new direction, more favourably inclined to real negotiations with the Palestinians and critical of Netanyahu’s economic and social policies. Voters to his right were unimpressed by his record in office since 2009 and were attracted by leaders such as Bennett who were more unequivocal in their opposition to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s attempt to shore up his right flank was, as predicted, rather unsuccessful (and counterproductive?). His new ally, Avigdor Lieberman, is no longer the star of the hard-right (unlike in 2009) and he has lost his touch, in good part because of his indictment for corruption. Within his own party, Netanyahu had failed to dominate the internal primaries which saw his right-wing challengers do well and the old moderates decimated.
The real surprise was that Israel did not shift to the right as predicted. Netanyahu did even worse than the last polls had predicted (the lower end of his range in the final polls was 32 seats) and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home did not quite as well as had been widely anticipated. Despite regional tumult with the Arab Spring, a general pessimism amongst Israelis on the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program presented as an existential threat to Israel by the Prime Minister; the electorate did not shift to the right, in fact it shifted towards the centre. Israel is not, ultimately, the increasingly nationalistic and religious country it had become increasingly fashionable to portray.
The major winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a party founded only a year ago by Yeir Lapid, the son of a cabinet minister and anti-clerical politician and a popular journalist and TV host himself. Lapid’s party placed a respectable second, taking 19 seats, far more than it had been expected to win (8-13). Either the polls themselves were wrong or something happened in the final stretch (no polls could be published between January 18 and 22) which moved many votes towards Lapid and, seemingly, away from Netanyahu’s right and the far-right. Lapid was a popular, charismatic and consensual journalist and TV host who often focused his attention on the Israeli middle-class, which is often described as being left on the side of the road in the polarized and divided society between the left’s ‘peaceniks’, the hardline religious settlers and the ultra-orthodox Haredim. His campaign’s general orientation was vague, although he did offer some specifics on what he sought to change in the country – a welcome break from a campaign in which other candidates seemed more interested by gimmicky campaign ads than substance.
Yesh Atid’s centrist, consensual campaign appealed to the middle-ground, backed by the attractive notion of ‘change’ and a focus on the middle-class. Lapid’s party is secular, though not as secular as most had expected. Its list included some rabbis, some of which are orthodox or religious Zionist (although all quite moderate or liberal). It includes both a mayor formerly associated with the pro-peace left-wing Meretz (Yael German) and a former head of Shin Bet (Yaakov Peri). One of the cornerstones in Lapid’s platform was “equal sharing of the burden” – that is, extending the draft to the Haredim (and perhaps even Arabs) who can receive an exemption from military service to pursue full-time Torah study. Lapid either wants to draft them into the IDF or allow them to do a civilian ‘national service’ instead. But while his father had been the leader of a virulently anti-clerical, anti-Shas party; Lapid is far more consensual, even on this divisive subject. He has insisted that he is not hostile to ultra-orthodox Jews, but only wants to find a way to share the burden of military/service more equally, a position which resonated well with his middle-class and largely secular electorate.
Israel’s politically centrist, religiously secular or indifferent middle-classes often care more about domestic issues – such as the economy, the cost of living, housing prices and public services – than they do about the old Arab-Israeli conflict. Lapid’s campaign spoke to those middle-class voters with a platform and campaign focused more on those domestic priorities than on peace negotiations and a solution to the conflict. He vowed to fight the lower Israel’s notoriously high housing prices, build more apartments and improve the education and healthcare system. Lapid campaigned under the slogan of “change” and “changing things”, which has led to the inevitable comparisons with Obama in 2008. His message of change worked, because many of the voters he targeted – the middle-class – are unhappy with the existing parties and were eager for a fresh alternative.
Yair Lapid struck the middle-ground on most issues, from the economy to diplomacy; and this moderate, pragmatic centrism appealed to a good part of an electorate which is, after all, more moderate than many had assumed. Outside of the occupied territories, in central Israel, most voters are focused on ‘kitchen table issues’ rather than the conflict. A Haaretz (centre-left) columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote that Israelis “want nothing, only to be left alone” and that Lapid, for these middle-class centrists, was the perfect embodiment of what they wanted from their politicians: “looks good and dresses well, (…) well-spoken and well-married, lives in the right neighborhood and drives the right kind of Jeep. With that, he doesn’t say much. He’s not extreme, heaven forbid, that’s not who we are, nor does he stick his hand in the fire, that’s not us either. He stays away from any divisive issues, just as Israelis prefer.” Levy writes that “voters want a quiet, good life, peaceful and bourgeois, and to hell with all those pesky nagging issues.”
It may be a very cynical commentary and one may take issue with the gist of the editorial; but it reflects an interesting perspective. In the foreign press, Israel makes headlines because of the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear threat or the attention-grabbing actions of a few more radical settlers or nationalists. Most would be led to assume that these issues are the first preoccupation for voters – after all, the left-right divide in Israel is built around such issues. However, Lapid’s success – but also the success of past centrist parties, most recently Kadima in 2006 – show that, for many (but not all) voters, domestic issues and concerns common to voters around the world are a top priority. The 2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv and around the country showed the importance of issues such as housing prices, public services or cost of living to the urban middle-class, which often feels ignored by the major parties. Labour had hoped to benefit electorally from the protests, in fact, two of the protest leaders were on the party’s list. It appears that Yesh Atid, rather than Labour, may have benefited the most from these protests instead.
The attitude of a plurality of Israelis towards the conflict also reflect the prevalence of ‘moderate’ opinions. According to the December 2012 Peace Index, 60% of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution, 68% favour negotiations with the Palestinians and 58% support an independent Palestinian state “in the framework of a peace agreement that includes appropriate security arrangements.” At the same time, however, most Israelis (55%) define themselves as right-wing on the security issue, a bare majority of Israeli Jews (51%) agree that West Bank settlements should not be dismantled, 58% oppose ceding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians within the framework of an agreement and a huge majority (85%) oppose relinquishing control over the Golan. Most Israelis, furthermore, believe that there is no chance for progress in the foreseeable future.
Yair Lapid’s Palestinian-diplomatic agenda was similar. He says that returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinians and escaping Israel’s growing international isolation is urgent. However, he is security-oriented and also has hawkish positions – he supports targeted killings of Hamas leaders, has always advocated for a strong military response to violence from Gaza and vows that Israel must defend itself and its citizen. Similarly, he opposes a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees, opposes ceding control of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state and states that large settlement blocs in the West Bank are a “fact on the ground” and will not be dismantled.
Labour had a very disappointing election with a mediocre result. The party, which was set to become the second largest party in the Knesset and form the main opposition to Netanyahu came out in third place, with only 15 seats – a gain of only two seats for the party since the 2009 election, which had been the party’s worst result in its history. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, a journalist, ran a campaign focused almost exclusively on economic and social matters. She tried to benefit from the 2011 protests and middle-class discontent with Netanyahu’s record on social policies since 2009. By and large, it failed to do so. Her decision to leave peace and security issues on the side of the road alienated the doves within the party, who instead preferred a rejuvenated Meretz. Other, more hawkish Labour supporters, may have preferred Yair Lapid instead. In addition, her decision to rule out participating in a Netanyahu-led coalition was criticized by both Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who competed for left-of-centre secular middle-class voters with Labour. Voters did care about the social and economic issues which Yachimovich focused on, but they likely preferred to vote for a party which had a similar focus and promised to champion those policies and values within a government (Yair Lapid).
Yachimovich failed to become a credible opponent to Netanyahu. She will probably be facing an uphill battle to retain the party’s leadership after a dismal finish for the old traditional governing party. The party’s fortunes have been down the drain since 2001-2003, with a succession of mediocre or hapless leaders who could not turn the party back into a credible alternative for power. Ehud Barak’s decision to bring the party into cabinet in 2009 was disastrous, but even a stint in opposition (since 2011) under Yachimovich did not correct matters.
Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which had very high hopes and expectations for itself on January 22, came out a bit deflated on election night. Predicted to (and expecting to) win some 15 seats and place a solid third if not second, the party came out with a respectable but disappointing 12 seats. It was nevertheless very good result for the party, which had only 5 seats in the Knesset when it was dissolved. But some in the party found it hard not to feel at least a bit disheartened by that performance, when polls had consistently given them around 14-15 and they were riding on a wave of local and foreign media attention. Bennett did not break through as expected, and he will be a less powerful actor in any governing coalition. Bennett’s goal in the election was to break through the old barriers of the Israeli far-right, transcend the religious Zionist and settler base of the old NRP and build a broader nationalist coalition which included more secular or traditionalist voters living outside the West Bank. In part, he was successful: he was quite popular with some younger voters. However, he did not fully achieve the goals he had set out for himself. The party (and its leader) were perhaps the victims of exaggerated expectations. Bennett is a significant political presence rather than a game-changing phenomenon.
Nevertheless, Bennett achieved a solid, respectable and even fairly remarkable result. With Avigdor Lieberman’s power and even influence much diminished, Bennett can become the sole major rival to the right of the Likud (excluding the ultra-orthodox parties which have a tightly knit electorate and a limited range). Even if he didn’t do as well as he would have hoped, Bennett showed himself to be a particularly successful politician – even if this was his first time running for elected office. His rather impressive biography, his charisma and his outsider profile all proved beneficial to him and his party. Compared to Lieberman, who is very much damaged goods by now (though one should not underestimate any Israeli politician’s ability to rebound from lows), Bennett is still a fresh, clean and energetic figure.
The two ultra-orthodox parties did quite well, especially United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which was able to grab two extra seats, giving it 7 members in the new Knesset. The Shas held their ground and their popular vote increased a bit, after a relatively poor performance in 2009. However, given how much noise and how big a fuss they had made about the high-profile return of their former leader, Aryeh Deri, to their list; this could also be seen as a fairly mediocre and underwhelming performance. The two ultra-orthodox parties, who represent Sephardic (Shas) or Ashkenazi (UTJ) Haredim, have a tightly knit electorate which has meant that their electorate has tended to be remarkably stable (less so in the case of the Shas, but especially so for the UTJ – which is even more ultra-orthodox in its electorate than the Shas) in the context of Israel’s famously unstable politics. I am not sure to what the Shas/UTJ’s strong performance this year can be attributed to. Turnout was very strong in their ultra-orthodox citadels, meaning that they likely benefited from the small increase in turnout since the last election. Maybe this increase in turnout/support for the ultra-orthodox parties could be chalked up to fears about being drafted?
Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnuah, founded just a few days right before the elections, won 6 seats. This result is slightly below its numbers in the final polls (7-8 seats), though a result in that general vicinity was expected. She might have might have suffered from what appears to have been a last-minute shift towards Yesh Atid by centrist middle-class voters, the demographic which both Yesh Atid and Hatnuah (but also Labour) were competing for. Her campaign’s heavy focus on the urgency for peace negotiations with the Palestinians might have turned off a few centrist voters, whose primary focus was on domestic rather than diplomatic/Palestinian issues. Centrist parties rise and fall in very quick succession in Israel, and Hatnuah’s fate might be no different. Nevertheless, Hatnuah enters the Knesset with a small but rather experience and/or distinguished caucus. Besides Tzipi Livni, her list had two former dovish Labour leaders (Peretz and Mitzna), a Kadima MK and General Elazar Stern, the IDF commander who supervised the Gaza pullout. Both Peretz and Mitzna might be tempted, depending on what Labour becomes in the next few years, to jump ship again to rejoin their old party.
Meretz performed well, winning 6 seats – doubling its horrible result in the 2009 election (3 seats). In the 2009 election, Meretz – like Labour – had suffered from a late anti-Bibi strategic voting push on the left. This late shift, undetected by pollsters, allowed Kadima – then led by Tzipi Livni – to finish narrowly ahead of the Likud, and meant that Meretz was left decimated with only 3 seats – whereas polls had given it up to 7 seats right before the vote. This strategic shift was quite perceptible on the kibbutzim – a core Labour and Meretz demographic – where Kadima and Labour tied with 31% apiece and Meretz trailed behind with 18%. In addition to recovering those losses, Meretz likely gained some left-wing dovish voters from Labour, alienated from the party by Yachimovich’s exclusive focus on economic/social issues and her reluctance to adopt an overly dovish position on the settlements or peace negotiations. Meretz’s success means that Issawi Frej, an Arab Israeli placed fifth on the party’s list, won a seat in the Knesset. Meretz’s result shows that, while the left-wing ‘peacenik’ camp is not as powerful as it was before the Second Intifada, it retains a small following within the Jewish population.
Together, the three Arab parties won 9.2% and 11 seats – more or less exactly what they had won in 2009, which had been a generally good year for all three parties. There were concerns that turnout would drop even further this year with Arab Israelis, after a prominent Islamic cleric had called on Arabs to boycott the election. However, from the results in various Arab towns, turnout actually increased by around 3% – that is to say, still low (around 56% in general) but over the halfway mark.
In detail, the three parties more or less won the same results as they had in 2009. The exception is Hadash, which lost about 0.3% from its 2009 result. I suspect that, in 2009, the party had won a bit of bicommunal Jewish support from particularly left-wing/pro-Palestinian Meretz voters (at the time, the party’s support for the 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon and the 2008-2009 operation against Gaza had been criticized by some). Once again, the Arab parties did relatively well but they did not achieve their full potential because of their disunity and low turnout. If Arab Israeli voters turned out in high numbers, and voted for a single Arab party, such a party could possibly be the second largest party in the Knesset and be in a far stronger position than the three disjointed parties at pushing for Arab interests. However, as long as Arab Israelis feel marginalized and discriminated against in Israel; as long as their parties feud among themselves and remain excluded from every government, they will have a hard time playing a more prominent role in Israeli politics.
Kadima was nearly wiped out, managing to extend its lease on life for some time again. With 2.09%, it managed to save two seats – one for the party’s hapless leader Shaul Mofaz and one for incumbent MK Yisrael Hasson. The party’s decline began under Tzipi Livni following the 2009 election, when her performance as opposition leader was so mediocre that her party voted her out of the leadership spot in March 2012 by a landslide. Unfortunately for them, Shaul Mofaz turned out to be an even worse leader. After vowing that he would not enter Netanyahu’s government in March, he joined (for two months) Netanyahu’s cabinet in order to push through a reform of the draft law (which the grand coalition was unable to do, leading to Kadima pulling out). This about-face destroyed Kadima’s image and its standing in the polls. The creation of Yesh Atid in early 2012 and Livni’s new party attracted many centrist voters who had backed Kadima in 2006 and 2009. Israeli centrist voters are notoriously volatile voters who have never had a single clear political home.
Shaul Mofaz, a stale and boring politician, could not compete against a media-savvy charismatic figure like Yeir Lapid (or even Livni and Yachimovich). Kadima awaited its fate, like an agonizing patient, throughout the campaign – it just hoped that it could at least save 2 seats rather than be totally obliterated. The party’s campaign was seemingly entirely about reiterating “Shaul Mofaz is not a complete idiot”.
The two new breakaway parties on the right, Otzma LeYisrael (the most far-right party founded by two former National Union MKs) and Am Shalem fell right below the threshold for seats. Otzma LeYisrael’s appeal was limited to the most radical and extremist fringe of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank, where it performed best (by far). Other right-wing nationalist voters, less drawn by the party’s controversial far-right rhetoric, already had their own party: Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. Am Shalem, the Shas breakaway faction led by the renegade rabbi and ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem (who represents a less parochial and open type of Haredi Judaism), also fell short. Pilloried by the ultra-orthodox community for attacking the sacred precept of draft exemption, he was unable to break through with the very parochial and closed ultra-orthodox community. Like most new Israeli parties which try to attract voters who like none of the established parties (but most invariably fail at doing so), it will probably die out now.
You can find a great interactive map of the results, from the sub-district to the precinct level, here. Unfortunately, it’s entirely in Hebrew, but one can get the hang of it and what the colours mean fairly quickly.
The election once again revealed the deep schism which divide’s Israel’s two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The former, the cultural and economic capital, is known for its more relaxed attitude. The latter, the political and religious capital, is a deeply conservative city with a large ultra-orthodox population. In Tel Aviv, Yesh Atid won 20.7% against 17.5% for Likud-YB and 16.8% for Labour. Meretz scored 14.3% and Livni won 7.3%. The results at a precinct level reveal that Yeir Lapid was, unsurprisingly, most popular in northern Tel Aviv: secular, Ashkenazi upper middle-class suburbs where the centre and Labour have always tended to perform well. He won nearly 30% in some precincts in northern Tel Aviv, where Labour and Meretz also polled well – but where Likud only polled in the low teens. In downtown Tel Aviv, a young, artsy and secular gentrified area, Meretz actually topped the poll in a good number of precincts, with Labour and Yesh Atid also doing well. Tel Aviv’s results also reflect a north-south polarization in the city. In the southern neighborhoods, which are poorer Sephardic/Mizrahi areas, Likud and the Shas dominated the polls while the centre-left parties polled quite poorly.
In Jerusalem, however, Yesh Atid placed fifth with only 7% of the votes. It was UTJ, the Ashkenazi Haredim party, which topped the poll with 22% of the vote. Likud-YB won 20.5%, the Shas won 15.6% and Bennett’s JH won nearly 12% of the vote. Jerusalem has a large and politically influential ultra-orthodox population, which makes it a very stark contrast with Tel Aviv, Israel’s more relaxed and secular cultural and economic centre.
In Haifa, northern Israel’s largest city which was once known for its socialist politics, the results more or less followed the national trends. Likud-YB won 26% against 18% for Yesh Atid and 15% for Labour.
Likud-YB did well in cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon or Karmiel which have a large Russian population, Avigdor Lieberman’s primary electoral clientele. But it clearly was not successful in attracting every YB voter from 2009. In Ashkelon, where the two parties combined had taken a big 58% in 2009, they won only 42% against 14% for the Shas, 10% for Lapid and 9% for JH. In Ashdod, another city with a large Russian population, the Likud-YB polled 36% against 17% for the Shas and 10% each for UTJ and Lapid. The Russian population is heavily secular and very hostile towards the religious parties, therefore it is fairly certain that they did not jump ship to the Shas. They might instead have been attracted by Naftali Bennett’s JH for its nationalist right-wing tone or even Lapid’s Yesh Atid for its secular platform, just like many Russians had voted for his father’s party, Shinui, in 2003.
The Likud-YB, unsurprisingly, polled very strongly in the Negev, where the party has been very strong in the largely low-income and Sephardic/Mizrahi ‘development towns’. In Beersheba, the target of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza late last year, it won 38% against 13% for the Shas and 12% for JH. In Sderot, the Israeli town closest to the Gaza Strip, Likud-YB won 37% against 16% apiece for the Shas and JH. Hatnuah, boosted by the presence of local favourite son Amir Peretz on its list, won 11% – Peretz’s Labour had won Sderot in the 2006 election. Even in Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort town (where Kadima had won by 10 points in 2009), Likud performed well with 30% against 18% for Lapid ans 12% for Labour.
In the Bedouin communities of the Negev, the United Arab List (UAL) was very strong, in some communities they polled over 80% of the vote. However, the Shas, who have made concerted efforts to appeal to Bedouin voters in the past, received a respectable share of the vote in some communities. The Shas also polled quite very well in Jewish towns in the south, often second behind the Likud-YB. In Netivot, the Shas took 44% of the vote. The low-income town located near Gaza is a major shrine and pilgrimage place for Sephardic Haredim; Sephardic Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (Baba Sali) is buried there.
Likud-YB also performed well in less affluent larger cities (some of which have a large Russian immigrant population), notably Nahariya (37%), Hadera (34%), Netanya (34%) and areas to the south of Tel Aviv such as Holon or Bet Yam.
Haaretz, in December, described suburban Rehovot as Israel’s bellwether community. Located 20km from Tel Aviv in the populous central district, it includes lower-income areas, more bourgeois neighborhoods, immigrant areas, ultra-orthodox concentrations and the very prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science. Likud-YB won 27% against 16.7% for Yesh Atid, rather similar to the national result. Labour won 13%, the Jewish Home won 11% and the Shas won 8%. Meretz won a precinct around the Weizmann Institute of Science, and took 4% in the city. At 67%, turnout in Rehovot also matched the national average.
Yesh Atid performed best in upper middle-class towns, the traditional base for centrist parties in Israel. In the affluent suburban towns located north of Tel Aviv, for example, Lapid’s party often won in the mid to high 20s. In Kfar Shmaryahu, one of the wealthiest towns in Israel, Yesh Atid received 32% against 16% for Hatnuah and 15% for Meretz – Netanyahu’s party placed fourth with only 13%. In Ramat HaSharon, Lapid’s party took 29% against 17% for Labour and a paltry 15% for Likud-YB. In Hod HaSharon, the results were similar: 29% for Yesh Atid, 10 points ahead of Labour and Likud-YB. In Herzliya, Yesh Atid won 26% against 22% for Likud-YB and 16% for Labour. These patterns hold true outside the Gush Dan, throughout the country. Lapid performed best with the educated and well-off middle and upper middle classes, likely groups concerned more by domestic concerns like high housing prices or the cost of living than by security or diplomatic issues.
In heavily ultra-orthodox towns or precincts, the vote was divided almost entirely between UTJ and the Shas. In Bnei Brak, a major ultra-orthodox town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, UTJ won 60% against 25% for the Shas; the JH and Likud-YB took 4% of the vote each. In Modi’in Illit, a major ultra-orthodox settlement in the West Bank (right across the Green Line), UTJ won 77% against 18% for the Shas. In Beitar Illit, a large and growing ultra-orthodox settlement southwest of Jerusalem, UTJ also won – with 59% – against 30% for the Shas. In Beit Shemesh, a major town outside of Jerusalem with a large ultra-orthodox population, the centre-left was a non-entity. UTJ won 28% in the city, against 23% for Likud-YB, 18% for the Shas and 14% for Naftali Bennett’s party. In all these ultra-orthodox communities, turnout was much higher than the national average (high 70s or 80s).
The results in ultra-orthodox towns show that, unsurprisingly, neither the Jewish Home nor Am Shalem were able to break through the walls of Haredi Judaism. Both parties, especially Am Shalem, performed poorly in ultra-orthodox towns or precincts.
The kibbutzim and moshavim, historically the cornerstone of the Labour Zionist ideology, backed the centre-left – especially Labour and Meretz. However, enthusiasm for either of those left-wing parties, which have dominated the kibbutz movement, is lower than in the past. The kibbutzniks no longer carry much weight within either of those left-wing parties, which have become heavily dominated by the urban middle-class elite. Nevertheless, even if the kibbutzniks will no longer have any of their own in the Knesset and a sense of indifference towards party politics, turnout remained high and most of the votes went either to Labour, Meretz, Yesh Atid or Hatnuah. It appears, from a cursory look through the results, that the centrist parties – Yesh Atid and Hatnuah – performed better in the moshavim, where the farms tend to be owned individually rather than collectively. The Jewish Home won the religious kibbutz communities, a smaller movement associated with religious Zionism.
The Likud-YB and Jewish Home dominated the playing field in the West Bank settlements. In the West Bank as a whole, JH received 28% against 21% for Likud-YB and 17% for UTJ. The largest centre-left party, Yesh Atid, took only 7% of the vote, placing fifth – while Labour’s attempts to appeal to the settlers by toning down their dovish rhetoric ended disastrously: only 4% for the party. Jewish Home also topped the poll, with 24% against 21% for Likud-YB, in the Golan Heights.
The Likud-YB polled best in the largest settlements: Ma’ale Adumim (pop. 31,700) split 42% to 21% with JH; Likud took well over 40% in Pisgat Ze’ev, a settlement in East Jerusalem; in Ariel, Likud-YB won 53% against 16% for JH. Settlers in Ma’ale Adumim or in East Jerusalem neighborhoods/settlements have tended to move there for economic reasons than ideological reasons, in search of cheaper housing and better living standards. As a result, their population often tends to be more secular, although some large settlements (Ramot Alon in East Jerusalem) have a large orthodox population. However, the Jewish Home was very strong in more ideological settlements (which tend to be located further out from Jerusalem), which are dominated by religious Zionism. In Efrat, a growing community with a large population of North American and European Jews, Bennett’s party won 59% against 22% for Likud. In Kiryat Arba, a large settlement bloc near Hebron, JH took 42% while the far-right Otzma LeYisrael placed second with 28%. In Karnei Shomron, it won 43% against 26% for Likud.
Otzma LeYisrael won 8% in the West Bank, performing best with the most radical and extremist factions of the settlers’ movement – those who might have found Naftali Bennett too moderate for their tastes. In Yitzhar, an Orthodox settlement which has the reputation of being the most extremist settlement, Otzma LeYisrael won no less than 72% of the vote against 17% for JH. No centrist or centre-left party appears to have received over 1% of the vote in Yitzhar.
United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as aforementioned, carried the ultra-orthodox settlements of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit in the West Bank.
For an interesting sidenote, even if Labour won only 4% in the West Bank, it can pride itself on receiving 90% in tiny Niran, a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley where 50 voters turned out.
The Arab towns did not vote as bloc for any party, but in almost all major Arab towns the broad outlines are the same: turnout in the 50s, almost all votes for the three Arab parties with Meretz, Labour and sometimes the Shas taking the leftovers. In Rafat, a very poor Arab city in the south with a large urban Bedouin population, the UAL won 56% against 30% for Balad. In Kafr Qasem, things were a bit different. The UAL took 38% in the home base of Islamic Movement leader Ibrahim Sarsur, but Meretz received 35% of the vote, thanks to their new Arab MK, Issawi Frej, who is from the town. In nearby Tira and Taibe, however, the UAL received over 50% of the vote and the rest was split fairly evenly between Balad and Hadash, with Meretz being the most popular non-Arab party. Up north, in Umm-al-Fahm, Hadash took 50%, UAL and Balad split the rest evenly. Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, remained a communist stronghold – Hadash won 49% against 27% for Balad.
The Druze vote, however, was nowhere near as homogeneous. The Druze in Israel have been much more pro-Israeli than the Arab Muslims, to the point that the Druze are drafted into the IDF and some Druze politicians have served in the Knesset for right-wing parties. In Maghar, a Druze-majority town in the Galilee, the Shas – who have at times vigorously canvassed for Arab or Druze votes – won 19%, roughly tied with Hadash which also won 19%. The Likud won 13%, the UAL won 12%, Labour took 8% and Kadima and Hatnuah won 7% each. Kadima actually topped the poll (with 47% and 36% respectively) in Daliyat-al-Karmel and Isfiya, two Druze towns outside Haifa (!).
Israeli elections only partly determine the shape of the next government. Given the massive fragmentation between parties and blocs in Israeli politics and the consistent lack of an absolute majority for any one party, every election is followed by coalition negotiations between parties and their leaders, negotiations which often tend to be long and tortuous as the smaller parties attempt to extract concessions and plum posts in cabinet from the leading party.
The one certainty in this year’s negotiations is that Benjamin Netanyahu will stay as Prime Minister. It was nearly impossible to form a coalition without the Likud-YB after the election, given that such a coalition would realistically need to include all the centre-left/left parties, at least one or two of the Arab parties and one of the ultra-orthodox parties. The Arab parties have never been invited to join any cabinet, their anti-Zionist positions are a huge non-starter and they themselves would not agree to be in a government with Zionist parties. The ultra-orthodox parties would certainly have a hard time being in the same government as unabashedly secular and left-wing Meretz. Yair Lapid, the kingmaker, nixed the idea of an anti-Bibi coalition on Wednesday.
Throughout the campaign, Yair Lapid made it clear that he wanted to be in Netanyahu’s cabinet, ostensibly to ‘moderate’ it and to be in a stronger position to implement his own domestic agenda. While Yesh Atid later clarified that it did not want to be in a coalition at all costs, it is quite clear that it will be in the next coalition alongside Netanyahu’s Likud-YB. The two leaders diverge on some issues, though in large part they’re not all that dissimilar. Netanyahu is more ‘outwards-looking’ than Lapid, meaning that his policy focus is on security and diplomacy issues; while Lapid is clearly ‘inwards-looking’ and focused on domestic issues. After the election, to signal that he had understood the election’s significance, Netanyahu said that he wanted to form a coalition which was as broad as possible and promised action on three fronts: affordable housing, government reforms and “sharing the burden” of military service (drafting the Haredim).
Lapid has apparently been offered the finance or foreign affairs portfolio. The former would be more tailored to his campaign’s platform and give him a chance to implement some of the economic and social policies he emphasized in his campaign. The latter would be less tailored to his platform (and would thus be a politically risky position for him, just like Amir Peretz was sunk by his decision to take the defense rather than economy portfolio in 2006), but the West would certainly welcome a more pragmatic and moderate foreign minister after four years of extremely tense relations with Avigdor Lieberman.
The next obvious coalition partner for Netanyahu would be Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, who had also clearly indicated that he wanted to join the governing coalition (in this case to move the government to the right). Israeli coalitions are never politically coherent and, out of political necessity, bring together parties with conflicting ideological orientations and goals. There are some major differences between Bennett and Lapid, especially on security/diplomacy policy – the former wants to annex over half of the West Bank, the other preconditioned his coalition participation on restarting peace talks – and these differences might make some of Lapid (or Bennett)’s supporters queasy if both are forced to live together in a coalition.
However, Bennett is not in a position to actually implement his Palestinian agenda and the annexation stuff is, while not a bluff, not the top priority on his agenda. Similarly, Lapid is not a peacenik and a far-left dove. He wants to open peace talks, but at the same time he’s clearly opposed to relinquishing Israeli control of East Jerusalem or evacuating the settlements. In the current regional context, no Israeli politician is sanguine about the chances of peace talks and they are not too eager to push any such talks extremely far. The broader electorate is pessimistic about the chances of substantive progress in that field in the near future.
The next obvious partners for Netanyahu would be the two ultra-orthodox parties, which he has described as his natural allies. The Shas have been in all governments since 1984 except for Sharon’s 2003-2006 coalition and they would probably like to be in the next coalition. UTJ has not participated in as many coalitions, but it too was in the outgoing right-wing coalition and it would probably like to join the next government. Netanyahu has reportedly told them that he wants both of them in.
The problem, however, is that Yeir Lapid is making the extension of the draft to the ultra-orthodox one of his conditions for joining any government; and with 19 seats, it is in an unexpectedly strong position to push for this. Bennett, who has no interest in pandering to the ultra-orthodox either, also supports the extension of the draft. It is unclear where Netanyahu stands on this issue, because, naturally risk-averse, he has up until now preferred not to take any decisions which would squander his good relations with the ultra-orthodox parties. Now, he may be forced to take a decision, which might damage the partnership between the ultra-orthodox parties and the Likud-YB for years to come.
The ultra-orthodox parties have bonded together to oppose any changes to the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, and this appears to be one position on which both of the parties are particularly adamant about. Similarly, Lapid made extension of military service of the key tenets of his campaign and it is fairly certain that he will be insistent on this issue.
It is possible for Netanyahu to form a coalition which will exclude both ultra-orthodox parties. Likud-Lapid-JH have 62 seats, a majority albeit an extremely tight one. This majority can be expanded to include the annihilated Kadima, which has signaled that it is open to participating in a broad coalition (and bring it up to 64 seats). However, many believe that Netanyahu is extremely reluctant to break his long-standing solid partnership with the two ultra-orthodox parties, especially the Shas, in favour of an uncertain alliance with more demanding and potentially less reliable other parties.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, with 6 seats, is another potential coalition partner, but she might have become too dovish for Netanyahu to include her in a coalition. He understands that he still needs to secure his own right flank, which came out much stronger from these elections and would likely topple him if he lurched too much towards the left on peace negotiations. Netanyahu would apparently like to pad out his coalition with Labour, but for the moment Yachimovich is standing firm on her pre-election position that she would not join a Netanyahu coalition. However, one Labour MK (Nachman Shai) has already said that his party should seriously look into joining the coalition. As of now, Labour joining appears unlikely (although Barak had the same position in 2009 until he changed his mind at the last minute and joined the coalition).
There have been rumours that Netanyahu might be considering excluding JH, to form a government with Lapid and the Shas – but I find that rather hard to believe, and such a coalition would be tough to hold together (not to mention that it would hold exactly 61 seats).
A coalition with Yesh Atid, JH and probably the Shas is the most likely. The issue of what this government will be able to do on the issue of the draft is a major question. Will they work out some sort of compromise, tolerable for most parties? Will the Shas act like their usual selves and adapt their positions to fit in the new coalition? Or, will either Yesh Atid or the Shas walk out of the coalition and make the government collapse as soon as the draft is brought up?
Many believe that the next government will have a short lifespan, because it will be hard to keep the future coalition – which will likely be more ideologically colourful than the last coalition – together, be it because of the draft or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Economic issues will also play a role. Despite Netanyahu’s campaign on the issue, Israel’s economy is not doing swellingly. Its deficit is bigger than expected, which – according to most analysts – means that budget cuts and austerity are inevitable at this stage. Already, Lapid’s advisers have urged him not to take the finance portfolio because widespread budgetary cuts in the upcoming months will likely hurt his image (which might explain why some Likud and YB figures are implicitly saying that the finance portfolio would be more ‘natural’ for Lapid).
In every country, after every election, we are told that “the country” voted for or against something. In this case, we are told that Israel “voted for the centre” or “voted against the right” or “voted for change” or whatever. In reality, Israel didn’t vote for anything. The largest party barely won 23% of the vote, and the two large blocs – centre/left and right/religious – ended up more or less tied. The centre and the left performed better than it had been expected to, proving that we were all too quick to write their obituary. The right, in contrast, under-performed and lost seats compared to the last election; but it’s not as if the left is better shape. But, even more so than in 2009, the electorate’s verdict was inconclusive. Many certainly voted for change, but few agreed on what direction that change should come from.
The election did confirm that Israel remains a complex and very divided society, divided not only by ethnicity and religion (Jewish vs. Arab/Muslim) but also by ideology (hardliners, centrists, doves, peaceniks) or religiosity (ultra-orthodox, religious Zionist and secular Jews). As always, no one camp came out with a clear, resounding victory.
The phenomenon of this election turned out to be Yeir Lapid rather than Naftali Bennett as everybody had predicted. Every election, or at least nearly every election in Israel, a new centrist party emerges out of nowhere to capture disoriented and volatile centrist voters who often prioritize domestic issues and don’t like either the right or the left. There was Dash in 1977, the Center Party in 1999, Shinui in 1999-2003 and Kadima and Gil in 2006. Invariably, the new centrist party disappears almost as soon as it comes. This year may be no different. Kadima more or less died out, rather abruptly, though it still has a tiny chance of coming back. Yesh Atid and Hatnuah were the two new centrist party which came out of (almost) nowhere to replace Kadima in the centre.
Will Yesh Atid and Hatnuah suffer the same fate as all their predecessors? It is hard not to think that at least one of the two won’t die out by the time of the next election. Yeir Lapid is a charismatic and talented politician, but he’s also a novice. He’s not a career politician and he campaigned largely on being a moderate and changing things around. With little political experience and an electorate which will be expecting him to deliver from his spot in cabinet, he may find it hard to cope. If he gets the finance portfolio, he would be in a position to implement his agenda but that position is often political suicide in Israel, maybe especially so this year with inevitable budget cuts around the corner. As foreign minister, his voters might have a falling out because he will be focusing on things he did not emphasize, but it would be a safer position from which he could build a reputation and aim at becoming the next Prime Minister. Above all, his electorate will be expecting him to deliver the goods, which is always the toughest part – especially if you’re a junior partner whose strength comes from focusing on economic and social issues. Lapid’s fate will also be affected by what happens to the other parties, especially Labour and perhaps Hatnuah. They too are campaigning, more or less, for Lapid’s middle-class centrist/centre-left electorate.
What will this election change in term of Israeli foreign policy and its place in the region? Ultimately, not much. The two-staters came out a bit stronger from the election and they might hold a more prominent voice in the next government, but even then, the chances for a final peace settlement in the near future are very low and neither side appears all that willing to reach a settlement. Netanyahu may have to take notice of the two-staters a bit more, but at the same time he came out of this election with a much more right-wing caucus and an emerging bloc further to his right. He is walking on a tightrope, meaning that he cannot alienate either the centrists/security-oriented moderates or the hardliners to his right. This election does not provide any ‘hints’ about what Israel is going to do with Iran, given that Iran did not feature prominently in the campaign and because, even if it did, the election would not have changed Israel’s policy towards Iran.
This election confirmed that many of our preconceptions about Israel was wrong. Not everybody is a hardline religious settler in the West Bank whose sole preoccupation is preventing a Palestinian state; even if this sector remains influential, increasingly so. Instead, many voters were more concerned by domestic issues – the economy, jobs, housing, cost of living or public services. The Israeli right and hard right remains in a powerful position, and they are becoming even more right-wing; but they are not on an irreversible accession to the top which will fundamentally transform Israeli society and Israel’s place in the world. Similarly, the centre and the left are not dead, even if they are still in a fairly weak position at this stage. In conclusion, Israel remains a complex and divided country where nothing is as simple as black and white.