The Israeli Shift to the Right That Never Happened (By Shmuel Aiello)

21 Mar

The Israeli Shift to the Right That Never Happened

When the dust cleared on Tuesdays elections in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud had seemingly pulled off a great upset- cornering 30 seats in the incoming Knesset, and first crack at forming the next Israeli government. Bibi will almost definitely be the Prime Minister for his fourth (and third consecutive) time. Israelis, analysts and journalists included, are consistently referring to this as a failure of the left, a victory by the right, and a near-coup by the Likud Party, which merely 24 hours earlier were expected to garner Knesset seats in the low 20s and fall behind the center-left Zionist Union. Internationally, the victory is being portrayed as a barometer of Israeli public opinion, with some considering this a sign that Israel doesn’t want peace with Palestinians[1], or that the electorate has shifted to the far right.[2]

Benjamin-Netanyahu_2680361b

Such statements aren’t baseless—Netanyahu surprised many when a mere 24 hours before the election he announced that a Palestinian state would not be created under his watch. A campaign by the left that was largely characterized on demonizing Netayahu warned voters that it was “them or Bibi”—and seemingly voters chose Bibi. The pundits and reporters would seem to be right then—the left has little hope,[3] the electorate shifted right, and Israelis don’t want peace. But a closer, more objective look at facts, decisions and expectations of the main players shows that the reality is far more complex, and perhaps even the exact opposite conclusion is warranted.

Myth 1. The Israeli Electorate shifted right.

Likud is a center-right party. The Zionist Union, its main competition, is center-left. Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (BY) party, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (YB) party, and Eli Yishai and Baruch Marzel’s Yachad party are all far to the right of Likud on security and peace-related issues. Pre-election polls had the right-wing bloc of Likud-BY-YB-Yachad garnering 42-44 votes. In reality they picked up 44 votes. More crucially, two thirds of those seats are with the center-right Likud, and only 14 votes total with the more extreme right parties. This isn’t a victory for the far-right; it’s a clear loss for the far-right, which will be in very weak position to influence the Prime Minister, as they tried for example this past summer regarding Gaza.

Upon closer inspection it should be clear that there isn’t a huge difference in right-center-left voting outcomes, either from pre-election predictions, or from the last elections (although there is a significant drop from polling during the intensity of warfare in mid-summer 2014, which highlights the mercurial tendencies of voters, and the risks of polling at war-time). It should also be noted that 13 seats held by Haredi parties are somewhat misleadingly grouped with right-wing security focused parties, and that the Arab parties, were they to decide to participate in a government, would give the Israeli left the upper hand. The most noteworthy difference in these elections is a shift from the far right-to the center-right. It should be obvious that taking that as an indication that Israelis don’t want peace, or as anything more than a temporary blip in Israeli politics due to Netanyahu’s savvy, beguiling political grandstanding, is a mistake.

It’s instructive to look at how, and why, Likud stole votes from its own coalition partners. First how—Netanyahu and Likud made a conscious effort to pick up voters far to the right of its traditional core. They did this through a general campaign theme of “it’s Us or the Left”, then by upping the ante (presumably concerned that their campaign wasn’t working), by attempting to show that they were as extreme as the parties of Bennett or Lieberman. Declarations in the last 24 hours leading up to voting that Netanyahu wouldn’t allow a Palestinian state, and that “Arab voters were coming out in droves” were both transparently obvious to bring in even more hard-right voters, but moves that seemed to have worked. There was some attempt to bring in the centrist Kulanu party’s votes, but that effort seems to have failed. Likud ultimately decided that the only way to win was to steal votes from its natural coalition allies.

What should that tell us? For starters that Likud, which is very much representative of the status quo (with Netanyahu as the incumbent PM), failed to sell its product to anyone to its left, or even to centrist voters, who presumably went with Kulanu, Yesh Atid, or even the center-left Zionist Union. The center-right party felt the only way to win was to cannibalize. Perhaps the left should blame itself for that result—the Likud slogan of “Us or the Left” parroted the ZU slogan of “Us or Bibi”. Demonizing Netanyahu worked—perhaps too well for their own good.

Myth 2. The next Israeli government will be much more rightwing

This is less conclusive, but also unlikely to be true. This government coalition should be more stable than the previous one, with more “natural” coalition partners in a center-right government. But once again, don’t be fooled by outlandish campaign trail statements; look at facts, decisions, voting patterns and behavior.

Netanyahu is not in fact the far right of the Likud spectrum, and presumably that’s why he had to work so hard to bill himself as such. He’s approved settlement freezes in the past as unilateral efforts to restart peace talks[4] (in response to US incentives of course), and in the right circumstances he would do so again.[5] This past summer, when rockets from Gaza were bombarding southern Israel, Netanyahu initially resisted calls to war from more hard-right members of his own party, (even firing his own Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon,)[6] as well as coalition members Avigdor Lieberman (who would pull his group out of the Likud-Beitenu union) and Naftali Bennett. By the time Netanyahu took off the gloves, he had the support of Isaac Herzog,[7] head of the Zionist Union, and the very man the left had hoped would replace Netayahu. That’s not to say that Netanyahu’s behavior during the summer, or in office is irreproachable, or that he’s identical to Herzog. But whether because of the responsibility of being Prime Minister, international pressure, or his inherent views, the fact remains that when push comes to shove, Netanyahu is no Bennett, Danon or Lieberman.

Netanyahu in fact dropped in support polls significantly during the summer conflict, with Lieberman and Bennett at the time polling much higher than their electoral performance. Again, polling mid-war isn’t a reliable barometer for how elections will go; it’s a bit like going to the supermarket when you haven’t eaten in 18 hours. But what is significant, is that his government is likely to be more centrist, not less, this time around. Netanyahu trounced Danon, his more extreme-right competitor, in the Likud primaries.[8] The extremist Moshe Feiglin who embarrassed his party by calling for ethnic cleansing during the war[9] was voted right out of Likud; among those added to the Likud list is Anat Berko, a very different kind of leader.[10] And although he had to remake himself to win, Netanyahu ultimately fared better than Bennett and Lieberman (and certainly that Yishai-Marzel)—in other words the political constraints on his coalition now come from the socioeconomic focused Moshe Kahlon, rather than the formerly powerful Bennett and Lieberman (the latter of whom isn’t even essential for Netanyahu to form a coalition). The end result is likely to be a far more centrist government, one which focuses more on important domestic issues.

All of this probably does mean a general status quo on the dead-in-the-water Palestinian talks, but it’s also far from a shift to the extreme right, and likely not all that different from what would have happened had Likud lost and the ZU won. There are many other factors in Palestinian negotiations, and in the right combination Netanyahu could certainly be the one to oversee a peace deal. But the pieces and players, and the thinking, to make that happen, are probably lacking at this point. For now it’s important to note that misleading headlines aside, there was no great shift in the Israeli political scene, and that Israelis can only hope that the government begins to focus on important domestic issues that face all Israelis—economics, social policies, housing.

[1] Levi, E. March 19, 2015 at: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4638890,00.html

[2] Baker, L. and Heller, J. March 18, 2015 at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/18/us-israel-election-idUSKBN0MC2G620150318

[3] Beinart, P. March 19, 2015 at:http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.647682

[4] Ravid, B. Nov. 25, 2009 at: http://www.haaretz.com/news/netanyahu-declares-10-month-settlement-freeze-to-restart-peace-talks-1.3435

[5]April 25, 2014 at: http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Report-Netanyahu-agreed-to-talk-borders-settlement-freeze-just-before-Hamas-Fatah-deal-350419

[6] Hoffman, G. July 15, 2014 at: http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Netanyahu-fires-Deputy-Defense-Minister-Danon-who-was-highly-critical-of-Gaza-strategy-362930

[7] http://www.timesofisrael.com/opposition-head-everyone-understands-its-a-battle-for-our-home/

[8] Azulay, M. and Morag, G. Jan. 1, 2015 at: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4610158,00.html

[9] Feiglin, M. July 15, 2014 at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15326#.U9JOA7HPSSq

[10] Ahren, R. March 11, 2015 at: http://www.timesofisrael.com/after-seeing-hamas-up-close-a-netanyahu-clone-aims-for-the-knesset/

Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics (NYU) and an MA in Government (IDC Herzliya). He is an MA student in Arabic and Islamic Studies (Tel Aviv University), a researcher at Wikistrat.com, and a part-time educator

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