It is not often that an election is held with results that lead every party to claim victory, but such is the convoluted nature of the Israeli political system. The winners look dejected, losers exult, and parties with very similar outcomes react in completely opposite ways. So with the results still not final but roughly known, who are the winners and losers in this round?
Big Loser: The Haredi parties. Yahadut HaTorah, the Agudist Party, never seems to break through a barrier that leaves it at 5-7 seats, despite the much ballyhooed increase in the Haredi population. Their stagnation must be attributable to either a low turnout or the tantalizing possibility that Haredim are voting for other parties. So, how then can they be the big loser if their mandates have remained the same or have slightly increased? Because the country has shifted to a culture which does not tolerate – and will not long support – a lifestyle that eschews both national service (military or civil) and gainful employment. Every other party has uniformly embraced shivyon banetel – a co-equal sharing of national burdens – as a fundamental plank in its platform, both for practical and moral reasons. Because of the likely composition of the next coalition, the days are rapidly dwindling wherein public money will be designated for parochial interests that involve no acceptance of shared burdens. Perhaps much of the Haredi public recognizes that fact and voted accordingly.
Shas, the Sefaradi Haredi party, retained its strength, but, like Yahadut HaTorah, is confronting for the first time a situation in which a government can plausibly be formed without them. They will both pull whatever strings necessary to find their way into the governing coalition, as support for their institutions and their concomitant patronage power depend on it, but their leverage is diminished and so their demands will have to be scaled down as well.
The riots that accompanied Election Day in some Haredi centers, spearheaded by Satmar and calling on people not to vote and to disconnect from the government, bears some irony and even some intellectual disconnect: to withdraw from society means to reject the government largesse that sustains the Haredi world. Come again?
Loser: Likud. In fairness, it is hard to characterize the winning party as a “loser,” but that conclusion is inescapable. The merger with Yisrael Beteinu was a fiasco from the outset, so preposterous (it turned off voters on each party’s margin that simply would not vote for the other) that it is hard to believe that anyone thought it productive. Likud effectively lost almost 25% of its strength, and even though it will likely form the next government, its policies will bear no resemblance to what the traditional Likud voter espouses and if it turns leftward will alienate at least a third of the current formation.
For a moment, it must have crossed PM Netanyahu’s mind that two parties – Yesh Atid and Labor – could easily unite for the purposes of forming a coalition and present themselves to the President as the largest grouping. Perhaps that is why Netanyahu reached out so quickly to Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.
Likud also hurt itself by the relentless negativity it directed against Bayit Hayehudi, which it clearly perceived as its main rival for votes. Rather than indulge the pejoratives, those voters moved elsewhere (Yesh Atid?) leaving Netanyahu with a weakened right flank, assuming he wanted one. It was a bad campaign from its inception, and the errors were compounded by shoddy tactics.
Loser: Zippi Livni. Her party was formed so precipitously that it even lacked a name, but it certainly lacked an identity. She is unlikely to be part of any governing coalition and will sit in opposition with her small party. So why is she a “big loser”? Because Israel has a habit of recycling electoral failures after a few years, and at least she will remain active –and especially popular on the leftist “blame Israel for no peace” circuit.
Big Loser: Peaceniks. The so-called “peace process” played almost no role in this election, even though the media continued to use as its measure of seriousness support for a “two-state” solution. Perhaps they haven’t heard, but in most of Israel that is a measure of foolishness and a flight from reality rather than seriousness. For the first time, an Israeli politician deigned to tell the truth to the public. Naftali Bennett of Bayit Hayehudi said what most sane, grounded people know: peace is not coming in this generation, so Israel has to remain strong and focus on building its society. And that endeavor – strengthening Israeli society, keeping its economy robust and growing its work force – were the primary issues in the campaign. Barack Obama can be included as a “loser” in this process as well, as very few parties spoke of the diplomatic future with any enthusiasm. Of course, Netanyahu is unpredictable, so anything can change especially with the Iranian bomb looming, but those changes will be difficult and independent of the election results.
Big Winner: Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid (“there is a future”) party. Lapid brought his winning TV personality to the campaign, along with some of the insipid media-popular clichés (of course “there is a future;” but what does that mean?). Israel has always been blessed with the rise of third-parties that burst onto the scene and then disappear within an election cycle or two (Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, Mordechai’s Center Party, and now Kadima). But Lapid didn’t only bring a fresh face to politics but a fresh approach – confronting issues rather than avoiding them, offering solutions (where possible) rather than platitudes (OK, some platitudes, too) but especially by challenging the Haredim rather than demonizing them. His own late father Tommy was a noted basher of Haredim and Torah, but the son – also secular – has taken a more mature approach. I heard a speech he gave last year – to Haredim¬ – in which he said, in effect: “You won. We thought Torah would have no future. We were wrong. Now that you won, you also have to take responsibility for Israeli society. You are not marginal players anymore. Secular Israel needs you to give it a Jewish identity, and for you to play a full role running, supporting and defending the society.”
It is hard to argue with his logic, even if some (not me) question his sincerity, and it was after that speech that shivyon banetel became a clarion call in society. I have not yet heard a good Haredi response to his call. And Yesh Atid includes as its number two a Religious Zionist rabbi, and lower on its list but still entering the Knesset, a “Haredi” activist from Ramat Bet Shemesh who challenged the Haredi excesses that galvanized the public more than a year ago.
Big winner: Israeli society. The society wins not because of the results but because of the maturation of the electoral system. There was not one major party that did not include at least one kippa-wearing Jew, and some had several – not as tokens but because the Torah should be part of every Israeli political party and its values should infuse the whole system. That is not to say that we can do away with overt religious political parties – perhaps someday – but rather that the makeup of the slates reflects the increased and natural role that religious Jews play in Israeli life. Similarly, the fact that all parties outside the Haredi ones have secular Jews on their lists as well also bodes well for a cohesive society.
Winner: Habayit Hayehudi. They would have been big winners but for the sleazy campaign run against them, which included – for several weeks running – the release of disparaging material about its candidates to the media on Friday night, so the party could not respond for 24 hours until after Shabbat and thereby allowing the smears to seep through the media and public unchallenged. Ultimately, Netanyahu suffered for these calumnies, and will suffer in the future.
Nonetheless, Habayit Hayehudi added to its Knesset strength, energized the Religious Zionist public and will be a force for years to come, especially if it counters the negative image thrust upon it by the Likud with solid legislative work and substantive contributions to the public debate. No longer concerned with purely sectoral issues, and no longer interested in being the mashgichim in a restaurant owned and managed by others, Naftali Bennett emerged as the voice of the future – instilling Torah values into all aspects of society.
The final results could change somewhat in the coming days but certain conclusions are inescapable. Netanyahu miscalculated as a candidate, as he miscalculated when he indulged the two-state fantasy, the settlement freeze and the removal of outposts, in the process alienating his core supporters. His tenure as prime minister will be less stable than was this term.
And there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that the electoral totals between the parties have narrowed so much that new elections are a distinct possibility within 2-3 years. The good news is new faces bring new ideas and increased enthusiasm, and the peace processors should remain dormant for some time. Both of those factors should enable the nation to focus on bridging the gaps between religious and secular, and enabling all sectors of society to contribute to the glory of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.