Only in Israel could a party that wins less than a quarter of the popular vote could be construed, as one headline put it, as having “cruised to victory.” But such are the vagaries of the Israeli political system that the Likud won, in the Prime Minister’s own words, a “great victory.” Who are the winners and losers?
The biggest winner was clearly PM Netanyahu, a resounding personal triumph that also served as vindication of himself, his unfairly beleaguered wife, his decision to challenge Barack Obama, speak to Congress and confront the American people with the reality of their President’s feckless foreign policy, and his political skills. It was a classic come-from-behind victory, as the polls showed him lagging behind his Labor rivals until the very end. And he succeeded not by broadening the popularity of the Likud, but by bringing out his base to vote and poaching votes from the parties that are his ideological brothers, such as the HaBayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) and Yisrael Beteinu (”Israel is our Home”). (Even their names sound alike, although their constituencies are very different.)
And Netanyahu succeeded in that by scaring his base and others into believing that a Labor government would endanger the country, a traditional Likud tactic that, despite being two generations old, is not necessarily untrue. When he repeatedly implored voters to “come home,” he did not mean the “homes” that the two parties mentioned above represented but the Likud home. It worked.
Of course, be careful what you wish for. Forming a government might not be as simple as it seems. Netanyahu has natural allies but those natural allies have diverse and sometimes intractable and irreconcilable demands. Each of them is smarting under what are in essence – if we just crunch the numbers and not digest the spin – poor electoral showings. The Likud will be the main party, and deserves at least half the cabinet seats. The other parties will be left scrambling to remain meaningful, find a place at the end of the table, and try to have some influence on policy and statecraft. And they will have some influence but little power, and even that will dissipate if Netanyahu dangles the reed of a national unity government with the Labor Party (a.k.a., the “Zionist Camp) whether now or in the future.
The biggest loser was not Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog. He is young enough to remain a viable candidate for the next decade or so, notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of Israeli politics, and he did succeed in reviving what had been a dormant, declining party. (Fortunately Buji Herzog will most likely not sit in the same cabinet with Boogie Yaalon, or things might get confusing.) The biggest loser was Barack Obama who made enormous efforts to unseat Netanyahu, did what he could to bolster the Herzog campaign, and sent over campaign staffers and money. He failed; his quasi-endorsement of the “Anyone But Bibi” approach worked as well as did his endorsements of Democratic candidates in the November 2014 elections. Call it the “reverse coattail” effect.
There were other winners.
A strong Israel. For the second consecutive election, the “peace process” played almost no role in the voting. No one thinks peace is on the horizon, and few think that even negotiations are imperative. Certainly the Arabs can ratchet up their relevance through terror but it seems as, at least for now, the Israeli public has been sufficiently burned in the last 15 years that it has little interest in or patience for talk of withdrawals, another partition of the land of Israel, and signing ceremonies on the White House lawn.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and for that possibility Jews must be vigilant. Netanyahu’s tactic in his last term worked quite well, and that too is a traditional Likud ploy: bring in a left-winger as Foreign Minister or negotiator in order to mollify the international community and buy time. Menachem Begin did it with Moshe Dayan, and Netanyahu did it with Tzipi Livni. The alternative – candor – is a rarely used device in diplomacy, and will surely bring on Israel the wrath of the international community, the EU, the American President, leftist American Jews, potential anti-Israel UN resolutions, sanctions, etc. We will get a clue as to which approach Netanyahu will take in whether or not he walks back his rejection of a Palestinian state and who is his choice for Foreign Minister or lead negotiator with the Arabs.
Yesh Atid. How can a party that lost more than a third of its seats and will likely be in opposition be considered a winner? Firstly, because it survived, which is an uncommon fate among these boutique third parties that spring up in every Israeli election, but primarily because it has set itself up as the home of the secular Israeli who wants a decent economy rooted in capitalism, personal freedom and a de-emphasis on the “peace process.” In other words, Yesh Atid – and to some extent, Labor – has just about put Israel’s far left (Meretz) out of business. The party that is most associated with surrender to the Arabs, possesses a blame-Israel first mentality, and is the favorite of the State Department and liberal American Jews, was actually in danger of disappearing entirely from the electoral map and barely qualified for the Knesset. Outside the Israeli media, where it has disproportionate support, Meretz does not resonate with the Israeli public.
Kulanu. This cycle’s boutique third party has just enough seats to be able to determine who will be the next Prime Minister, but is such a hodgepodge of diverse personalities that it is unlikely to survive another election cycle unless it does something dramatically well. Its leader, Moshe Kachlon, was a disgruntled Likudnik, and is poised to become the new Finance Minister. Fine with me (!), but what matters more is which economics he chooses to follow. If he goes the populist route – price controls or ceilings, special favors, handouts, increased welfare, etc. – then he will win temporary support but annul Israel’s remarkable economic gains of the last decade. Does he really buy into the current American bugaboo of “income disparity”? The term itself is a red herring because it is almost impossible to make the poor wealthier unless the wealthy become wealthier as well. Unless…you just confiscate money from the wealthy in the form of higher taxes, which leaves the wealthy with less to invest, fewer jobs for the middle class, but more money for the government to hand out. This is Obama’s income redistribution fantasy and does result in more equality – as in Churchill’s definition of the virtue of socialism: the equal sharing of miseries.
If Kachlon goes the more logical route – e.g., tax incentives to builders to construct affordable housing, waiving the VAT for first-time home buyers – then he will have done as great a service to the public as he did in lowering the price of telecom services when he last served in government, and he will have a brighter political future.
And there were clear losers. The other losers were the small parties now gasping for relevance, the fate of all parties with mandates in the single digits. All spin aside, the “Jewish Home” took quite a hit. Perhaps it was inevitable that its voters would be cannibalized by the Likud, but that is politics. The skilled campaigners are able to attract voters from beyond their parties’ base, especially if their message is broad and appealing enough. Naphtali Bennett is a skilled campaigner and he will be around in Israeli politics for decades to come, and for good reason. But his campaign became too distracted – why, in a moment – and the persistent accusation that he had turned the “Jewish Home” into Likud B eventually took root: many of his voters voted for Likud A. That can and should change.
What went wrong is correctible. In theory, Bennett’s desire to head a national, rather than a sectoral, party is both sound politics and good ideology. The Torah should not be the possession of a small group of Jews but of every Jew, and no one is better equipped than the party of Religious Zionists to oversee the implementation of Torah ideals in a modern state. In practice, though, Israel remains a very parochial society. All of Bennett’s efforts to lure Tel Avivians for vote for him failed. The gimmick of placing (and then recalling) a secular soccer celebrity on the Knesset list to win secular votes also failed, and admittedly so. The mistake was a traditional one in politics: the winner must always first secure his base and only then expand it into other segments of the population. That was not done here, and so many natural Bennett voters assumed that their major interests could be safeguarded by Likud.
In principle, Bennett’s yearning for a large mixed party makes sense, and perhaps will eventually resonate with the public. But the current state of the Israeli body politic deems it premature. Rather than competing for the Defense or Foreign Ministries (Bennett would be fantastic as Foreign Minister), HaBayit Hayehudi will be fortunate to retain the Religious Affairs Ministry and have Bennett perhaps stay on as Minister of Economic Affairs. If Netanyahu is as grateful as he should be, he will award the “Jewish Home” a third ministry as well.
Going forward the better approach for the Jewish Home will be to demonstrate how the wisdom and beauty of Torah betters all members of the society – spiritually, morally, personally and economically – and then people will naturally gravitate towards it as the home of Jewish values, rather than just a “home.”
The bigger problem for Habayit Hayehudi, that again cost them and other parties votes, was the terrible disunity in the religious voting public. The Yachad (“Together”) party of Eli Yishai simply need not have existed (don’t you love how groups that are founded on discord choose for themselves names that reflect harmony?). It was a vanity party of disparate individuals joined together because they were dismissed from other parties. It won enough votes to deprive the Religious Zionists and right-wing parties of several Knesset seats – but not enough to make it into the Knesset. A terrible shame, if not a disgrace.
That friction had other untoward consequences. Other parties would serve the nation well by disappearing. Shas exists as a vanity party that only sows discord and racial friction, not to mention the ethical struggles of its leader. It is proudly parochial in the worst sense of the word – provincial and narrow-minded. The originally Russian-flavored Yisrael Beteinu lost much support and really should no longer exist. It would make sense for Avigdor Lieberman to fold his party into Likud once and for all.
And the ironically-named United Torah Judaism took no position (!) on security or diplomatic issues and only wanted money and special treatment for its constituents. What is astonishing is that it remains with the same number of Knesset seats after almost 40 years, despite the much-ballyhooed increase in its numbers. Either Charedim do not vote as they are told, vote for other parties, or just do not vote. The latter seems to have been a factor here, as the disarray in today’s Charedi world between factions in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim prompted the rabbinical leader of the Yerushalayim to advise his followers to sit out the election. So much for Daas Torah… Instead of potentially making a difference, they did nothing, except make a powerful statement about something, precisely what remains a mystery.
What is the benefit of unity? The United Arab List won 13-14 seats and is now Israel’s third largest party, a tribute to Israeli democracy although not such a blessing for Israel’s existence. Their dissimilar elements joined forces in a way that the religious or right-wing parties did not. There is an obvious lesson in that. Here is one consequence: the number of Shomrei Mitzvot (said another way, MKs who define themselves as “Orthodox Jews”) in the new Knesset fell to 28 from a high of 39 in the last Knesset. It just became harder to get a minyan for Mincha in the Knesset…
Some present Knesset members did not win re-election and will be missed. “Jewish Home” MKs Orit Strook, Avi Wortzman, and Shuli Mualem were credits to their party, the Knesset and the nation, and Yesh Atid’s MK Dov Lipman was courageous, thoughtful and resolute, a Kiddush Hashem in ways known and unknown. All should be blessed with continued opportunities to serve the Jewish people.
The election coverage again highlighted the different perspectives from the US and in Israel. In the US, much was made of Netanyahu’s retraction of his support for a “Palestinian” state, something which had little leverage in Israel, and the Netanyahu-Obama confrontation played almost no role in Israel either. In the end, people voted for a better country, a safer country, a more prosperous country, and a more Jewish country.
All in all, it sounds very reasonable. Let’s pray that it stays so.