Who holds an election – and almost nothing changes? Israel. Almost the same configuration of parties that dissolved the last government will form the next one, and hope that this time they can make it work a little longer. It is also extremely rare, to say the least, to have an election in which everyone claims victory when the results are in, but such is the case in Israel. Here are some takeaways from the results, subject to change at any moment.
PM Netanyahu will soon become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, breaking founder David Ben-Gurion’s record, which, in the tumult of Israeli politics and its mercurial populace, stood like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive game hitting streak.
How was this accomplished? He is a unique political figure who has learned to follow the consensus and gradually shape it in the direction he wants. He also knows how to manipulate the electorate, in the classic and non-pejorative sense of dangling before moderate voters the dire prospects of an opponent’s victory as well as very subtly offering his more right-wing electorate the possibility of achieving some cherished goals. In the first category was painting the new “Blue and White” Party (a conglomeration of several parties, with a lot of generals at the top) as another leftist party. To the others, he offered – again – the prospect of a tougher hand against Hamas, no Palestinian state and a potential declaration of Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.
Of course, when he announced the latter this past weekend, I wondered why he just didn’t declare it then, or the day before, or the month or year before. But that is how politicians operate, and he is a master politician.
Part of his allure to his supporters is that the people who dislike him are overrepresented in the media, which has hated him for over twenty years. The happy faces when the first projections were made that showed a “Blue and White” victory turned sour over the next few hours as the returns came in. The same dynamic occurred when PM Netanyahu first won in 1996 – coming from behind, so to speak, as the returns came in. And for those who remember the long, dark faces in the US media on election night in 2016 – well, it wasn’t that gloomy but it was competitive.
Netanyahu has learned to handle the media well (he ignores hostile outlets for as long as he can) and does interviews very selectively, except during election seasons. He has been remarkably successful on the domestic and international scene. There is no other national leader who is on good terms with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Talk about collusion! President Trump sees Netanyahu as a kindred spirit, a tough leader, and in his presence, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights after almost forty years, and to the horror (again) of the American and world foreign policy pointy heads. Putin, whom Netanyahu has visited even more than he has Trump, last week orchestrated the return of the remains of Zachary Baumol Hy”d, killed and missing in action since 1982. It was at some risk to the Russian soldiers currently occupying Syria (whose cruel, lying leaders had denied any knowledge of Baumol’s whereabouts) and tapped into something essential in the Israeli psyche: its concern for every soldier, universally acknowledged even if the execution of that value is often flawed.
Both Trump’s and Putin’s actions were warranted and justifiable in their own right – but to have both come right before the election was…no coincidence. Israelis, used to being international pariahs, reveled in the prestige and concrete achievements that Netanyahu has brought to Israel through his diplomacy and alliances. Rather than grow tired of him, the opposite occurred: the Likud won more seats in this election that in any previous Netanyahu election.
Part of this was a campaign strategy, used to great effect in 2015, that warned right-wing voters that casting ballots for small parties would dilute Netanyahu’s strength and boost the leftist or moderate parties. It worked – to the great detriment of the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which has been emasculated.
- Blue and White falls short:
One of enigmas of Israeli politics, fostered by the leftist media, is the fascination with the “new party.” Every election features some “third” party, composed of first-time politicians, who do well, only to fade in subsequent elections. Last time it was Kulanu, the previous time it was Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future” – an incontrovertible contention) party. It has been a staple of Israeli politics since Yigael Yadin’s Shinui party (“Democratic Movement for Change” party; new politicians always want change, and sometimes even hope) in 1977. Their rise is meteoric, and their fall is equally so.
This year’s version was the Blue and White party, led by three former generals and the aforementioned Lapid, and it did remarkably well for a first-time party. Several points were indispensable to its success. It was a union of several parties and thus garnered support from many different quarters. The generals, all former chiefs-of-staff, had great name recognition before a public which venerates the military, sometimes to a fault. And the party, because it was an amalgam of different personalities and policies, studiously avoided taking strong or clear positions about anything but their opposition to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s efforts to paint this group as lefties was successful only to the extent that it drove more right-wing and religious voters to him but it failed to convince the bulk of the electorate. Few of the individuals involved presented as hard-core leftists who would surrender land to the Arabs in exchange for smiles and promises. The party leader, Benny Gantz, is not my cup of tea but is impossible to demonize. I spoke to several Israelis who said they would never vote for him but they had served under him in the army, and they termed him an excellent commander.
That being said, it is hard to see what he achieved as Chief of Staff, and his conduct of the Gaza War in 2014 was harshly criticized. Moreover, Israel is enamored with generals but has not fared very well with the three generals who served as prime minister: Yitzchak Rabin orchestrated the catastrophic Oslo process, Ehud Barak pulled the IDF from Lebanon precipitously in 2000 (handing Hezbollah access to Israel’s northern border), and Ariel Sharon fomented the calamitous retreat from Gush Katif in 2005. So much for the wisdom of generals, who failed to learn that military and political/diplomatic strategy are two wholly different games.
If, as expected, Blue and White winds up in opposition, expect its dissolution at a certain point. Generals who are used to giving orders and having them carried out will find life in opposition quite frustrating. But, come next the election, expect another new party on the block, and with some of these same faces.
- The New Right Disappears:
I made only one prediction before the election, and that was that Naftali Bennett would not do as well as he anticipated. It was the gamble that failed spectacularly – suddenly breaking away from the political home that he created , the “Jewish Home” party – in order to establish a party that was nationalistic and mildly religious-Zionist in nature but would appeal to nationalistic secular Israelis as well.
The problem with his theory always was that such a party already exists – and it is called the Likud, which contains on its list a number of prominent religious Zionists. If Bennett’s goal was to establish Likud B, it is quite understandable why, given the choice and the potential consequences, voters flocked to Likud A. Even if the New Right squeaks past the threshold, a more and more unlikely scenario, the party Bennett leads would have shrunk from 13 seats to 8 seats to 4 (or 0) seats. That is not a good trajectory in politics and a timely reminder of the Talmudic dictum “If you grasp a lot, you grasp nothing” (Rosh Hashana 4b).
Worse, the splintering of the right-wing parties into several groups that did not pass the electoral threshold cost the religious-Zionist camp more than 100,000 votes that translates into several more seats in the Knesset. They need to learn a little John Greenleaf Whittier rhyme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!” Or even a little Torah, and stop fighting over “Mi Barosh” (Masechet Sanhedrin 102A). The quixotic Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin especially disappointed, and its advocacy for marijuana legalization most unhelpful; perhaps its proponents were too stoned to realize Tuesday was Election Day – and engendered even more wasted votes.
Bennett and Shaked are very talented individuals who did exceptional work in their respective ministries, and they should take the time to regroup, accept high-profile positions (in diplomacy or organizations), keep serving the public as they have done quite well in their previous ministries, and they will yet return to politics. Remember that the world counted out Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999 after his landslide defeat to Ehud Barak, and he even retired from politics for several years.
I heard he made a comeback.
- The Two State Illusion is Dead
There is one overriding message that emerged from this election: there is no constituency to again partition the land of Israel and create a second Palestinian state (the first being Jordan). Parties who support that position barely eked out a dozen seats in the Knesset.
Leftist American Jews who remain wedded to the idea that the future of mankind depends on the surrender of more land in Israel to a sworn enemy should have a reality check. They are living in the past, man. That ship has sailed, that train has left the station. Stop waiting for it – and especially because it was a disaster in the making anyway.
I sense that Trump’s Deal of the Century was always fluid, never fixed, and should be no cause for alarm for Jews. Whatever final form it takes, it will go nowhere.
It is hard to believe, and a source of great encouragement, that Israel is in such a strong position today – militarily and economically. Certainly anything can change in an instant, and clear and present dangers lurk all around. The Haredi parties slightly increased their mandates, perhaps attributable to their growing population. But religious Jews vote for all sorts of parties and many Haredim and Religious-Zionists vote for Likud as well, itself a warning of the foolishness of diffusing into so many different boutique parties, some that make it into the Knesset and some that don’t.
The elections were exciting, and I hope to vote in the next one, which might some sooner than most people would think; the fissures that caused this team to disintegrate season will surely recur this season. But Israel’s notoriously volatile electorate voted – and produced almost the same configuration of parties in the next government as served in the past one.