The hope was for change. And when the voters spoke, the politicians had to listen.
With almost all the votes tallied Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hung onto power by his fingernails, losing 11 seats from the last parliament and winning only 31 for his Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance.
The winners were two newbies on the scene, the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party soaring to second place with 19 seats, and far-right Jewish Home with 11 seats, ending in a dead heat with established right-wing religious party Shas.
It wasn’t just the older parties — such as centre-right Kadima, the biggest loser — that were targeted for failure. But one-quarter of the current politicians were replaced on the Knesset’s benches in a massive political facelift.
The shock of the new has hit Netanyahu with a double whammy as he tries to form a coalition that will keep his government in power without the help of the reliable far-right allies who share many of his goals. If he opens the door to a more centrist coalition with Yesh Atid, he will be face to face with the elephant in the room, around which most of Israel’s politicians have tiptoed: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In fact, it’s far from clear that the majority of Israelis are interested in reviving an issue that has frustrated and perplexed them for decades, and which would bring painful compromises that many fear could undermine their security in the region. If anything, analysts say, they want a return to the down-home issues that most struggle with daily, and a break from the troubling Big Picture.
“(Yesh Atid leader) Yair Lapid epitomizes Israelis’ desire to be left in peace,” writes veteran Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy with only a touch of irony. “All they want is a quiet life, peaceful and bourgeois, and to hell with all those pesky nagging issues.”
The telegenic Lapid campaigned on the more popular issue of cracking down on the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox community. But he also insists that he’ll stay out of government until the long-faltering peace process is rebooted, although he cautiously blames the Palestinians for past failures to make progress, and is vague about what he would offer at the table.
Israel’s sizeable immigrant population also tends to oppose compromise with the Palestinians, says Tal Sadeh of Tel Aviv University.
“Newcomers want to be Israelis quickly. They think the easy way to be seen as Israeli is to be anti-Arab,” he said. That may partly explain why hard-line Jewish Home won votes away from Netanyahu, and is now high on the list of his possible coalition partners.
The Palestinians, who have watched uneasily from the sidelines, took centre stage Wednesday at the United Nations, with a stark warning that continuing Netanyahu’s plan to build Jewish settlements in an area east of Jerusalem — putting a viable Palestinian state in doubt — could lead to dramatic consequences.
“If Israel would like to go further by implementing the E1 plan and the other related plans around Jerusalem, then yes, we would be going to the International Criminal Court,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said at the UN, according to Bloomberg news. “We would have no other choice. It depends on the Israeli decision.”
In the past the Palestinians have broached the possibility of investigating Israel for war crimes at the court, but their new status as a UN “observer state” would give them more impetus.
“We are at the crossroads and Israel must choose: either to honestly engage in a meaningful political process . . . or to force us into an era in which the solution is abandoned and the Palestinian people enter a new stage in their national struggle . . . through all peaceful, political, diplomatic and legal means.”
If Netanyahu strikes a bargain with Lapid on freezing settlement plans, it would clash with the convictions of hard-line Jerusalem Home leader Naftali Bennett, who opposes a two-state solution and openly advocates annexing a large part of the West Bank. Then the elephant in the room could trample Netanyahu’s plans for a long-term, stable government.
With bleak grassroots reports flowing into his Likud party headquarters, it was clear that Netanyahu risked being outflanked by a centrist newcomer, setting up the possibility of the biggest electoral upset in Israeli history.
“Go vote. The Likud government is in danger,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. If it sounded as if he was in a panic, it was because he was.
Ever since he had forged an electoral pact with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party back in October, Netanyahu trusted in a slew of opinion polls that predicted he would easily win a third term in office in the Jan. 22 ballot.
The joint ticket ensured he would end up head of the largest single bloc, putting him in pole position to lead the next coalition.
His prime concern appeared to be a slippage of votes to rivals on the far right, which became such an obsession in the final days of campaigning that he forgot to check in his other mirror and see the centrists storming up on the outside.
“He made every mistake possible in the campaign,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It looks like he will be the next prime minister, but his party has paid the price.”
In the end, Likud-Beitenu captured 31 of parliament’s 120 seats, just enough to prevent the centre-left from creating a blocking majority but still 11 seats down on the number won by the two parties in the 2009 legislative election.
In what could become the enduring image of the election, Netanyahu and Lapid, each in his own campaign headquarters, gave simultaneous victory speeches—appearing side-by-side on split screens as equal players in the political arena.
Even Israel Hayom, a free newspaper that is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government, did not try to hide the pain. “Lapid’s surprise, Likud’s disappointment,” it said.
With the benefit of hindsight, the writing had been on the wall long before the shock of voting day, when the well-oiled Likud electoral machine failed to generate the same sort of voter excitement seen amongst supporters of newer blocs.
The campaign rallies failed to draw big crowds. The party did not even publish a political manifesto, relying on Netanyahu’s image as a strongman to carry the day.
“All our lives we voted Likud but today we voted for Lapid because we want a different coalition,” said Ahuva Heled, 55, a retired teacher voting on Tuesday in the town of Even Yehuda, north of Tel Aviv. “We want to enable young people to obtain housing and live more peaceful and comfortable lives.”
Such sentiments finally filtered through to Netanyahu’s inner circle on Tuesday morning. The prime minister embarked on a frenzied round of visits to polling stations, then ordered an emergency meeting of top staff.
“It was very tense,” said a party member with knowledge of the gathering. “They finally realized it could all unravel.”
It held together, in the end, but the “victory” celebration at Likud’s cavernous Tel Aviv campaign headquarters was a sombre affair. Only a few hundred loyalists turned up, with loud bickering flaring over who or what to blame for the setback.
STROKE OF GENIUS?
Some openly questioned the wisdom of the union with Yisrael Beitenu, whose brash Soviet-born leader, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, alienated some Likud rank-and-file.
Likud stalwart Tzachi Hanegbi defended the alliance as “a genius thing to do, even though we lost some members” because it guaranteed Netanyahu the premiership by co-opting a major rival.
But Hanegbi told Reuters their apparent pre-election confidence appeared to have persuaded some Likud voters that they could safely shift support to Yesh Atid without jeopardising Netanyahu’s chances of remaining prime minister.
Describing Lapid as “secular, new, fresh,” Hanegbi conceded: “It is now going to be more difficult for us to establish a government.”
Doron Attias, a Likud Central Committee member, said the party had also lost votes rightward—to another political upstart, Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler, religious-nationalist Jewish Home, which came fourth in the ballot.
“I’m angry and I’m hurt,” Attias said, accusing settlers of betraying Netanyahu, who has expanded Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem—land the Palestinians demand for a future independent state.
Yet Netanyahu might himself have contributed to the Likud defections by accusing Bennett, an elite army commander, of encouraging insubordination after he voiced reluctance to take part in any future evacuations of West Bank settlements.
Likud campaigners also denounced the more radical views of some on the Jewish Home list—attacks that allowed Bennett to portray himself as victim of an electoral mugging.
“The attack pushed religious voters from the Likud to Bennett, and it pushed young right-wing, but non-religious voters, away from Bennett into Lapid’s arms,” wrote Nahum Barnea in the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Few Likud supporters criticized Netanyahu openly in the wake of their dismal showing—a reflection of the party’s tradition of rallying together, but also of the reality that the prime minister has no credible rival for the party leadership.