A great deal of nonsense has been written about Israel’s election result. It is not a ‘decisive victory’ (New York Times) or a ‘sweeping victory’ (The Guardian). The Israeli electorate has not ‘shifted to the right’ either in this election, or over the previous decade. (See Evelyn Gordon’s excellent article on this point.)

As this facebook-trending infographic makes clear, little changed.

The only major change is the collapse of the ultra-orthodox representation and that is primarily the result of a split in the Shas party. rather than a shift in the electorate. Eli Yishai’s Yahad party (which ironically means together!) peeled off 3.6 seats from Shas but failed to pass the minimum threshold.

So basically… nothing changed, except that Lapid lost half the centrist bloc to Kahlon.

I think the interesting questions are:
1. Why did nothing change?
2. Why was the campaign so negative?
3. How can the right-wing bloc win decisively with only 44 seats (36.6% of the total)?
4. What would Israel’s government look like under a two party system?

1. Why did nothing change?
At the party level, there was a lot of change. At the bloc level, there was almost none.
Bennett voters shifted to Netanyahu in droves. Meretz voters shifted to Labor. Shas voters shifted to Yahad, but the net shift between blocs was close to zero. Why?

Looking back over the past 20 years, we see that there is considerable movement between the right, left and center blocs. (The Arab and ultra-orthodox blocs are relatively stable.) The definition of these blocs is quite changeable over time but, broadly speaking, we can identify them with three basic approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

  • Negotiated solution (the left)
  • Unilateral solution (the center)
  • No solution (the right)

1988-2000 the rise and fall of the negotiated solution (the left)
From 1988-2000, the right-wing bloc steadily weakened as the peace process appeared to be progressing. During this period, even Netanyahu signed an agreement with the PLO (Wye River Memorandum in 1998.) The catastrophic failure of Camp David in 2000 and the launch of the Second Intifada fatally harmed the credibility of a negotiated solution. The left’s pursuit of a peace deal now appeared naive and delusional. The Labor party has not won an election since 1999.

2000-2006 the rise and fall of unilateralism (the center)
Support for unilateralism grew in response to the Oslo Process’s failure to deliver a final agreement. Unilateralism offered Israelis the prospect of ‘solving’ the Israel-Palestinian conflict without the inconvenience of getting the other side to agree. The champion of this approach was Ariel Sharon, who came to power in 2001 and split his own Likud party (subsequently forming a new centrist party, Kadima) in order to withdraw from Gaza in 2005, an act which followed the mold of Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000. Kadima under Olmert won a huge victory in the 2006 elections but the appeal of unilateralism eroded with the Hamas takeover of Gaza (leading to almost annual flare-ups) and war with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border in 2006. Following the Lebanon War and already disastrously unpopular, Olmert shelved his plan for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and lurched back to trying to negotiate a solution with Mahmoud Abbas. That process, relaunched in Annapolis in 2007, fizzled out with Olmert’s resignation in 2008.

2009- the rise of conflict management (the right)
By the 2009 election, Kadima, despite being the largest party, was unable to form a coalition. Having abandoned unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, Kadima’s position was now indistinguishable from that of the Labor party, which shrank to just 13 seats. (By 2015, Kadima had dissolved and Livni, its former leader, merged her rump party with Labor.) Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s Office and since then has paid lip service to the Two State Solution, while expressing deep skepticism as to its feasibility. Continued rocket fire and wars in Gaza, Hezbollah’s expanding strength in Lebanon, and the anarchy overtaking Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries, reinforced in Israelis’ minds the right-wing position that any ‘solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely be worse than the problem it purports to solve. In the absence of a plausible alternative to conflict management, opposition to Netanyahu focused on socio-economic issues. In the 2013 election, even the Labor party downplayed the Palestinian issue and focused on economics, though this didn’t help it too much. (As the home base of the Histadrut and statism, Labor isn’t too credible on economic issues.)

In this context, the left’s failure in 2015 doesn’t look too surprising. Nothing has changed since the 2013 election that makes ‘solving’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more plausible. If anything, the chaos and violence of the Middle East has gotten worse, making a fully independent Palestinian state appear more risky than ever. In the absence of a credible solution to the conflict – either negotiated or unilateral, most Israelis accepted the Netanyahu approach of ‘conflict management’. I say accepted rather than embraced because Netanyahu is not, and has never been, a popular figure and conflict management inspires no-one. The left simply was not able to persuade the nation (and, as I will argue below, didn’t even try) that a better alternative is available.

2. Why was the campaign so negative?

This was an ugly, ad hominem campaign. The Zionist Camp (Labor plus Livni) posters declared ‘it’s us or him’. The Likud posters declared ‘it’s him or them’. Trite campaign videos presented opponents as delusional, dangerous, infantile, agents of foreign powers, or worse. Former colleagues (and probably future colleagues) made horrible comments about one another. Netanyahu even made a racist comment about Arabs voting in droves to push out his government. Why?

The answer is that we did not really have a national election at all. Instead we had two primary elections running in parallel: a pro-Netanyahu primary and an anti-Netanyahu primary.

In the pro-Netanyahu primary, the main contenders were Likud and Jewish Home. Likud focused (successfully) on winning Jewish Home voters with the threat that a vote for Jewish Home would put the left in power. Jewish Home focused (unsuccessfully) on winning Likud voters with the threat that Netanyahu would form a coalition with the left unless Jewish Home was too big to ignore.

In the anti-Netanyahu primary, the main contenders were the Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid. Each declared itself the true nemesis of Netanyahu and accused the other of being ready to jump into coalition with ‘that man’.

Like all primary campaigns, the focus was on riling up the base with rabble-rousing rhetoric, rather than a reasoned appeal to the undecided. The bases of the two sides were indeed riled up – a 72.3% turnout was the highest since 1999.

In a two party system, the primary campaigns are followed by a national campaign in which both sides tack to the center and try to appeal to the swing voters in the middle of the pack. In Israel, due to the inherent flaws of the electoral system (click here for my post on that topic), the national campaign for the median voter doesn’t happen.

Ultimately, this proved to be a flawed strategy for the anti-Netanyahu camp. The ‘anyone but Bibi’ camp was not big enough to create a majority coalition. They simply could not win by appealing to the base. They needed to persuade some fraction of the nation sympathetic to, but frustrated with, Netanyahu’s conflict management approach that they had a credible alternative. I’m not sure this was possible, but zero points for not trying.

3. How can the right-wing bloc win decisively with only 44 seats (36.6% of the total)?

Given that neither right nor left blocs have an outright majority, forming a government depends on building a coalition with the centrists, the ultra-orthodox and the United Arab List (the third biggest party).

For the timebeing, the United Arab List refuses to join any Israeli government so, unless they’re willing to support the ZIonist Camp from outside the government, they’re effectively irrelevant. This is unfortunate for the Zionist Camp because it means the latter could only form a coalition if they can reach agreement with ALL FOUR centrist and ultra-orthodox parties. Since one of those centrist parties (Yesh Atid) is incompatible with the ultra-orthodox, they simply cannot make the numbers work under any circumstances.

Furthermore, while the four centrist and ultra-orthodox parties are not tightly aligned to the right or left blocs, three of the four (Kulanu and the ultra-orthodox) are more sympathetic to the right. That doesn’t mean they won’t join a leftist government, but it does raise the price they will demand. As Livni found in 2009, that price might be politically unaffordable.

In a parallel universe where the United Arab List joined a Zionist Camp coalition, the latter would need only two or three of the non-aligned parties. Possibly possible but probably improbable.

4. What would Israel’s government look like under a two party system?

It’s getting late and this post is already too long. Check back in a couple of days for the answer. I think it’s interesting!