Croutons, commandos and coalitions

The recent election took everyone by surprise. In the follow-up we were expecting a sweeping Likud-Beiteinu majority of over 40, giving them one of the strongest ever mandates won by a single list as well as the centre and left parties imploding on themselves. We also thought that Bennett’s reincarnation of the HaBayit HaYehudi – formerly the National Religious Party – would win the second highest number of seats. But we were wrong. Very wrong. Likud-Beiteinu’s list won 31 seats: far fewer than predicted while the nascent Yesh Atid surprised us all by coming second, with 19 seats. But what do these results show?  First and foremost Bibi and Likud’s seeming specialities: defence and national security are no longer the same concern they were for Israelis four years ago. Now, that has been replaced with simple socioeconomic issues. Why – Israelis ask themselves – should the croutons we have in our soup during family Friday night dinners cost more in the country where they were made than New York? Why should a staple of our diet: soft cheese be allowed to reach prices unaffordable for the middle class? Why should a growing sector of society be exempt from any kind of national service, just because they’re religious? These were all issues that the Yesh Atid campaigned on. 

Why – Israelis ask themselves – should the croutons we have in our soup during family Friday night dinners cost more in the country where they were made than New York?

They obviously struck a chord, which explains the nascent party’s success. But where did their votes come from? For the most part probably Kadima, who are down by 26 seats to just 2; barely scraping the threshold of votes required for entry to the Knesset. Part of this must be due to their composition: none of their list contained former or current MKs, and their success indicates a genuine desire for change in the political system. Their candidates range from the founder of a religious Zionist school in Petach Tikva (Rabbi Shai Piron), the mayors of Dimona and Herzeliya (Meir Cohen and Yael German), former head of Shabak – Israeli domestic intelligence (Yaakov Peri) a journalist (Ofer Shelah), Deputy Chairman of the national Ethiopian Student Association (Pnina Tamano-Shata) and an American-born Charedi activist who campaigns against ultra-Orthodox extremism in Beit Shemesh (Rabbi Dov Lipman) and writes a blog for The Times of Israel. Without a doubt, it was Lapid’s party that really won this election.

Without a doubt, it was Lapid’s party that really won this election.

We must also ask ourselves why Likud performed so poorly. In the last Knesset it had 27 MKs. Now, they are down to 20. The most logical answer for this is their alienation of the settler movement. Despite a merely notional commitment to the Two-State Solution, this was enough to scare off the settlers who despite being well represented within the party by the likes of Moshe Feiglin and Tzipi Hotovely, have haemorrhaged towards HaBayit HaYehudi.  Unlike Likud; HaBayit HaYehudi are unwavering in their support of continued settlement of the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria. Although Bennett’s comment on how soldiers should disobey orders to evacuate settlements may have lost him some of the less hard-line votes, it undoubtedly gained others to compensate. Although not as successful as predicted, 12 seats is still respectable and an increase of 5 since the last Knesset. Much of this is also due to Bennett himself. A former major in infantry special forces Bennett (Sayeret Matkal and Yechidat Maglan) who made his millions as a start-up businessman before entering politics where he also garnered experience working as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and heading the Yesha Council for two years. Young and dynamic, he is a far-cry from his party’s former leader: a rather bland, middle-aged rabbi and professor of mathematics at the Haifa Technion. 

Unlike Likud; HaBayit HaYehudi are unwavering in their support of continued settlement of the West Bank

HaBayit HaYehudi, together with Yesh Atid are the most obvious partners for Bibi to work with in a coalition, as 31+19+12=62: equalling a working majority in the Knesset. Should the new government wish to push forward an agenda which includes Charedi enlistment then this would certainly allow them to do so: Yesh Atid is decidedly secular, albeit not anti-religious while HaBayit HaYehudi falls into the religious Zionist camp who dearly treasure the opportunity to take up arms in defence of Israel. However, should the Charedi question not be a priority for the government then there is every reason for them to include the ultra-orthodox Sephardi and Mizrahi orientated Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats) for a majority government with 80 MKs.

While advancing the Two-State Solution is part of Yesh Atid’s platform, it is unlikely that they will succeed in honouring their pledge to do so. Should a coalition be formed headed by Bibi, Lapid and Bennett serious moves towards supporting a Palestinian state could very well jeopardise its existence, causing HaBayit HaYehudi to walkout thus causing its structural collapse, or loss of legislative ability to pass new laws. Kadima are also potential coalition partners: secular and centrist they seem to think along the same broad lines as Yesh Atid, but their dismal two seats may not be enough to justify Shaul Mofaz or Yisrael Chasson being granted control over a major government department. That is, as long as the Charedi parties stay out of government. 

HaBayit HaYehudi, together with Yesh Atid are the most obvious partners for Bibi to work with in a coalition

Less likely to enter government are the three main left parties: Labour, HaTnua and Meretz. Although their platform of solving socioeconomic issues was similar to Yesh Atid’s, Labour has staled in comparison, as they represent the old, which a growing number of Israelis seem to have tired of. Yachimovich’s greatest success has been hurling endless criticisms at Netanyahu’s administration, and can she really be said to have achieved anything substantial in her own right? 

After Labour’s heavyweights of Ehud Barak and Amir Peretz defected to or founded other parties, can they really offer anything substantial to the next government? But more importantly, she has ruled out the option of joining a coalition with Bibi and encouraged Lapid to do the same. Much the same can be said for Meretz. Although their share of seats did rise by three to six, their only real experience is in opposition, and their stance on the Arab-Israeli is probably too dovish for the establishment to tolerate in government. 

HaTnua also lack credibility. Led by Tzipi Livni, it was founded as a response to Kadima voting for Shaul Mofaz to replace her as that party’s chairman. Although it makes bold promises of fighting for a better resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict its credentials are somewhat lacking. Livni (Foreign Minister between 2006-9), together with Amir Peretz – formerly a Labour Minister of Defence – have a reputation rookish enough to shame Netanyahu. Peretz was one of the architects of the 2006 War in Lebanon, while Livni was an overseer of Operation Cast Lead. Both actions led to thousands of Arab and Palestinian casualties.  As Foreign Minister, Livni also proved obstructive and unyielding in peace talks with Palestinian negotiators that subsequently broke down. Peretz was responsible for authorising the building of new settlements beyond the Green Line on assuming his ministry. For self-proclaimed doves, their record of working towards peace is at best unconvincing. Additionally, they are loathed amongst the leftist parties for somewhat splitting their potential vote, albeit very slightly. 

For self-proclaimed doves, their (HaTnua’s) record of working towards peace is at best unconvincing

The three Arab parties represented in the next Knesset: the secular Balad, Marxist and part-Jewish Chadash and United Arab List-Taal are fairly stable: with eleven seats between them, they only dropped one. However, Israeli-Arabs who previously voted for Zionist parties – primarily Labour – now seem to be turning to them, as exemplified by a Times of Israel feature on the village of Abu Gosh outside Jerusalem. Most worthy of attention and comment is Hanin Zoabi of Balad’s presence in this Knesset. The first female Muslim MK, Zoabi is – to say the least – a controversial firebrand. Frequently clashing with the more right-wing MKs she has referred to Netanyahu, Lieberman and Livni as “all (being) a bunch of fascists pure and simple”, participated in 2010 flotilla to Gaza aboard the Mavi Marmara and said that “We (Balad) don’t consider Hamas to be a terror organization”. But more significantly, she was initially barred from standing in these elections by the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee on the request of Likud’s Ofir Akunis.  Fortunately though, that ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in a triumph for Israeli democracy demonstrating the independence and power of the judiciary to still safeguarding the rights and civil liberties of the individual. Although Zoabi will continue to air her highly offensive views in this Knesset, she is a reminder that Israeli democracy is still thriving, which is surely something to be celebrated. 

Fortunately, the nefarious Otzma leYisrael (Strength to Israel) party failed to pass the threshold of votes required for entry into the Knesset. Their list comprised of far-right Kahanists and ultranationalists: Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari (defectors from the National Union), Aryeh King, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir. All extremely unsavoury individuals they have a track record for inciting violence and racism. Eldad has claimed that it would be appropriate for IDF troops to shoot African “infiltrators” on sight as they approach Israel’s border with Egypt while Ben-Ari has posted pictures of himself ripping up a copy of the New Testament gifted to all MKs. Additionally, he has incited violence and riots against African refugees residing in southern Tel Aviv which resulted in much property damage and injury. 

Similarly offensive is King who has referred to Palestinians as “another kind of animal” and expressed happiness when discussing how he accidentally burned down a church while torching the vegetation on what he suspected was a Jewish graveyard to expose the tombstones in East Jerusalem. Marzel of Hebron has been arrested over a hundred times by the Israeli police for a variety of reasons; most notable being engaging in and inciting violent activity against Palestinians and left-wing activists such as Uri Avnery. Thankfully such bigots will not have a place in the Israeli legislative process in the foreseeable future.

To conclude: what can we draw from the election results at this early stage? Most importantly of all that Israel is becoming less concerned with its security and defence than simple socioeconomic issues such as the high cost of croutons and soft cheeses. While this may sound petty, it is evidently true: otherwise how do you explain the party campaigning around those issues doing so well? Apart from the government trying to decrease the cost of living we could also – should the Charedim be kept out of government – attempts to enlist the ultra-orthodox in the country’s armed forces to be increased.

However, the two-state solution is unlikely to progress. Although it may be one of Lapid’s priorities, he is unlikely to push forward an agenda that will be frowned on by the next government’s hawks if it jeopardises his place with them. Instead he would be wiser to work on issues of consensus, such as the urgent need for making life more affordable and answering the question of how to enlist a reluctant Charedi population into meaningful service of their country. However, he does offer hope for Israel on non-domestic issues. Reportedly offered the ministries of finance or foreign affairs by Bibi, much good could be done if he accepts the latter. Although lacking in experience; photogenic and charismatic he could do much to repair Israel’s tarnished image in the international community by reversing the destructive work of Yisrael Beiteinu and Avigdor Lieberman.

About the Author
Daniel J. Levy is currently researching Iranian proxies in the Israeli-Arab Conflict at the University of Oxford's St Antony's College, and graduated from the University of Leeds with a First Class joint honours degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics in July 2017. His main interests and hobbies are reading, cooking, running and international politics. He can be followed on Twitter @DanielHaLevy.