The Israeli public has spoken. Despite the fact that the final results will not be known until tomorrow, we can learn a great deal from the preliminary tallies.
First, we can learn from what did not happen– The Israeli electorate did not shift rightward. It’s not that Israelis have shifted leftward, they just rejected the notion of moving ever further to the right.
The overwhelming majority of the Israeli public clearly does not think negotiation with the Palestinians is the most important item on our agenda. At the same time, the majority disapproves of many of the recent actions taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israelis are happy to ignore the Palestinian problem. They have no interest in making the problem worse. Most Israelis do not want to take any more risks for peace. At the same time, the majority does not want any more settlements. Israelis want a strong Israel. However, they also do not want to poke the President of the United States in the eye.
The overwhelming majority of Israelis want to end subsidies for Yeshiva students who do not want to go into the army. Without question, the majority wants to find a way to lower the cost of living here.
The way to achieve the first goal is clear-cut, though politically treacherous. Achieving the second goal seems somehow unattainable without some serious outside of the box thinking. Navigating how one puts together a coalition with all of the above constraints will be an exceptionally difficult challenge.
One additional factor cannot be neglected, the general desire of Israelis to bring about change. They are not sure how, but they desperately want the political change that has been eluding them for a generation.
While the odds are very high that Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister, in the last six months he has made almost every political mistake imaginable. He started off calling for early elections. Then, Instead, he made the last minute decision to add the Kadima party to the government. Somehow, he did not look down the road, or did not take the preconditions that Kadima issued seriously. So when the Plessner Commission put forth its recommendations, (which were clearly not going to be well received by the Haredim,) Netanyahu decided to side with the Haredim (against Kadima). In some cases, going against the will of the people is a brave thing to do. Netanyahu, no doubt, counted on what is widely described as the notoriously short memory of Israeli voters. Unfortunately for him (and Likud) this was too short of a period of time for the memories to evaporate. Israelis did not forget his choice to go with the Haredim, defying the majority who cry out for shiv’yon ba’netel (equity in [carrying] the burden). Netanyahu paid for that choice dearly at polls yesterday.
Next, there was Netanyahu’s decision to actively support Mitt Romney in the U.S. Presidential campaign. Israelis like to see a strong Prime Minister. At times, even ones who stands up to the President of the United States. However, Israelis just don’t like their Prime Minister to do completely senseless things. While they may have forgotten about this nuclear faux pas (as a function of their traditionally short memory), Israeli voters were reminded by of this hapless misstep last week when President Obama let his unhappiness be known through Jeffrey Goldberg. Many observers thought that President Obama’s remarks would backfire and strengthen Netanyahu. Yet, in the days leading up to the election I heard many Likud supporters saying: “Obama is getting his revenge, and now we are all going to pay!”
Then, Netanyahu made the same two mistakes that his compatriots in the U.S. Republican party made in this last election. Instead of playing to the center, Netanyahu kept on playing to the right; since he was fearful of losing his right-wing supporters. In both the U.S. and in Israel the rightwing supporters might be the most outspoken. However, their vocal volume is too often mistaken for voluminous numbers in their ranks. Historically, elections are generally won from the center.
And then… Netanyahu made the mistake of not presenting an economic plan. Mitt Romney claimed he would to a better job managing the economy, and as such, those in pain would suffer less. Romney stated all of this without unveiling a real plan on how to improve this matter. Despite the additional push from the social protest movement, Netanyahu did the same thing– with the same results.
The one thing that saved Netanyahu from total defeat was the lack of a conceivable alternative, couples with the exceedingly poor election campaigns run by every other party, other than Yesh Atid.
As coalition negotiations get under way to try to form a new government, here are two final thoughts: One, we live in a country which is divided into four main blocs – Left/ Center 40% Right 35% Ultra Orthodox 15% and Arab 10%.
Those blocs can agree on some matters, but violently disagree on others. Until our system of governing is reformed, the key remains finding a way to bridge the gap between some of those groups – a feat that continues to present a tremendous challenge.
Finally, this is the last time Netanyahu will be going into an election without a serious challenger. Next time he will have two potential challengers – First and foremost, Yair Lapid. This time no one (including Yair himself) could take the idea of Lapid becoming Prime Minister seriously. However, if Lapid becomes a senior minister, and does well, suddenly he will become a natural candidate to become Prime Minister. In the future, there is also the likelihood that Gabi Ashkenazi will run.
So, Prime Minister Netanyahu… I did not vote for you. Yet, once again, you are going to be my Prime Minister. Therefore, I wish you well and hope you make better decisions in this term than you have in the past. Enjoy this term as Prime Minister, since it will most likely be your last.