After the Election: Thoughts on Israeli Politics

Israel’s general election is over, but the fun is just beginning.  As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, having received the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin, begins negotiating with the other parties that are likely to participate in the resulting coalition government, the probable length of that process may give the rest of us an opportunity to figure out what happened and why, and to speculate about where Israeli politics goes from here.

Did Israel’s 2015 general election teach us anything about Israeli politics that we did not already know?  It taught us that Bibi Netanyahu, whatever his faults, is a brilliant political tactician – but we knew that already.  It taught us that, however much Israelis may complain about their country’s economic and social problems, at the end of the day security concerns almost always take precedence – but we knew that already as well.  The election results also taught us – or perhaps more accurately reminded us — that most Israelis aren’t terribly worried about whether the man heading their government gets along well with other world leaders, even the President of the United States.  They want a Prime Minister who is not afraid to stand up for their country’s vital interests – the rest, they figure, will work itself out somehow.

None of these lessons is breaking news.  Collectively, however, they go a long way toward explaining the results of this election.  Israelis have a wide range of views on economic, social and religious issues.  But for many, there is a threshold determination that precedes consideration of those issues.  Many Israelis, before casting a vote that could help bring a new prime minister into office, first need to feel comfortable that the would-be prime minister is tough enough to entrust with the country’s security.  Yitzchak Herzog, the Labor Party’s leader, has yet to succeed in making that case.  It’s not that Israelis dislike Herzog — Netanyahu is more widely disliked – it’s that they don’t know Herzog well enough to feel comfortable leaving the safety of Israel’s people in his hands.

Uncertainty about Yitzchak Herzog’s readiness to be Prime Minister is by no means the whole story.  The pre-election polls had shown Herzog’s momentum increasing as election day neared.  Netanyahu had hoped for a bounce from his address to Congress, but it didn’t materialize.  At the very least, it appeared, the election would produce a virtual dead heat, giving President Rivlin some leeway in deciding which party leader should have the first opportunity to form a government.

What appears to have shifted the momentum was Netanyahu’s statement, as the campaign’s end approached – that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he was in office.   This statement was widely understood as a repudiation of the two-state solution and thus the effective end of the post-Oslo peace process.

The exit polls taken on election day, like the last pre-election polls, showed Likud and the Zionist Union essentially tied.  By the time the vote count was complete, however, it was clear that the polls had been wrong.  Netanyahu’s Likud Party finished first with 30 seats, a six-seat edge over Herzog’s Zionist Union, which had 24.  The Joint List of the three Arab parties – who as a practical matter cannot be part of a governing coalition regardless of who heads it – came in third with thirteen seats.  An additional fourteen seats were split between two parties (HaBayit haYehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu ) that are likely to be part of a Likud-led coalition and would not participate in a Zionist Union-led government.  Two centrist parties (Yair Lapid’s hyper-secular  Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu) won eleven and ten seats respectively.  The two chareidi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) split 13 seats between them while Eli Yishai’s Yachad, a split off from Shas, narrowly failed to meet the new 3.25% threshold.  The far left Meretz – the only party that can be part of a left-wing coalition but not a right-wing one — barely met the threshold and will end up with five seats.

Was there a last minute stampede to Likud, or were the polls inaccurate from the outset?  There is no way to be sure.  I would normally assume the polls to be more or less accurate, except that in this election even the exit polling was way off.  Exit polls, which are taken as people leave their polling stations and thus cannot be explained by subsequent changes in voting decisions, consistently showed a virtual dead heat.  Only when the official count began to come in did the extent of the Likud victory become apparent.  The inaccuracy of the exit polling suggests either that something happened in the middle of the day to change the situation or else that there is a systemic problem with polling methodology.  (I have no expertise in statistics, so I won’t speculate on the source of such a problem.)

If there was a last minute shift of votes to Likud, what caused it? Some analysts have pointed to Netanyahu’s well-publicized election day statement (which his critics have denounced as racist) urging right wing voters to come out to vote so as to counteract the Arab voters who were supposedly coming out “in droves” to vote for the unified Arab Joint List.  I find it difficult to believe that the results of a hotly contested election could have been changed so dramatically in a few hours by a single comment, however incendiary.

While the wording of that admonition was reckless, moreover, the screams of racism that have followed are mostly disingenuous.  What Bibi was trying to do with that warning is what most candidates in democratic elections try to do – increase voter turnout among those most likely to vote for that candidate.   One tried and true (though somewhat distasteful) way of doing that is by warning of an unexpectedly high turnout among those voters who are least likely to support the candidate, which is precisely what Bibi’s warning was intended to convey.

Is it really racist to point out that, for the most part, Israel’s Arab citizens are unlikely to vote for Likud or its allies?  Or that most of them voted for the Joint List, an alliance of three Arab parties?  Why was it “racism” to call the voters’ attention to the undisputed fact that this election produced an unusually high turnout among a sector of the population whose positions on many issues were diametrically opposed to those of Netanyahu?  Isn’t it somewhat hypocritical, moreover, for those who incessantly warn of the danger of Israel becoming a bi-national state when that warning supports their policy prescriptions to condemn as racist what amounts to the same warning when used for political purposes by those on the other side of the political spectrum?

So what did cause the shift?  Of all the headline events that occurred in the weeks leading up to the election, the one that appeared to help Likud most visibly in the polls was Netanyahu’s apparent repudiation (on which he’s now seeking to backtrack, but we’ll save that for another time) of the two-state solution.  It’s hard to imagine that a significant number of voters switched from Zionist Union (or even one of the centrist parties) to Likud because Netanyahu took a more hardline stance against a Palestinian state.

If Likud gained votes from its shift of position, those must have been votes that would otherwise have gone to one of his probable coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu or HaBayit haYehudi, both of which in fact lost seats.  Such a shift may strengthen Bibi’s hand in coalition negotiations but they leave the ultimate balance between left and right unaffected.

So where do we go from here?  The next order of business is for Netanyahu to put together a coalition supported by at least 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.  In theory, he has the option of seeking to assemble either a broad national unity government or a narrow, more ideologically compatible coalition.  As a practical matter, he may not have the broad-based option available because the Zionist Union, understandably, prefers opposition to cooptation.

The composition of a narrow coalition government is essentially dictated by the numbers.  Likud and its two natural partners,  Yisrael Beiteinu and HaBayit haYehudi, collectively hold 44 seats, which is 17 seats short of a majority.  The two chareidi parties, with whom Netanyahu has worked productively in the past, between them have another 13 seats, so Netanyahu will also need to include one of the two centrist parties, Yesh Atid or Kulanu, together with the chareidim, or both of those parties without the chareidim, to form a majority.  The hyper-secular Yesh Atid has ruled out sitting in the same government as the chareidi parties, and in any event the tensions between Netanyahu and Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, were a contributing cause of the early elections, so I doubt that Netanyahu will be heartbroken at Yesh Atid’s absence from the coalition.  Thus, the most likely coalition would include Likud and its two natural partners, both chareidi parties and Kulanu.  That coalition would command 67 votes in the Knesset, a narrow but workable majority.

How long Netanyahu can hold such a coalition together is anyone’s guess.  His core support is likely to hold unless he makes what his supporters regard as unacceptable concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians.  Given the Palestinians’ abandonment of negotiations in favor of playing the UN card, it’s hard to imagine what course of events could lead to such a result.

The chareidi parties, having just finished two years in opposition, have no desire to return there.  As long as no further steps are taken to force yeshiva students into the army, those parties will be compliant on most other issues.  That leaves Kulanu, a new centrist party, headed by Moshe Kahlon, as the primary factor determining the new coalition’s longevity.  Netanyahu has already announced that Kahlon will be Finance Minister in the new government.  This follows a recent pattern whereby the Prime Minister names as his Finance Minister, whichever leader is most likely to be a serious rival in the future.  The Finance Ministry is a portfolio with substantial influence but its minister often has to make decisions that are unlikely to enhance his popularity.  Kahlon can hardly turn down the offer, particularly since his party’s campaign stressed economic issues, but the Finance Ministry will reduce the likelihood that his party would act in a way that would destabilize the coalition, thus risking early elections.

In short, the new Israeli government will in essence be a slightly more stable version of the one it is replacing.  There will be unexpected challenges, of course; there always are.  For the most part, however, this is not a government that will seek large accomplishments, but rather one that will be content with minor improvements in the status quo.   Whether that’s good or bad, of course, depends on what you think of the status quo.

Those unhappy with the status quo will no doubt be tempted to advocate major reform of Israel’s political system.  It’s a temptation that should be resisted.  When it comes to changes in electoral procedures or governmental structure, the law of unintended consequences is alive and well.

Both Israelis and their Diaspora supporters have been complaining about the Israeli electoral system pretty much since Israel was created.  By itself, this ongoing kvetch-fest is no cause for concern.  Proposals for constitutional “reform” are a regular part of political discourse in many democratic countries.  In any democratic polity in which the results of the electoral process consistently leave no one satisfied, proposals for “reform” are likely to follow.  In Israel, hardly anyone is ever satisfied with the results of the electoral process, and would-be reformers in academia and the punditocracy are more than happy to blame the electoral process for the resulting political instability.

The resulting reform proposals over the years have run the gamut from the radical to the banal.  In 1996, the “reformers” actually persuaded the country’s political leaders to adopt a hybrid electoral system that included the direct election of the prime minister separately from (though sometimes simultaneously with) the election of the Knesset, thus cleverly combining the worst flaws of a parliamentary system with the worst flaws of a presidential system.  Predictably, the result of this experiment was to aggravate the instability it was ostensibly intended to alleviate.   After limping through three elections (in 1996, 1999 and 2001) with this hybrid system, all the major parties – with unprecedented unanimity — agreed to scrap it and go back to the old system.

Compared to the direct-election-of-prime-minister fiasco, the procedural “reform” adopted for this election was modest.  It raised the threshold for representation in the Knesset – the minimum percentage of the vote a party must have to win any Knesset seats — to 3.25% from its previous level of 2%.  (The threshold, originally 1%, was raised to 1.5 % in 1992 and to 2% in 2003.) The new threshold may not seem like a lot, but it effectively excludes from the Knesset any party which would win fewer than four seats. The thinking behind the change was that reducing the number of parties in the Knesset would simplify the process of forming a coalition.  In a close election, however, a single party falling just short of the threshold could make an enormous difference in the composition of the government.

In this election, one serious party, Eli Yishai’s Yahad, which would have won two or three seats under the former system, was excluded from the Knesset for failure to meet the threshold.  With eleven parties represented in the Knesset, the loss of one other is hardly tragic.  Over time, however, it seems likely that raising the threshold will discourage new parties and realignments, thus hardening he political status quo.  That might make Israeli politics easier to follow from a distance, but it’s hard to see how it would improve either the effectiveness or the responsiveness of Israel’s government..

Ironically, the party that was most tenacious in pursuing the increased threshold was Yisrael Beiteinu, the mostly Russian immigrant party headed by the controversial Avigdor Lieberman.  He had hoped to reduce the political influence of Israel’s Arab citizens because the three Arab parties represented in the last Knesset, based on their vote totals in the previous election, would all have fallen short of the increased threshold.  However, those three parties decided to run on a unified slate.  Not only did they avoid falling victim to the threshold, but the excitement generated by the unified slate increased the voter turnout among Israeli Arabs.  Their unified slate ended up with 13 Knesset seats, making them the third largest bloc in the Knesset.   Even if the threshold is subsequently lowered, there may be no way to get that particular genie back in the bottle.

Israel’s political system has its flaws, and some improvements might be worth considering.  Before contemplating radical change, however, Israelis would be well advised to define carefully the problem they want to fix.  The electoral system did not create the polarization and instability in Israeli politics.  Those, rather, are the natural result of a population split down the middle on fundamental questions that go to the heart of the country’s identity.  If the political system did not reflect this split, these fundamental differences would find another outlet – and the results might not be pretty.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.