Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

The Israeli elections: What goes around always comes around

We have now the final tally-what a surprise… 59 [Assuming Bennett is in] for Netanyahu, 61 [With Abbas, though can change] against Netanyahu. No need to exhaust our collective memories too much, as we all remember these exact numbers from the three previous rounds. Here is another vindication for Albert Einstein’s immortal words of wisdom: To do the same thing time and again and expect another result is sheer stupidity.

Say it to Benjamin Netanyahu himself, as he already declared a ”huge victory”, though later he qualified himself to just a ”victory”. The real ”victory” which he gained this time, is the informal [as yet…] winner of the Guinness Book of Records title of the political loser of the decade. Four times in two years is quite an accomplishment, isn’t it? For those why may ask why it is a loss when Likud is still the largest single party in Israel, and with a wide margin from the second largest, then it is very simple. It is all about the blocs in Israel, and all about the magic number 61. You have it then you are the winner, you do not have it, then you are the loser. Sounds simple because it is. In a democracy the majority decides, not the hot air rhetoric of a leader, some will say a rabble-rouser.

Yes, Netanyahu can form a government IF Bennett will forget the years of humiliation and join, AND IF Mansour Abbas will either join the coalition formally or tacitly support from the outside. I have no problem with that, in fact, I will welcome it. Already in 1994, I published my first article calling for the inclusion of an Arab minister in the government, perhaps and preferably more than one. However, Mr. Netanyahu in his own voice stated just a few days before the elections that come what may, he will NOT cooperate with Abbas in any way, shape, or form. As Netanyahu always kept his word, then the game is over for him. well, here is my kind of joking. Netanyahu and keeping up promises? A real, classic oxymoron, but I trust that the Smotrich-Ben Gvir party will keep its promises, and poor Netanyahu is having a huge problem on his hands.

The Netanyahu personal predicament, however, is not my concern, nor the focal point of this article. It has to do with the amazing spectacle of the static electorate, of results that bear just scant resemblance to the reality of actual life in Israel. It is as if reality and voting patterns in Israel are contradictory by definition. So what is happening? Here is the answer, and it is NOT different than what I wrote here before the elections — Israel’s politics is determined by the politics of identities., and these politics are not easily swayed by current situations. They are much more influenced by past legacies. There are well-defined social blocs of voters whose voting patterns are decided by their collective identity, and not by other, classic political science definitions, for example, that of Right and Left Wing. We talk about the Mizrachim, the Ultra-Orthodox, the Religious Zionists, the mostly secular ”White Tribe”, a soft definition to mainly Ashkenazi Jews, Olim from the former Soviet Union and Arabs. This social divide has its clear geographic match. Take the voting records of North and South Tel Aviv, Morasha in Ramat Hasharon and the rest of the prosperous town. Rasko
as opposed to Central Ra’anana, and so on all over the country. Tiberias in the North, and Omer in the South, and again-so many more examples. Israel’s population is clearly defined by all these differences. So why it is not Left and Right as we look at these definitions by the textbooks?

It is because the vast majority of the non-Likud Centrist voters belong to the upper socio-economic classes and they do not support anything like Socialist economic policies. Very few people may have paid attention to the fact, that the chairman of the Histadrut announced his cancellation of membership in the Labor party before the elections, and the leader of the Histadrut in Jerusalem even went a step further and stated his outright support for Likud. Can any of my readers imagine a deputy leader of the AFL-CIO in the US or of the TUC in Britain declare support for the Republicans in the US or Tories in England? .It happens in Israel, because the working class mostly belongs to the social groups which support Likud, and for these people this is and probably will continue to be a communal-sectarian vote for ”us” against ”them”. ”US” is the electoral coalition that Menachem Begin built throughout all his years in the political desert, not Netanyahu.

A coalition composed mainly of Mizrachim, Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionists. This electoral coalition is now inclusive of Shas, Smotrich and, to a large extent, Bennett, and it has at least 57-60 assured seats in any round of elections. They have the potential to achieve more, but Netanyahu fails to mobilize them in full, another indication of his failure. Remember Begin brought Likud alone 48 seats in 1981, Shamir 40 in 1988, and Sharon nearly as much, whereas the utmost that Netanyahu brought was 36. So, where are these missing votes? .They mostly stay in the grand Begin coalition, like Shas whose voters are Haredi Likudniks [mostly, not all ] or Smotrich, whose party was supported this time by disgruntled Likud voters. The electoral bloc which supports Netanyahu is, therefore, nearly 60 seats, and this time it maintained it could get even more, save for the appearance of Sa’ar.

While Sa’ar himself can regret his poor campaign, he can still be proud of getting 6 seats, not so easy to get. These are mostly Likud voters and put together 30 for Likud this time plus the 6 for Sa’ar and you get the 36 which Netanyahu received in the previous round. The big question is, whether Sa’ar will keep his electorate in the next round, or this party will vanish in thin air, like Moshe Kachlon [remember?…] or Kadimah whose voters, by and large, returned to Likud. If he will keep his electorate as Avigdor Lieberman does, then we may see a real political change happening. Like Lieberman or not, the fact is, that most of his voters define themselves in every poll as Right Wing, but still vote for a man whose rhetoric, at least, changed from Right to be Centrist. They do it because of the politics of identities. Yvette [as he is known by them] is ”ours”, so we vote for him.
This article focuses on the Netanyahu bloc, but it is as relevant to the other bloc. All the changes happening this time among the 61 non-Netanyahu [save for Sa’ar as noted], happened within the bloc, and there was zero movement of votes from Netanyahu bloc to them. This is a static situation and brings it back to the basic division in Israeli society — it is cultural and social, and voting is a reflection of that.

Some may resort to a sense of depression, as cultural divisions are deeply rooted and hard to change. True enough, but then this is the price of democracy, and when democracy prevails, it is still much better than any alternative, and Israelis and supporters of Israel can be proud of the fact, that the political
game with all its difficulties and uncertainties does not lead and hopefully will not lead to the 6 January American insurrection repeats itself in Jerusalem. At least a half, if not full consolation.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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