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The Israelis have spoken

The election showed that most voters agree with Netanyahu that life itself is more important than quality of life

Israel’s election results surprised many: the parties, the media and the pollsters who predicted the Zionist Camp victory or at least a draw.

Bibi’s decisive victory, 30 seats compared to Buji’s 24, can be explained in several ways, but it falls in line with election results of more than 35 years.

Many in Israel and abroad tend to forget, or wish to forget, that since 1977, when Menachem Begin and the Likud party won an election for the first time, beating the Labor party (under a different name), Likud has been in power in Israel. There have been only three short intervals. Shimon Peres won in 1984, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999. Rabin and Barak were of course celebrated generals and IDF chiefs of staff. Rabin was also a former minister of defense. Peres was never a military man but enjoyed a very significant experience in matters of defense since the 1950’s.

In other words: since 1977 a Labor leader can win an election in Israel only if he has a very strong military or defense record and preferably both.

Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog does not have such a record. In former governments he held portfolios such as housing, social affairs, tourism and Diaspora affairs. He is a lawyer by profession, who served honorably in the military as a junior officer.

This election proved that most Israeli citizens accept Netanyahu’s argument that before you deal with the quality of life, you have to deal with life itself, against enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Therefore, it is no surprise that the very experienced Bibi, who has already served as prime minister for nine years, the last six consecutively, was chosen over Buji, who is perceived to be inexperienced in military and defense matters. It seems that most voters were also annoyed by the extreme personal attacks on Bibi and his wife.

Bibi was beaten in Tel Aviv and Haifa but won in Jerusalem and Beer Sheva, and in most peripheral communities in the North and the South.

Bibi won in spite of a massive campaign by most of the Israeli media to unseat him, claiming daily that he has achieved nothing in his six consecutive years as prime minister. The Israeli media argued that Netanyahu did not tackle the quality of life problems and that he destroyed relations with President Obama and his administration. The election results show a lack of trust of the Israelis in the mainstream media.

Herzog and his partner Tzipi Livni painted the elections as a personal choice between them and Netanyahu. This tactic of “it’s us or him” may have boomeranged. It brought numerous Israelis, who otherwise may have stayed home, to cast a ballot for the Likud, fearing that the left would indeed take over the government. The voting percentage was higher this time than in the past.

This was also the “Yom Kippur of the pollsters.” Throughout the campaign they predicted a Labor victory and even on election night they declared a draw, until the actual results proved them wrong. It seems most pollsters were out of touch with the voters’ reality, especially those outside the major cities.

The results offer proof that from a political perspective Bibi was right with his controversial decision to address Congress in Washington regarding the Iran deal. Most Israelis apparently appreciated the fact that the Prime Minister was not afraid to stand up to our closest ally and its president about an issue Netanyahu and most Israelis perceive as crucial to their future.

What will happen next?

Bibi will soon form a coalition government with his “natural allies:” the right wing Naftali Bennett (8 seats) and Avigdor Liberman (6 seats), two ultra-Orthodox parties (13 seats together) and an old-new comer, Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who formed his own party and was able to get 10 Knesset seats. Kahlon will be the minister of finance and will try to solve many socioeconomic issues. Herzog’s Labor (24 seats) as well as Yair Lapid (11 seats — the wiz kid of the previous elections in 2013) will be left in the opposition together with a strong Arab party (13-14 seats) and the left-wing Meretz (4) whose chairwoman Zehava Gal-on, already announced her resignation, accepting responsibility for the party’s failure.

The new Coalition will enjoy a majority of 67 seats in the 120 member Knesset, enough to govern comfortably.

What will this government do?

No change is expected in defense and peace process issues. Netanyahu believes that there is no Palestinian partner and will act accordingly. He will continue to try and prevent a nuclear Iran and the upcoming agreement. The new government will continue to be forceful against Hamas and Hezbollah.

Netanyahu knows that he has to improve relations with President Obama since they have to cooperate for the next almost two years. Obama’s peace process plans may put him on a new collision course with Netanyahu, nevertheless within weeks we will witness a Netanyahu trip to Washington as a guest of the President. All will be forgiven, if not forgotten. Obama will have to respect the Israeli people’s choice.

Netanyahu understands that many socioeconomic problems got out of hand. He will give the new minister of finance, Moshe Kahlon, a relatively free hand, as he tries to confront crucial issues such as the cost of living, a housing shortage, and a much desired reform of the health system. Kahlon is popular and has a chance to succeed.

This term will most likely be Netanyahu’s fourth and last. The unexpected election victory is considered in Israel as an act of personal achievement and Netanyahu is referred to as “The Magician”, by the same media that until now called for his ouster. Netanyahu will have to show strength and creativity if he wants to leave a respectable legacy rather than being a mere footnote in Israel’s history.

About the Author
Ambassador Arye Mekel is a veteran Israeli diplomat and journalist. He served as foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Consul General to New York and Atlanta, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador to Greece and Foreign Ministry Spokesman. He was also Director General of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, in charge of all State Television and Radio broadcasts. He is currently a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar- Ilan University.