Election Preview: Why The Israeli Right Has Turned Hardline

Recent history has shown that Israelis favor the right when they feel threatened.

Wed, 01/16/2013
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

The three most important pieces of information to know about Tuesday’s upcoming national elections in Israel are: Bibi Netanyahu will emerge as prime minister for another term; the government will move further to the right and the electoral system is in desperate need of change, a major factor in the disturbing polarization we are witnessing.

The findings of the numerous election polls shift from day to day, but it seems clear the coalition formed between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu will receive the most votes, and therefore the most seats in the next Knesset — though probably fewer than they would have won had they not joined forces to run together.

The center-right Likud won 27 seats in the most recent, 2009, national elections, and Yisrael Betenu, made up primarily of secular, Russian speakers, won 15. (Kadima, then led by Tzipi Livni, won the most seats, 28, but was unable to put together a coalition of at least 61 to give it a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.)

Recent polls show the Likud-Yisrael Betenu effort ending up with 30-some seats, down from the 42 they held separately, and Labor a distant second with about 16 seats.

One key question of this election campaign was why would Netanyahu, a shrewd politician who would have emerged victorious without partnering with Lieberman, choose to join political forces with his controversial foreign minister, whose outspoken hardline views on Arabs have labeled him a racist to many?

And as it turned out, Lieberman was forced to step down from his cabinet post in December to face charges of breach of trust and fraud, the culmination of a longstanding case, though he insists he will be cleared and back in office.

Netanyahu made the decision to run with Lieberman because he sensed the need to shore up support on his right. His instincts were born out by the fact that the biggest threat in the campaign has come from Naftali Bennett, a little-known leader of the settlement movement whose charge against Netanyahu — that he talks tough on settlement expansion but has little to show for it — has had remarkable political traction.

Bennett, 40, has impressive credentials to lead his Jewish Home religious Zionist party. The son of American immigrants, he was an elite IDF soldier and a former top aide to Netanyahu who headed the Yesha Council of Settlements (though he lives inside the Green Line) after selling his software company several years ago for $145 million. His the-hell-with-the-international-community campaign message, appealing to both religious and secular Israelis on the right, is that it is time to acknowledge there will be no Palestinian state anytime soon and to call on Israel to annex 60 percent of the West Bank.

Jewish Home is taking seats away from Likud-Yisrael Betenu and is third in the polls, predicted to win 13 or 14 seats, just behind Labor.

Ironically, Netanyahu, who is perceived in the U.S. and in much of the world as a hard right-wing leader, now looks more like a centrist at home since he publicly supports a two-state solution and while he has announced plans to build in the settlements, he has not yet done so.

The parties on the left may end up with as many seats in the Knesset as they have now, but they are more splintered because of their insistence on running separately rather than forming blocs. Shelly Yachimovich, a 52-year-old former journalist, leads Labor. Tzipi Livni formed the Movement party, current defense minister Ehud Barak started the Independence party, and popular TV personality Yair Lapid’s founded Yesh Atid, a party based on social-justice issues.

A powerful sign of the changing political climate is that the centrist Kadima party that won the most seats in the last election is not expected to win any in this one.

For the most part the parties on the left have focused on domestic social issues and made little effort to address the security threats that most worry Israelis: the increasingly violent civil war in Syria; the new Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt; the worsening standoff with the Palestinians; and most of all, Iran’s ongoing effort to develop nuclear arms.

Recent history has shown that when Israelis feel more secure, they vote left and seek negotiations with their Arab neighbors; they favor the right when they feel threatened. And this may well be the most unsettling period in the history of the Jewish state, given the dramatic changes taking place in the Arab world and the fear of Iran’s might.

The Likud party itself has moved from right to extreme right. Highly respected veterans like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were replaced high on the ticket by hardliners like Moshe Feiglin, who supports a Jewish rather than a democratic state and speaks of transfer of the Arab population.

A newly elected Netanyahu would have a hard time finding party support for attempts at compromise with the Palestinians, should pressure increase from Washington.

But with the Mahmoud Abbas-led Fatah faction moving closer to reconciliation with Hamas, the terror group controlling Gaza, Netanyahu’s contention that he has no reliable negotiating partner may sound more credible to the Obama administration.

One bright note for those looking for liberal advances from the next Knesset is the possibility of Netanyahu forming a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox religious parties that have resisted liberalizing conversion standards and drafting yeshiva students.

But much depends on the political jockeying and backroom deals that take place after the balloting to determine the parties that join the ruling coalition.

Which brings us to underlying root of Israel’s political instability: an electoral system that as Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Re’ut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank, noted recently, “encourages divisiveness among the public.”

He pointed out that the 34 parties competing in this election “distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious vs. secular, poor vs. rich, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim, periphery against center, hawk against doves, and Jews against Arabs.”

This is nothing new, and any number of thoughtful proposals to simplify and Americanize the Israeli process have been advanced over the years, including making Knesset members accountable to their constituents rather than their party, and raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 4 or 5 percent, which would limit the number of small parties winning Knesset seats and oblige them to form coalitions.

Grinstein suggests an amendment that would ensure that the head of the party with the most votes becomes prime minister, encouraging candidates to be more centrist and willing to form alliances.

But such changes would require Knesset members to vote themselves out of power, relinquishing the cars and other perks at their disposal that symbolize political leaders who put their own interests over the nation’s.

For now, it appears certain Israel’s next government will have the same prime minister as today, but one more likely to push for settlement expansion than peace talks with the Palestinians, and a continued rocky relationship with the White House.

What could change all of that is if President Obama indicates a willingness to take on Iran militarily in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Stay tuned.

Gary@jewishweek.org. Follow Gary Rosenblatt’s blog, RosenBlog, throughout the week at www.thejewishweek.com

 

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you miss called this one!

The reason why the Center-Left is not winning the majority in the upcoming Knesset lessons can be spread out among different parties; the uptick in Orthodox Jews entering politics, the pessimism among the population that peace can be attained with the Palestinians, and the games that the Palestinian leadership is playing with the peace process. For Jewish-Americans there seems to be a great disconnect between the fact that they are edging away from Israel at a time when they are needed the most. It does no good if the majority of center-left Jews live in New York, Boston or Los Angeles then complain about the state of Israeli politics. The time now is for Jewish-American (particularly of the Center-Left) to put up or shut up. Israel needs a million Jews from North America over the next twenty years for the good of Israel as well as for the future of the Jewish Community of North America. If that happens then maybe the political scales might balance out.

"What could change all of that is if President Obama indicates a willingness to take on Iran militarily in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians." This sort of came out from nowhere.

Bibi is going to go down in history, together with Bar Giorah, Yohanan Ish Gush Halav and Bar Kochva. These are the three leaders who, intoxicated by Messianism to the point where they were unable to make rational strategic decisions based on geo-political reality, led our people to disaster. Unless Israel takes the initiative to seperate from the Palestinians, we will end up with a bi-national state from th Jordan to the Sea. Since the Jewish and Arab populations would be almost equal, this means the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and the demise of the Third Jewish Commonwealth (Bayit Shlishi). Any attempt to disenfranchise the Arab residents will mean Israel has crossed the Rubicon, becoming an apartheid state (which it now most certainly is not, despite pervasive anti-Arab discrimination). This can only end one way, the imposition of sanctions, which the Obama administration cannot and will not oppose. Witihn a few months of sanctions, our economy will collapse, leading to a mass wave of emigration by the most skilled, educated and mobile elements of our population,precisely those who have made Israel into the "Start-up Nation". End result, the demise of Israel.

Please note, I most deliberately am talking about separation, not peace. As someone with some understanding of the Arab world and foreign policy issues (am a member of Labor's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee) I am fully aware of the fact that the Arab uprising has all but eliminated any chance of negotiating a final peace treaty. however an interim agreement facilitating a several year process culminating in Israel separating from the Palestinians is possible, as is unilateral separation. I'm aware of the risks, we could find ourselves facing Gaxa style rocket attacks from Ramallah and Nablus. However ultimately war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means, not the other way round. Rockets are a nuisance, but ultimately it is the political -diplomatic threats, such as either losing a viable sustainable Jewish majority or becoming an isolated apartheid pariah state that pose existential threats to Israel, not rocket attacks .

Israel is moving right because that is the only logical thing to do after 19 years of the Oslo disaster. Bibi froze settlements for 10 months, at Obama's urging, and got nothing in return - no gestures from the Arab countries (which Obama said was forthcoming), no peace talks from the Palestinian Authority, more rockets from Gaza, and the need to take military action against those rockets. Why on earth would anyone with any sense think that continuing the failed policies of the last 19 years would bring any different result? Labeling someone like Lieberman as a far rightist is simply unfair. He has accepted the possibility of even leaving his own settlement across the green line in the case of a peace treaty with the Palestinian Authority. At this time, a sane voter's only choice is to move rightward, not necessarily because one might want to, but because the situation requires it.

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