TEL AVIV – Contrary to claims of an Israeli electoral shift to more moderate, middle ground, the new government to be formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is projected to retain its right-wing reticence for a Palestinian peace deal and its insular, threat-driven approach to strategic changes sweeping the region.
At best, political scientists and experts here are depicting Netanyahu’s next term as right-light, presuming he honors a Jan. 23 pledge to form “as broad a government as possible” to bring about changes demanded by a disgruntled electorate.
In postelection interviews, experts cautioned against drawing false conclusions from the Jan. 22 ballot, which stripped Netanyahu’s merged Likud-Israel Our Home party of 11 seats and ostensibly restored a near balance between the 61-seat voting bloc of the Israeli right to the 59 seats constituting the center-left.
Netanyahu needs to supplement the 31 seats secured in last week’s election with at least an additional 30 to meet minimum government control of Israel’s 120-seat parliament. He has already initiated coalition discussions with party leaders across the political spectrum to fortify his presumptive government’s chances of surviving a full four-year term.
But in an election driven largely by Israel’s domestic agenda, labels are deceiving, and hardly reflect a broad-based repudiation of Israel’s current political-military course.
Rather, last week’s ballot marked a stinging rebuke of Netanyahu’s pandering to Israel’s draft-evading Haredi religious sector and his failure to enact meaningful reforms demanded by the mass social protests from summer 2011.
“Make no mistake, this election was not a referendum on war and peace,” said Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran political and security analyst.
In a Jan. 23 interview, Ben-Yishai said international observers should not expect “any breakthroughs” toward a Palestinian peace deal or new, diplomatic strategies for coping with strategic challenges in the region. “On diplomatic issues, we may see some changes in nuance…. Hopefully, the coalition will be more reasonable and sane; less willing to go head-to-head with the United States.”
In Israel’s next government, centrist labels can actually mean right, as in the case of Yair Lapid, the surprise victor in last week’s ballot with 19 seats for his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.
Lapid, a celebrity broadcaster, author and entertainer, campaigned on improved education and more equitable sharing of the military burden and social benefits now favoring Israel’s highly subsidized ultra-religious sector. Lapid now controls the second-largest voting bloc, behind Netanyahu’s 31 seats, and several choice ministerial portfolios are his for the taking in a presumptive Netanyahu-led center-right government.
But how centrist is the political newcomer? Like Netanyahu and the few remaining non-ultra right members of his Likud party, Lapid endorses unconditional negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. But like the most pedigreed right-wingers, he rejects compromise on Jerusalem and supports continued construction in major Jewish settlement blocks of the occupied West Bank.
On issues of regional security, Lapid is considered a centrist hawk. While critical of the red lines that Netanyahu wants to set for military action against Iran, he has not made a campaign issue of Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation or the prime minister’s strained ties with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Alternatively, center-left can mean nothing, as evidenced by the enigmatic foreign policy platform of opposition Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, whose 15 seats were secured solely on social issues.
And in the case of Naftali Bennett, whose ultra-nationalist Jewish Homeland party garnered 12 seats in last week’s ballot, far right was marketed as mainstream while parts of its platform tilted toward fascism, if not messianism.
Aside from the party’s purported God-given claim to settle in all of the country, Jewish Homeland vows to revamp Israel’s Supreme Court, which it derides for being “historically dominated for generations by the liberal left.” The party also aims to correct “the over-judicialization of Israel… through excessive intervention [of courts and the state attorney] in the policy-making and spirit… of the Jewish and Zionist values of the country.”
Bennett, a young, modern Orthodox former Seyeret Matkal commando from the suburbs, made millions from the sale of his high-tech startup firm before serving a short stint as Netanyahu’s senior staffer. He controls the fourth-largest voting bloc, mainly by siphoning votes from Likud and other supporters not fully aware of his party’s radical slant.
With the exception of Arab sectorial parties and left-wing Meretz – the flag bearer of Israel’s peace camp with its unequivocal calls for an end to the West Bank occupation – voters did not respond well to calls for a significant reversal of Israel’s political-military course.
Meretz doubled its representation from three to six seats.
Centrist parties led by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, and Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, that targeted Netanyahu’s security agenda got little satisfaction at the polls.
Livni – the big star of Israel’s last election, who actually won more votes than Netanyahu, but failed to cobble together a coalition government – managed a mere six seats in her latest incarnation.
Mofaz – who succeeded Livni as head of what remained of the Centrist Kadima party of former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – eked into the next government with an anemic two-seat mandate.
“Those who campaigned on diplomacy got no traction at the polls. Look what happened to Livni, not to mention Mofaz,” said Efraim Inbar, a professor of political science and director of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.
In a Jan. 23 interview, Inbar noted that a significant share of votes for Lapid, a so-called centrist, and Bennett, the right-wing nationalist, would have gone to Netanyahu. “Many of them were Netanyahu supporters who knew Netanyahu would be the prime minister and, for various reasons, allowed themselves to vote for other parties.”
As for the perceived shift to the more moderate center, Inbar replied: “It’s nonsense to say that the Israeli public is shifting away from the consensus that we have to block a nuclear Iran, we have to be strong in the face of terrorism, and that the Palestinian issue should stay on the back burner until there is a partner for negotiations.”