Israeli elections: the return of the centre

Benjamin Netanyahu will remain Israel’s prime minister, but the rise of centrist parties have made his choices for coalition partners far more difficult. EPA/Oliver Weiken

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bruising victory in Israel’s election was costly.

The hawkish atmosphere over electing members of the 19th Knesset saw the highest voter turnout since 1999 and some surprise. The wind did blow to the right of politics, which is not to say that it did not deliver its host of surprises. Israel’s political representatives have ratcheted up the rhetoric.

Before voting, Netanyahu sensed danger from such contenders as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a grouping keen to abolish military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox civilians along with a host of generous subsidies.

Atid eventually came in with 19 seats, second to Netanyahu’s Likud at 31 (down from 11 seats from the previous election).

“The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country’s future,” Netanyahu proclaimed on the eve of the election.

Prior to the election, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu coalition was obsessed by a battle of the right wings. Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), lead by Naftali Bennett, former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council, was seeking to position himself as a possible “powerbroker”. As the new glamorous reactionary, he did not do quite as well as he had hoped. His influence is, however, unmistakable.

Given the nature of Israeli politics, coalitions are a frequent thing. Netanyahu will be in search of allies. They are not likely to stem from Bennett’s side, given that the software tycoon is more than happy to go the distance with reactionary politics. His position, in part, makes Netanyahu look like an enlightened progressive. For one, Bennett has decided that Israel should give up the ghost on reaching any consensus with the Palestinians. His party, as noted in The Economist, is “a brash reincarnation of the venerable but moribund National Religious Party.” Jewish settlements in the West Bank are promoted with fire brand conviction, and annexation has not been ruled out as a possibility.

Bennett’s views have found sympathy with many of Netanyahu’s own party, and these feel that a miscalculation was made when the Prime Minister threw Likud’s lot in with Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu. Those unhappy with the move are gravitating towards Bennett, certainly in light of Lieberman’s fall from grace with inconclusive investigations into bribery and money-laundering.

The impressive performance of such groupings as Yesh Atid have confused the punditry, meaning that Netanyahu may have to seek moderates to swell the fold. Being keen on seeking some form of compromise with the Palestinians, there may be a very different political Israeli landscape forming.

The 2013 election itself has drawn complaints. It was deemed sudden, declared in a blink of an eye and a confused result. Netanyahu did not face a coherent united front. In Allison Kaplan Sommer’s words, writing for Haaretz, “there was no real horse race to watch and not enough suspense.” Sommer may well have to be reconsidering that assessment.

The fact that Netanyahu has won makes the chances of a calmer approach to the divisions with Palestinians, and more broadly the Middle East, more difficult.

Domestically, Israel is considered to be suffering an erosion of its civic culture, an attempt orchestrated as much out of fear than anything else. Mohammed Ishtayeh, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, spoke of Abbas’ concern that the continued emphasis on settlements would eventually threaten Israeli democracy, given the reluctance of Netanyahu to embrace the two-state solution.

Ishtayeh himself suggested that the continued policy might eventually produce “an apartheid-styled state” given that a single state solution would only lead to an Arab majority being controlled by a Jewish minority.

Organisations such as the US-based Freedom House will have none of that, claiming that Israel remains the Middle East’s “only free country”.

While it is true that laws have been proposed that eat away at the structure of free speech and rights of civil society organisations, many such measures have failed to pass in the Knesset, or been given short shrift by the Israeli Supreme Court. But the country’s relationship with human rights is a stormy one. Keeping one’s nerve alongside one’s rights is a herculean task.

Then, there is the case of how Israel will deal with the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention its neighbours. The Netanyahu of the Arab Spring cut a negative figure suspicious of those seeking to change authoritarian regimes. While this was hardly a very democratic sentiment, it certainly matches the Likud’s realpolitik vision: let Israel maintain a monopoly on democracy – the rest don’t need it.

As for Iran, a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear facilities remains very much on the cards. Whether a new centrist focus will change this is speculative. Such relationships are viewed through the prism of insecurity rather than that of seeking peace – whether embargoes should be tightened; whether rockets are fired, or not fired; whether troops are sent in periodically or otherwise.

The new Netanyahu is unlikely to deviate from this line, a circuitous, inescapable rationale for violence, but the necessity to form a differently constituted coalition may change the game altogether.

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