Israeli election results and the political landscape in 2019

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View of a giant election campaign poster showing Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 31, 2019. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

By Mickey Glass

The Israeli national elections have just been concluded. The results once again confounded all the ‘experts’ and polls.  Some of the big losers are still struggling to understand where they went wrong.  The media, who never acknowledge, much less apologise, for totally misreading the electorate are busy finding all sorts of excuses to justify their pre-election predictions.

Generally, election day was relatively quiet. Compared to South Africa’s 22 million voters, the Election Committee in Israel had to provide facilities for an electorate of only 6 million.  There were voting stations in almost every village, town and city.  Unlike South Africa, Israeli voters are compelled by law to vote in the area where they are registered and thus there is no bussing of groups to voting stations as we often experience in South Africa.

Voters produce their ID’s and are shown to a table, divided alphabetically.  Their names are marked and they are given an empty envelope.  They then proceed to a table on which are displayed stacks of cards, each displaying the logo of one of the 34 parties contesting the elections. The voter chooses one of the cards and places it in the envelope and then drops the envelope in the ballot box. No ticks, no crosses – just a card in the envelope.

As one traversed the country there were few posters and banners, generally on bridges and road-side displays, but nothing overwhelming.  The overall impression was of controlled and quite muted publicity.  What excitement there was, was provided by the media.

Media coverage was pretty extensive.  TV programmes provided endless talk-shows with numerous experts and analysts.  In retrospect it is clear that few actually grasped the mood of the electorate and most concentrated on promoting the interests of their ‘preferred’ party.  Of course, nobody admits that they got it all wrong.  

How did I, a visitor, react to these elections?  As one who is constantly exposed to anti-Israel headlines, one of the most important aspects was tangible evidence of Israel’s living democracy.  There were no coups, no armies trying to prevent voters from exercising their right to vote, no violent outbreaks and no huge public demonstrations  – the norm for all Israel’s immediate neighbours and for the entire region.

There was not a single incidence of violence at any polling station and the few that I saw did not even have a single policeman on duty.  How refreshing it is to see a flourishing democracy in a country surrounded by its enemies baying for its destruction.

Having said that, I must confess that I found it strange that the election took place without any attempt to debate the issues of the day – issues of Israel’s survival which to us in the diaspora seem to be all important. Daily life in Israel continues on an even keel. Instead, the party faithful were rallied by attacks on their opponents – vicious, slanderous and no-holds name calling of the worst kind. Only one party, the right wing Zehut party, raised questions about the economy and the need to reduce the deficit.

Bibi Netanyahu’s continued leadership was rejected by virtually the entire press corps.  The Blue & White party, the new boy on the block, led by former general, Benny Gantz, based its entire campaign on “Only Not Bibi” posters and videos.

There is no question that Likud’s victory makes Netanyahu the big winner of this election, coming from the back of every single poll to the largest number of mandates, 35, ever achieved by his party, even during the ‘golden’ years of Menachem Begin’s premiership.  Another unintended consequence of this election is the re-establishment, to a very large extent, of the two party system in Israel which had virtually disappeared since 1996.

Older Jews must wonder at the almost total destruction of the venerable Labour party – the party that gave us David Ben Gurion, Golda Meier, Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and their peers. It shrunk from 24 to only 6 seats in the incoming Knesset.  Those iconic fathers of the state must be turning in their graves!!!

Another notable achievement is the success of the Haredi parties, raising their representation to 16 seats (an increase of 3). The United Religious Coalition, (Religious Zionists) managed to obtain 5 mandates. They will form an important cog in the right wing coalition which is currently being negotiated. Religious Zionists lost the very effective voices of  Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked who failed to gain sufficient votes to re-enter the Knesset as their New Right Party failed to excite voters. 

Examining trends, I was surprised to find a consensus amongst most analysts that young Israelis have become disproportionately right wing.  This is, of course, totally opposite to the prevailing trend in South Africa and America, to mention two examples, where most 18-30 year olds tend to gravitate to left wing ideologies.  What makes Israel society different?

The main explanation is that it has to do with the events that shaped their formative years. My 20 year old grand-daughter who voted for the first time was not yet born during the excitement of the peace process of the 1990’s, and certainly has no personal memories of the last time left wing parties won an Israeli election in 1999.  Her generation grew up during the Second Intifada, which saw hundreds of Israelis killed by suicide bombers.  

A recent paper describes them as being born after the Oslo process started, being exposed to the bloodshed of the intifada, and, for many, even after military service.  They simply cannot and do not believe that peace is attainable with an opponent whose objective is the total destruction of Israel and its removal from the Middle East.  The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and its failure to bring peace has resulted in many Israelis distrusting and actually resenting any leader who talks of ceding more land currently under Israel’s control.

They do not believe in peace because they live through a daily barrage of threats to destroy, to burn, to kill.  They know that there is no partner with whom to discuss peaceful co-existence, a reality which the outside world refuses to acknowledge. Gaza, was converted from the flourishing bread basket of the region to an armed camp where its citizens live in appalling conditions caused by their rulers, Hamas, regarding them only as canon fodder to be used as human shields, to create headlines which tug at the heart strings of more civilised societies.

Young Israelis have a simple narrative:  We gave up Gaza and they gave us rockets in return” and : “We pulled out of South Lebanon and that space is now filled with more than 150 000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel’s heartland.

Also, and this may surprise many, this generation has its views shaped by increased religiosity. A larger percentage of young Israelis is haredi orthodox and religious Zionists than in previous generations (also, the religious community has a much higher birth rate) and, by and large, religious Israelis favour the right.

In South Africa we are constantly confronted by accusations that Israel is an apartheid state notwithstanding that it is the only country in the region that actually holds free elections and elects Arabs to its parliament, the Knesset.  I was astonished to see:

*in Rahat, an entirely Bedouin city, 136 people voted for Shas, an ultra-religious Jewish party;    

*in Alon Shvut, a Religious Zionist stronghold, 13 voted for Meretz, the ultra left-wing party and 1 for the UAL-Balad Arab party;

*in Bnei Brak, Israel’s most religious city, 10 voted for Hadash, an Arab party, whilst 112 voted for Meretz;

*in the Arab city of Deir el-Asad in the upper Galilee, 9%, 531, votes were for Shas;

* in the Bedouin town of  Ar’arat an-Naqab the ultra-Orthodox Jewish right wing party United Torah Judaism received 5% of the votes.  

What does this all mean?  Netanyahu will become the longest serving Israeli leader, passing David Ben Gurion’s record, in only 90 days time.  So much for predictions and polls!  Expectations are that the strengthened haredi parties will exact a very large price for giving Netanyahu the support he needs to create a right wing coalition of over 65 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.  Resentment will grow as allowances to haredi Yeshivot are increased, as  bachurim affiliated to haredi institutions are given exemption from army service, as attempts are made to enforce stricter religious norms.

Voices from across all fronts are being raised to try and persuade the victors, Likud, to seek a government of national unity with Blue & White notwithstanding Gantz’s pledge that he would never sit around a table with Bibi.  Most commentators agree that this would be the first prize. At this stage Netanyahu might be amenable, but Gantz and his allies remains firmly obdurate. 

On the other side, the Palestinians played down the election as making little difference to them.  In fact a survey just published showed that whilst a large majority of Palestinians seemed to favour peace, the contradictory answers in the survey raised serious doubts about the accuracy of this assumption. For example:

63.4% were opposed to any peace deal which did not include the right of return; 83.4% would not accept any Israel control over security; 78.4% would oppose land swaps; 50,2% believed that Palestinian elections would not be free and fair; 60% are opposed to any co-operation between Israel and the new State of Palestine; 65% said they would reject the imminent American peace deal even though they had no idea what it proposed and 74% were against the newly established diplomatic breakthroughs which Israel has made with countries such as Oman, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Clearly much more dialogue and education is required to undo more than 70 years of anti-Israel propaganda.

The election shows that Israel has a vibrant functioning democracy. Already prominent voices are being raised to stop the downhill process of personality politics with appeals to those in government to respond to the needs and ideals of it electorate.

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