Claims that Tuesday’s elections in Israel resulted in a striking victory for the right are as untrue as last week’s predictions that a narrow center/left ‘win’ was in the offing. It is true that Likud’s capture of 30 Knesset seats took most pollsters by surprise (the center-left Zionist Camp garnered only 24, about what the polls predicted). But despite claims to the contrary, no large-scale shift in voter preferences over the previous Knesset should be read into this. Likud’s gain was almost entirely at the expense of other parties within the right-wing nationalist bloc: the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties. While viewed as a whole, this bloc did pick up two additional seats, its ‘natural’ coalition partners – the clerical/orthodox parties – suffered a stunning loss of five Knesset seats relative to the last election cycle, owing to divisions among them and a newly-raised minimum vote threshold.
As a result, the Likud must now build a parliamentary majority with only 57 secure seats: four fewer than it held after the 2013 elections. For that, Netanyahu will have to seek partners from among his former rivals: the Zionist Camp, the Centrist Parties, or both. Among the Centrists, ex-Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon’s ‘Kulanu’ party could provide 10 seats. But these would come at the expense of stability for the new government. Kahlon – against whom Netanyahu ran a nasty, ‘dirty tricks’ campaign – would effectively become kingmaker; and because all but one of Bibi’s other partners have more than 7 seats, his government would always be one defection away from collapse. The alternative, a ‘unity government’ (ie, a ruling coalition of center-left and center-right parties) would give Bibi a wider base, but at the cost of a coherent political program. Such a government could well survive for its appointed four years – unity governments were a feature of Israeli politics in the 1980s – but at the cost of enforced inaction. Its coalition agreements would be structured so as to ensure that the government could never rule effectively: its only mandates would be concerning the formalities for declaring another election, or going to war. Meanwhile, everyone (hawks, settlers, doves, supporters of the clerical and Arab parties) would see it as illegitimate. This was the structural stalemate that we described last week. The eventual ‘winner’ of these elections was always going to be confronted with this same choice: between coalitional breadth and political legitimacy, between stability and inaction.
If it seems otherwise in many other post-election analyses, it is because many observers of Israeli politics fail, in our view, to distinguish between tactical shifts within electoral blocs and strategic shifts in the balance of power among them. The latter are extremely rare. Even ostensible sea changes in voter affiliations – like the 1992 elections, which brought a center-left coalition into power and ushered in the Oslo Accords – were the result of razor-thin majorities and the widespread invalidation of votes owing to parties that had failed to pass the minimum vote threshold.
Why do so many pundits and policymakers fail to make this distinction? Why, that is, do they continue to view Israeli elections as moments of actual political decision, rather than rituals in which voters make largely tactical shifts within stable – and orthogonal – voting blocs? What is it that drives what we can only consider to be a willed – albeit perhaps unconscious – mischaracterization of Israeli elections as events marked by potential shifts between Left, Right, and Center, when the experience of some two decades of voting suggests that while names of individuals and parties may change, the situation after each election is structurally indistinct from the one that prevailed the day before?
For US-based observers, that mischaracterization may reflect a broader unwillingness – or an inability – to see the image of a Middle East that is increasingly unlike the one that American hegemony had painted for it. In Israel, that mischaracterization may persist because many Israelis themselves still advance it. The fact that every election produces its own parade of ‘centrist’ candidates – senior army officers, public officials, leading media personalities – who believe themselves capable of rising above the old ideological divisions and producing a new national consensus, is proof of this. The ‘ash-heap’ of Israeli political history grows with each passing election: the Third Way and Center Parties, Shinui, Kadima, HaTnuah – and now, Yesh Atid and Kulanu. To date, all have suffered the same fate: they either disappear, or are re-absorbed into the electoral blocs they claimed to supersede.
The desire for a center party represents a legitimate political yearning: Israeli voters are trapped within an intolerable status quo. The details of that status quo are those we described last week. To maintain coalition governments, the Israeli state has effectively had to subsidize two ‘para-states’: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’. The former boasts an enormous, state-supported settlement project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians. The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more. The logic that holds this status quo together is that of a hostage crisis: to address the enormous costs of those ‘para-states’, one would need to confront the possibility of armed violence from Israel’s settlers, and the fact that the clerical parties have no sustained commitment to Israeli civil society.
The appeal of so-called ‘center parties’ is that they address the symptoms of this condition, while evading its structural causes. Their platforms unfailingly address the effects of skyrocketing economic inequality, the rising cost of housing, and the problems in the state health care and education systems, but rigorously ignore the steps needed to address them. As we’ve argued elsewhere, it is this same species of “actionism,” – talk of action, but ultimately for the sake of inaction – that animated Israel’s 2011 housing protests [http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/09/12/the-end-of-the-israeli-spring/]. In elections, then, Israelis debate the consequences of the political hostage crisis under which they live, even as they perpetuate it: the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and everyone understands that the state is expected to survive on what remains, if it wishes to avoid dissolution or civil war.
It’s not clear how long this evasion can persist. It is largely underwritten by American diplomatic and security backing: that support has made this ‘hostage crisis’ seem largely a domestic affair – to everyone save for those who must suffer its effects. Were that to waver – and the exigencies of Bibi’s campaign, from his congressional speech to his recent pronouncements on the death of the two state solution, have certainly revealed new fault lines, both within the Beltway and beyond it – it might yet force a reorganization of Israel’s domestic-political map.