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Monday, September 22, 2014

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Election may signify shift in priorities

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The Jewish voter turnout in last week’s general election in Israel rose to 70 per cent, while the Arab turnout was higher than expected, surprising Israeli pundits on both counts.

A disquieting narrative had emerged that many Israeli Jews were bored by the campaign and might even stay at home on election day. But they showed up in greater numbers than anticipated, thereby reinvigorating Israeli democracy.

In the Arab sector, observers feared that more than half of Muslim and Christian Arabs, representing about 20 per cent of Israel’s population, would boycott the election, underscoring their disaffection and alienation from the Jewish state. But after the dust had settled, the Central Elections Committee announced that 56 per cent of Israeli Arabs had participated in the Jan. 22 election, compared to 53 per cent in the last one.

All in all, 67.8 per cent of Israelis exercised their democratic right to vote, the highest proportion since the 1999 election, when Ehud Barak, a former army general running as a Labor party candidate, defeated the Likud incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this election, Israelis rebuked the status quo, but did not reject it altogether. Voters essentially sent a message calling for fresh new faces and a shift in priorities from the external to the internal.

They most definitely did not usher in a historic political earthquake of the kind that forced prime minister Golda Meir to step aside following the election in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Given Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, Iran’s drive to develop a nuclear arsenal and the tumult that has rocked the Arab world since the 2011 Arab Spring rebellions, foreign affairs figured quite heavily in the rhetoric of candidates, as was the case in previous elections.

But with the echoes of the 2011 social protest movement still resounding in their ears, many lower and middle-class Jewish and Arab voters tended to focus on bread-and-butter socio-economic grievances rather than on external issues.

For the typical Israeli voter in 2013, the rising cost of living and the unaffordable price of housing, for example, were more important in their calculations than Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Israel’s stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Reflecting on the results of the election, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the Israeli public had conveyed to him a clear, unambiguous message of the need for “great internal changes.”

As he prepared to launch coalition negotiations, a process that may take as long as two months, Netanyahu suggested he would place the emphasis on domestic rather than security matters.

Citing three core issues he will focus on as he tries to cobble together a government, he said he would deal with the cost of housing, the question of national service in the armed forces on a more equitable basis, and the reform of the system of government.

After all the votes were finally counted, Israel was revealed yet again as a deeply divided country, fractured along political, social, religious and ethnic lines.

The right-wing secular and religious bloc, spearheaded by the joint Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu list, won 61 seats, while centre-left and Arab parties amassed 59 seats.

If nothing else, fickle voters humbled high-flying politicians, showing them they cannot take anything for granted.

They gave Netanyahu, potentially a three-term prime minister, a weakened mandate to continue governing should he succeed in forming another coalition government. But in a devastating body blow to his prestige, they whittled down his Likud party’s parliamentary representation.

By all accounts, some of his supporters defected to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, a more right-wing version of the Likud that advocates the annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank, where Jewish settlements are located.

Voters sent Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister, a harsh message, too, cutting his Yisrael Beiteinu party down to size.

It would appear that some of his backers, mainly Russian immigrants, abandoned him after his indictment on charges of corruption. In all probability, some of them shifted toward the centre, voting for Yair Lapid, the pragmatic leader of the new, upstart Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.

Lapid was the big winner in this year’s election, winning a stunning 19 seats, with Yesh Atid becoming the second biggest party in the Knesset and replacing Yisrael Beiteinu as a kingmaker.

By no coincidence, Lapid was the first opposition politician Netanyahu phoned after the election to discuss future alignments. During the final stages of the campaign, Lapid said he would be willing to serve in a government led by Netanyahu. Lapid will probably join Netanyahu in what could be a right-wing-centrist government.

Although Lapid is currently riding high, and is that rare Israeli politician who exudes glamour, charisma and trust, he should be careful not to succumb to the temptations of complacency.

Middle-of-the-road parties in Israel, ranging from Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change to Tommy Lapid’s Change party, have catapulted into the limelight, only to disappear beneath the waves without a trace.

 Lapid, the late Tommy Lapid’s son, was not the only centrist politician who fared reasonably well.

Shelly Yachimovich, the head of the reinvigorated Labor party, managed to bag 15 seats, not a bad outcome for a party that had sunk into obscurity and irrelevancy under the leadership of a series of lackluster leaders, including Ehud Barak, the current defence minister.

But in a crushing blow to his pride and standing, Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima party leader, was solidly rejected by voters. Kadima, having been established by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, won 28 seats in the 2009 election, but this time around, it was reduced to a paltry rump of two seats.

 Tzipi Livini, a former Kadima leader and foreign minister, as well as head of the new Hatnuah party, gained only six seats, leaving her in a fairly marginal position. 

Right-wing zealot Bennett picked up 12 seats, not winning a sufficient number of mandates to qualify him as a potential power broker. But the presence of his party in the Knesset signifies Israel’s rightward turn since the Six Day War.

The Jewish left, as exemplified by the Meretz party, won six seats, improving its position in the Knesset. But the left remains a spent force in Israel.

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