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Levine: Three takeaways from the Israeli election

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters as the the results in the Israeli general elections are announced, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 photo)

The headline after last week’s election in Israel, was that Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud Party and right-wing and religious party allies won re-election. Likud won 36 seats with his allies winning another 29, putting the right-religious bloc over the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset. Here are three of the main takeaways from the election:

  1. Israelis love Netanyahu; Israelis hate Netanyahu

After 10 years as prime minister, Netanyahu increased the share of the vote won by the Likud by over 10 per cent, winning well over one million votes, and five more seats compared to the last election four years ago. Netanyahu succeeded despite campaigning under the cloud of several indictments for corruption. The Likud picked up large shares of the vote in the periphery, in cities like Kiryat Shimona, Dimona and Beersheba, towns near Gaza like Sderot and Ashdod, and in the suburbs south of Tel Aviv like Bat Yam. These Israelis trust Netanyahu’s leadership and are confident in his security decisions.

Paradoxically, the election provided ample evidence that other Israeli voters prioritized removing Netanyahu from office after a decade of service. A new party, Blue and White, formed by former top general, Benny Gantz, and two of his predecessors, challenged Netanyahu. The retired generals in Blue & White ran a vague, un-energetic campaign that stressed that Israelis could trust their leadership on security even if they removed Netanyahu from office. They won one seat less than Netanyahu’s Likud after winning over one million votes. The party, though, failed to win enough votes away from the right-religious bloc to prevent Netanyahu from forming such a narrow coalition, but they came close by uniting voters on the left and the centre.

Israel’s Labor Party was especially decimated, as the desire to remove Netanyahu from office induced thousands of voters to abandon the party they and their parents likely supported for decades. Another million votes were cast by voters on the right, and in the ultra-Orthodox communities, for parties with similar views on peace and security as Netanyahu but notably not led by Netanyahu. Even within Likud, activists less-than-enamored with Netanyahu boosted his potential rivals in the party primaries like Gideon Saar over many of Netanyahu’s closest allies in the party.

  1. The far right was not ascendant, but will that make much of a difference?

Polls predicted that extreme nationalists on Israel’s far-right would do well enough to demand participation in Israel’s governing coalition. Instead, the far-right was arguably the election’s biggest losers. Two parties, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, and the New Right Party led by cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, fell short of the threshold despite polls that indicated they should be confident that they would win more than the 3.25 per cent necessary to hold seats in the Knesset. The controversial Netanayahu-brokered merger of a party of disciplines of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane with another ardent nationalist party and remnants of the old National Religious Party popular with Orthodox Jews, just barely crossed the threshold and won five seats. Because the Kahanists’ party leader was disqualified for being horribly racist, though, no member of the Kahanists’ party won a seat.

The far-right’s disappointing showing may not make much of a difference in terms of policy. The United Right List’s leaders are promising to invoke Israel’s “Norwegian Law” that allows parties that supply cabinet ministers the opportunity to replace those ministers with backbenchers from further down their party list to seat a Kahanist. This is not very surprising since the party only won about 20,000 votes more than the minimum; clearly the other parties owe their seats to the extremists.

Furthermore, one reason the far-right may have stumbled is that Netanyahu veered to the right in the waning days of the campaign by promising to annex settlements in the West Bank unilaterally to Israel, a stance long pushed by the far-right but opposed by those who would like the final borders to be determined as a result of a peace agreement. So, even if Netanyahu is not facing much pressure from the far right, he has already acceded to one of their biggest demands. As for other demands the far-right may make? Well, with five out of the 65 seats the right- and religious- parties won, the United Right List is crucial for a majority coalition and may be able to realize other demands on Likud and their coalition partners. So, even though the right expected to win much more representation, they may have all the clout they need.

READ: LEVINE: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR IN THE ISRAELI ELECTION

  1. Many parties; not much traction in an election that was all about Benjamin [Netanyahu]

Over 40 parties ran for the Knesset; some were jokes but many dreamed of winning seats. Only 11 succeeded, a reminder that while it seems easy to win a mere 3.25 per cent in a small country like Israel, the existing parties leave very little space for any competitors to win representation.

Parties that attempted to appeal widely across different socio-demographic groups got run over by voters rushing to the party best positioned to defeat – or save – Netanyahu. On the left, once mighty Labor was decimated, winning only six seats. On the right, the New Right Party started the campaign hoping to form a party that might lead the entire right bloc with a broad-based party similar to the Likud but more egalitarian, more earnest in its nationalism (but less beholden to radical rabbis), and most importantly, without Netanyahu. They crashed out of the Knesset. The relatively more moderate Kulanu, and upstart Gesher, two parties that tried to emphasize economic policy issues, did poorly. Kulanu narrowly retained its Knesset delegation but none of its clout, and Gesher failed to cross the threshold.

The exceptions were parties that drew support from very distinct, narrowly defined sectors of the Israeli population: ultra-Orthodox and traditional Mizrahim (Shas), ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim (United Torah Judaism), immigrants from the former Soviet Union (Yisrael Beitenu), and the Arab Parties. Many of these parties lost seats to the centrist titans, but all kept enough voters to ensure their party’s survival. These parties’ continued presence in the Knesset leaves many to wonder if Israel is reverting back to the pattern of competition that prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s when two big parties competed alongside with many small parties that drew from distinct constituencies and operated much like interest groups demanding concessions for their constituency to enable one large party or the other to form a coalition.