The election was more a story of losses than wins. Nearly every Israeli political party, with only two secondary exceptions, emerged with an acute feeling of miserable failure. It is hard to believe such a thing is possible, especially for observers in America, where it is not. Even the Israeli stock market marked the election news with a large three percent drop in share prices over the next two trading days.
Just a few weeks earlier the leading Israeli polls had been predicting as many as 46 seats (out of the Knesset’s total of 120) for Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party. When the votes were counted, however, Kadima had a mere 29 seats – a 37 percent loss in public support in a very short time.
In part, those earlier higher levels of support were based on sympathy for the incapacitated Ariel Sharon. Olmert’s campaign slogan had been “National Contraction,” meaning a program of additional unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, following the model of Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal. A cynic looking at Kadima’s disappointing numbers might say that Olmert got to try out his “contraction” plan first on his own party.
Not only was the plunge in Kadima’s popularity astonishing, it resulted in the second-lowest parliamentary bloc for the leading party in any Knesset since Israel was created (only Labor in 1999 “won” with even less). While power in Israel historically has shifted back and forth between the socialists and the Likud-Right, until 1996 the winning party had always held at least a full third of Knesset seats all by itself, and generally more than that.
Interestingly, Olmert, who had been mayor of Jerusalem, won only 12 percent of the votes cast by Jerusalemites in this election. If anyone knows who the real Olmert is, the citizens of Jerusalem do. Media stories shortly before the election concerning dubious funding Olmert raised from cronies to purchase his house in Jerusalem no doubt also hurt him.
The rump Likud party – the pathetic husk that remained after a large number of members bolted to join Sharon and Shimon Peres in forming Kadima – all but disappeared from Israel’s electoral map. From a 38-seat victory in the 1999 election, Likud has shrunk to 12 seats, tied for third place with Shas.
The reasons for Likud’s losses were more plentiful than its pitiful crop of parliamentary seats. Sharon himselfhad earlier manipulated current Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu into taking the career-ending job of finance minister, a position that inevitably enrages special interests and groups worried about their entitlements. By following surprisingly responsible economic policies, Netanyahu alienated some of these groups – first and foremost the retired and the elderly.
The latter retaliated by forming their own one-issue “Pensioners Party” and took a surprising trophy of seven Knesset seats. It was a party of complete unknowns, except for its chief, Rafi Eitan, the one-time intelligence officer whose bungling resulted in the Pollard affair. Meanwhile the Israeli Left, led by the post-Zionist newspaper Haaretz, crowed that Netanyahu’s demise spelled the end of “Israeli capitalism.”
Likud no doubt paid a price for its own track record. While Netanyahu was spouting tough, hawkish rhetoric about stopping the capitulations, Likud was still on record in favor of the road map. Voters also remembered Netanyahu’s stint in the 1990’s as prime minister, when he tried to “out-Oslo” the Labor Party. Netanyahu turned the unpopular and failed Oslo policy into the unchallengeable consensus of the State of Israel. No doubt many voters last week were thinking, “Fool metwice, shame on me!”
To an extent, Likud also paid for its folly in reversing an earlier electoral reform that allowed Israelis to vote directly and personally for their prime minister in a semi-presidential manner. The Likud leadership cynically revoked that reform because it was “undemocratic.” Ironically, direct voting for prime minister might have induced many more Israelis to abandon the small parties and vote for one of the three main contenders, resulting in a far stronger Likud.
In a sense, the Labor Party suffered the smallest losses of the major parties. The real loss in Labor strength came last year when a large chunk of the party followed Shimon Peres in joining with the Sharon wing of the Likud to form the Kadima hybrid. After that split, Labor retained 21 seats and in the election won back all but two of those.
This was remarkable, given the general disgust – especially among Ashkenazi middle class voters who form the main Labor constituency – with the semi-literate Amir Peretz and his long track record of trade union sabotage to the economy.
In any case, Labor’s numbers are still a great deal smaller than the 44 seats the party won under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Labor suffered significant losses in some areas that were its traditional bastions, like Haifa and the suburbs north of Tel Aviv. Its share of the kibbutz vote dropped to 42 percent – the party’s worst-ever showing.
Unless Labor’s reps raise too many negotiating obstacles, Kadima and Labor are most likely to form the core of the new governing coalition founded upon a program of massive new Israeli withdrawals. If so, Olmert will then hold a little auction to see which of the smaller parties will join his government for the lowest payoff, topping off the coalition’s parliamentary strength to at least 61 seats.
Last week’s election was also notable for the demise of the Shinui party. The Knesset had contained a large Shinui faction since 1999, and the party stunned the pundits by winning 15 seats in the 2003 election. In part, Shinui owed its fleeting popularity to the foul-mouthed (but media attention-grabbing) Tommy Lapid, who managed to attract protest votes from ultra-secularists and “center voters” disgusted with the larger parties.
Devoted mainly to opposing the religious parties and especially Shas, Shinui often crossed the line into out-and-out anti-Orthodox bigotry. Sephardic religious followers of Shas who see Divine intervention in voting patterns were no doubt thrilled with the party’s reversal of fortune: Shinui was dead on arrival, with Lapid dropping out of politics altogether, and while Shinui will not be in the new Knesset at all, Shas is now the number three party (tied with Likud), at 12 seats. (The other religious parties now hold an additional six or fifteenseats, depending on how one counts the National Union list.)
The leader of what had remained of Shinui (renamed Chetz), Avraham Poraz, ran on an animal rights platform and pouted after the election that the stray cats in Tel Aviv would mourn his failure to win a seat. It was a disgraceful end to what had been the third largest Knesset faction only three years earlier.
Aside from the surprise win for the one-issue “Pensioners Party,” the only other dramatic gain in the election was for Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu Party, which came in just behind Likud with 11 seats. Lieberman is a heavy-accented blunt-speaking immigrant to Israel from the old Soviet Union. In part his victory came about because Natan Sharansky, rather than compete for the Russian-Jewish vote, was content to run as a member of the Likud slate.
Lieberman also did well because he was the most unambiguously anti-Oslo contender in the election (besides a couple of Kahanist splinters that failed even to get close to the threshold needed for Knesset seats). Lieberman spoke openly of dealing forcefully with the Palestinians and adjusting Israel’s borders by moving the most radical Israeli Arab border towns into Hamas’s jurisdiction.
Lieberman’s party is now one of two comprising the “right-wing opposition” in the new Knesset. The other is a party that resulted from the merger of the small anti-Oslo National Union and the National Religious Party (NRP). The merger did not work out as well as had been expected; in fact, the new party won fewer Knesset seats than its two halves had won in the last election. One reason for this was that the merger with the NRP scared off secularist anti-Oslo voters who had previously backed the National Union.
Some traditional supporters of the NU no doubt voted for Lieberman because of the wishy-washy track record of the NRP when it came to Oslo concessions. The bottom line is that the anti-Oslo “Right” in the new Knesset now has a mere 20 votes. If they have any sense, the leaders of the National Union-NRP faction will merge with Israel Beitenu to draw in anti-Oslo secularist voters for the next election.
A dramatic loser was the far left quasi-Marxist Meretz Party. Even though it had “grown” recently by adding some disgruntled refugees from Labor (led by Yossi Beilin) to its list, Meretz is now reduced to five seats (the last of which was won only by a whisker), down from the 12 it held after the 1992 election when it stood tall as the third largest party in Israel.
Those (like the editors and reporters at Haaretz) who really believe that Israeli voters are still enchanted with social democratic rhetoric and Bash-the-Settlers slogans will have to explain the implosion of Meretz.
The Arab parties, which won a combined 10 seats, are the usual pro-terror anti-Israel extremists, a mix of openly communist and openly fascist lists. This represents a doubling of Arab party strength since 1992 and shows the clear trend of radicalization among Israeli Arabs produced by the Oslo policies. Israeli Arabs, like the Palestinians, see the Jews as weak and on the run and are increasingly candid about saying so, including at the ballot box.
Among the more interesting results of the election was the number of small parties unable to rise above the minimum threshold for Knesset representation (two percent of the popular vote). Two factions of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane failed, proving once again that openly Kahanist parties have no chance these days of getting into the Knesset. Their main “achievement” was to siphon critical votes away from the National Union and from Lieberman, votes that could have added a seat or two to their representation.
A tiny party promoting “rights of fathers” along with the conspiracist theory of Barry Chamish about the Rabin assassination won fewer than a tenth of one percent of the vote. An Ethiopian-Jewish party also failed to get in, as did several other “single issue” parties, including one promoting legalized marijuana, one pledged to “fight the banks” and a green-enironmentalist party, though the latter came the closest to making it in.
Palestinians demonstrated their position on Israel’s election by firing a Katyusha rocket for the first time from the Gaza Strip hours before the polls had closed. The Palestinians have of course fired thousands of Kassam rockets into Israel. But the use of a Katyusha was a sharp ratcheting up in the violence.
Israelis got a little taste of how distorted their democracy is when the leftist-dominated Israeli media suppressed the story of the Katyushauntil the polls were closing, lest it drive angry voters to cast more votes for rightist parties. There is little chance that the same media will now investigate themselves for such naked political manipulation.
The Katyusha attack underscored the prescience of those who warned that the Gaza withdrawal would produce escalated arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt. Katyusharockets were originally used by the Soviet Union in World War II and proved to be perhaps the most effective instrument in the Soviet arsenal for terrorizing the enemy. The Palestinians will henceforth be using that very same weapon – against Jewish civilian areas inside Israel.
Olmert’s only countermeasure to date has been to suggest that Israeli workers within missile range of Gaza not congregate together in groups.
The main item on the agenda of the new government will be battling Hamas and its affiliates. Now that Israeli forces have been ordered out of the Gaza Strip, nothing stands in the way of Hamas importing state-of-the-art weaponry into the area. From there, it will be easy to move these into the West Bank via the “safe corridor” Israel is obliged to provide the Palestinians.
Olmert was elected in great measure by positioning himself in the political “center” – that wide no-man’s-land located between appeasing and warring against the Palestinians. It remains to be seen how long he will be able to occupy this nebulous ground once the Kassamsand the Katyushas start landing in neighborhoods adjacent to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Ultimately, an escalation of terror and violence may be the most direct and unambiguous result of the Israeli election. If and when that happens, the election’s biggest losers will turn out to be the people of Israel themselves.
Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.