The Israeli election was on the surface a tie between Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni (who replaced Ehud Olmert as party chief). While Livni loudly proclaimed victory because Kadima had come out one parliamentary seat ahead, the election was largely a victory for the Israeli Right.
The average Israeli has abandoned the Oslo-era delusion that the way to bring about peace is to engage in unilateral concessions and rank appeasement. In 2009 virtually everyone in Israel understands the abandonment of Gaza to the Hamas terrorists was an act of incredible folly.
As a result, it now looks all but certain that it will be Netanyahu, not Livni, heading a new coalition government. It is not completely out of the question that Likud and Kadima will form some sort of rotating unity coalition, but I would bet the little I have left in my pension fund that this will not happen.
After the split with Kadima several years back, the Likud in the previous parliament had retained only 12 Knesset seats (the rest were basically hijacked by ex-Likudniks who had migrated to Kadima). In the 2009 election, the Likud parliamentary representation jumped to 27 seats – the most dramatic development of the election.
Meanwhile, Kadima won 28 seats, down by only one from its number in the previous Knesset. Kadima had been widely expected to lose far more, and its success in preventing this was largely thanks to the wave of national solidarity that accompanied the bloodying of the Hamas savages in Gaza.
So, in a sense, Livni and Kadima were the big winners of the military campaign in Gaza, but their newfound favor in the eyes of voters was not enough for the party to retain power. Kadima also benefited from a manipulative news leak, not necessarily factual, just hours before the voting that a deal had been reached to get Gilad Shalit released from his Hamas captivity. In addition, Kadima’s worst handicaps, the corruption scandals involving Ehud Olmert and former finance minister Avraham Hirshson, had been removed from the front pages. Livni was able to convince the public that their stains had not sullied her.
If the rebound of the Likud was the most dramatic success story of the election, the most noteworthy failure was the near-demise of the leftist Meretz party, allied closely with Peace Now. Meretz garnered merely three Knesset seats – fewer than the communist party.
Part of the reason for Meretz’s demise may be attributed to Israel’s far-leftist daily Haaretz calling for people to vote against the party. Meretz, while leftist, is nominally Zionist, while Haaretz is not even that.
The other spectacular loser was the Labor party under Ehud Barak. Its Knesset strength sank to an all-time low of 13 seats, despite the fact that Barak himself was widely considered to have performed well in the Cast Lead attack on Hamas.
Meanwhile the Israeli Right experienced both success and failure. The most dramatic development there was the growth of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party. Lieberman originally built up his party with the support of Russian-speaking Jews from the old Soviet Union, picking up votes that once might have gone to Natan Sharansky (who has left politics). But the new Lieberman party reached out to all Israeli Jews.
In recent years Lieberman shifted rhetorically to the right, and so morphed into a bogeyman of the Israeli Left, which loves to accuse him of anti-Arab “racism.” The hysteria against him probably fueled his increase in strength to 15 Knesset seats, ahead of the Labor party.
Lieberman’s main electoral attraction was his tough, no-nonsense rhetoric. His party’s slogan was “Where there is not loyalty, there can be no citizenship,” a thinly-veiled threat against Israel’s increasingly radicalized and violent Arabs. His other slogan was “Lieberman understands Arabic,” implying that he, unlike mainstream politicians, is not fooled by the pleasantries spoken by Arab politicians to the Western press. His party knows what the Arabs really want.
Lieberman’s success came despite the dirtiest political trick of the election. Just days before the voting, the country’s leftist attorney general, a man with a long track record of politicized prosecutorial decisions, announced that Lieberman and his daughter were being investigated for bribery and money laundering. The timing of the announcement – why not a year or even a month later? – was widely perceived in Israel as political persecution by a biased governmental zealot misusing his powers. That may have helped Lieberman win votes.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Israeli Right performed poorly. The National Unity party had merged with the National Religious Party before the election to create the new Jewish Home faction. But no sooner were they merged than the internal bickering began, and half the new party’s leaders split away and renamed themselves National Unity. Thanks no doubt to the confusion, the two chunks together won only 7 seats – two fewer than what they held together in the previous parliament.
Hadash, the predominantly Arab Stalinist party, won 4 seats. It had been expected to do better thanks to one of its Jewish communist members running well in the Tel Aviv mayoral election, getting a third of the votes there, and because of the aforementioned Haaretz editorial attacking Meretz.
The three Arab pro-terrorism parties (including Hadash) together took 11 seats, up from the previous election, thanks largely to the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a ban on two of the parties that had been instituted by the electoral commission (on grounds that they are seditious pro-terror organizations).
The religious parties did about as expected – 23 seats in all, including National Unity. This was four seats short of what they held in the previous Knesset. Evidently those lost seats went to Likud and to Lieberman’s party. The religious parties are considerably more likely to enter into a government coalition with Likud than with Kadima.
It is also interesting to note who did not get in at all. The Pensioners Party (GIL), which had 7 seats at the peak of its power, did not win a single seat. None of the “green” environmentalist parties managed to get into the Knesset, including the largest one, led by Michael Melchior, a leftist rabbi who had been a Labor co-leader in the last election. The pro-marijuana Green Leaf party, a perpetual electoral nuisance, also came up empty, as did more than a dozen other loopy parties.
The Tel Aviv stock market, for its part, did not like the results of the election, with shares dropping the day after the vote by about two and half percent. What Netanyahu will do, if indeed he forms the new government, is not clear. He has a track record of moving to the political center (and even left of center) once he takes hold of power. Will he do so again?
Meanwhile, the BBC and most other international media outlets were hysterically reporting that the election results signaled enormous difficulties for any potential deals between Israel and the Palestinians. Some in the media were insisting the results meant the Oslo “peace process” was over. That,of course, is the very best electoral news of all.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.