Thursday, January 24, 2013

And the winner is...

And the winner is...

With the dust settling in Israel, it is time to take stock over what has happened politically in the last twenty-four hours. With results almost in (98% counted as this is written) the Right-Orthodox bloc seems to have captured 61 seats out of the Knesset’s 120. (Numbers are still subject to change as IDF soldiers’ votes will come in slowly and could take until Thursday to be counted). This puts it in a near deadlock with Center-Left bloc on 59.

External opinions in the run up to the latest Israeli elections were all in agreement that yet another right wing coalition would be formed, dominated by the newly united Likud Beitenu party. However as the day ran on, the Internet hive went into its frenzy and things no longer looked so certain. Netanyahu sent pleas to followers to get out and vote, in what seemed at the time as only a ploy to garner more votes and stir the fringe Likud voters to the polls. However, with a reported 66% of eligible voters turning out, the highest since 1999, Israeli voters did not need stirring. As the first exit polls began to come in it was obvious that Netanyahu was taking a big hit and the centre was soaring.

This turn of events is a reminder of Lisa Goldman’s statement:
“Israeli politics is byzantine as Lebanese politics ‘If you understand it, it hasn’t been explained well.’”

The surprise winner from these elections came from the centrist Yesh Atid party. Recently founded by Yair Lapid, TV presenter and son of former Shinui Party leader Tommy Lapid, the party managed to secure 19 seats in the Knesset. This makes it the second largest party, eating a large proportion of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu’s 42 seats from 2009, which have been slashed to 31.

Yair Lapid is risk-averse. His policies took no tough stance, he is a populist. Lapid’s only significant polices are those addressing the relationship between secular and orthodox in Israeli society. The success of Yesh Atid is a protest vote against Likud, more than a vote for any particular policy. As king maker it seems likely that Yair Lapid will join a coalition with Netanyahu and is unlikely to be a bee in his bonnet. Likud suffered from its handling of internal issues and by producing a hard-right list. Those seen as moderate, such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Mikey Eitan were cut in favour of more hard-line Likud voices.

Labour will be disappointed at this election. At 15 seats, only 2 more than Ehud Baraks all time low, they should have been the winners from this centrist rally and the Israeli social protests. But ultimately Yair Lapid stole the show, and the votes. Shelly Yacimovich, Labour’s leader can however look to lead a stronger opposition against what will most probably be a weak coalition. This is if they stick to their promise of never entering into a government with Netanyahu at the helm, possibly a reason why Amir Peretz jumped ship. As third on the list of Tzipi Livni’s Hatuna party, Peretz will be an MK after the party registered 6 seats. Meretz managed to double their seats also acquiring 6. Kadima looked to have imploded in the exit polls, not reaching the 2% threshold. However, final tallies have reportedly given 2 seats to the party, which secures Shaul Mofaz a seat in the Knesset.

The divided political opinions in Israel were once again revealed in this election. The difference in perspective and demography between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem highlights this. Yesh Atid dominating in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s majority voting for the Jewish Home Party, lead by Naftali Bennet, who won 11 seats.

For those thinking that a strong centrist vote may help the beleaguered peace process stutter back into life or make an impact on Israeli foreign policy, think again. These elections were about internal Israeli affairs. The Israeli people spoke at the polls and their view is that internal social and economic issues are more of a concern than the risk of Iran.  Not Iran, not Syria, and for the Palestinians it will be once again a case of, kick the can down road. Ultimately, even though the results were surprising, this election hails the status quo. Netanyahu will lead a coalition as forecast, just a different one than was first predicted. Yair Lapid, unless he comes to surprise us all, will not rock the boat when it comes to foreign policy. The main plus for the international community is that the position of foreign minister and deputy foreign minister cannot be filled by Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon respectively, a scenario guaranteed before this centrist shift.

As ever with Israeli politics, the horse-trading over the next few weeks looks to be as fascinating as the result itself.

Sam Morris