Israeli voters must have sent a clear message in their rejection of the Labor-Hatnua alliance, the Zionist Union, in favor of a fourth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right?
It was a powerful endorsement of Netanyahu’s leadership. Or it was a rejection of any leftward shift in economic policy.
It was a desire to slam the brakes on such social changes as increased state support for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, mandatory national service for the Haredi or even the end of the Orthodox rabbinate’s control of marriage. Or it was a call for an expansion of West Bank settlements and a rejection of the peace process; Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, after all, was the chief Israeli negotiator last year.
Maybe it was an expression of fear or dislike of President Barack Obama. He was part of the “anyone but Bibi” cheering section and again showed his animosity toward Netanyahu by delaying his congratulatory call.
All of those elements are in the results, but we see a lot less.
Yes, Likud will have 30 of the 120 seats in the 20th Knesset instead of its current 20, but half of those new seats are at the expense of its partner in the 2013 elections, Yisrael Beitenu.
Three of Likud’s other expected coalition partners, Jewish Home (down four seats), Shas (down four) and United Torah Judaism (down one), will have less voting strength. So although the religious Shas and UTJ parties will benefit from being part of the government, their fortune hardly represents a rightward social shift, and the prime minister won’t have to make many concessions to get them into his coalition.
The losses on the religious right were paralleled by the weakening of the Zionist left as Meretz shrank by a seat to five, the smallest party in the new Knesset.
Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu gained almost all of its 10 seats at the expense of the philosophically similar, centrist Yesh Atid, which fell from 19 seats to 11.
Meanwhile, Labor and Hatnua’s combined 21 seats will rise to 24, and the Arab parties’ representation will increase by two seats, thanks to the new Joint List and increased Arab voter turnout.
We wish Netanyahu had not resorted to scaremongering over the Arab turnout. Those voters make up one-fifth of the nation he leads, and rising Arab turnout is a sign of Israel’s success. It was a shameful moment for Netanyahu and a sign that he learned American politics all too well during his time as ambassador here.
But overall we don’t see a big story in the numbers. We think the Israeli center is strengthening as the smaller, narrower-interest parties on the left and the right weaken — a promising sign of a maturing democracy in which government policies reflect voters’ clear decisions instead of backroom coalition deals. That’s a possibility for the future, however.
For now Israelis voted for the status quo. While hoping for incremental social changes to continue, they voted based on their fears for survival — the natural response to existential threats from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic State amid possibly wavering U.S. support. Whether it would have been madness to change course at such a time or is madness to keep doing the same thing, only time will tell.