By Barry Rubin
The Israeli election set for January 22 and the coverage thereof is very strange in several respects. It is a contest in which his opponents seek to beat centrist Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, of the Likud party, in a remarkably inept manner and in which international understanding of the issues is at the low level we’ve become used to seeing.
Here's a simple way to understand the situation: the far right parties and the moderate left parties are each likely to get roughly the same number of seats that they received in the 1999 election. The difference is that in 1999, the right divided its vote among three parties; today the right has largely united into one. The moderate left in 1999 gave their votes mainly to one party, and now are dividing it among four. The basic political geography has not shifted very much.
One can only note, however, that when Egypt elects the Muslim Brotherhood and one-quarter of the population vote for an openly genocidal party we are told this is an exercise in democracy whereas if ten percent or so in Israel vote for the far right and a centrist prime minister is reelected we are told by the same people that this is proof that Israel is becoming undemocratic and turning to the right.
Here's a simple way to understand the situation. The far right -parties and the moderate left -parties are each likely to get roughly the same number of seats that they received in the 1999 election. The difference is that in 1999 the rightist parties divided their vote among three parties and today have largely united into one. The moderate left in 1999 gave their votes mainly to one party and now are dividing it among four.
In addition, viewing the actual electioneering by the moderate left makes one appreciate just how fraudulent political consultants are. They claim that they are going to help the candidate win but have no idea of how to do so. And in Israel they borrow childishly from the latest fads in American politics without regard to the differences. Here are the themes pushed by the moderate left opposition:
- Bibi is for the rich. This slogan is unlikely to work in a country where lower income generally corresponds with more conservative voting. The idea is obviously stolen from Barack Obama’s campaign. But Obama was going for large African-American, Hispanic, and student blocs plus some middle class sectors that could be stirred up over hatred of the rich. This has no relevance for Israel.
- Bibi will get you killed. This theme is accompanied by a picture of a mushroom cloud. But is the idea that he will get you nuked by attacking Iran or by not attacking Iran? It isn’t clear. And since Netanyahu has the best claim to preserve the country’s security that approach is likely to be counterproductive.
- Bibi doesn’t want your vote. This is the newest poster to appear though it isn’t clear who’s promoting it. That makes no sense at all.
- The choice of photographs. Former Prime Minister Tsipi Livni, the candidate of her own party—and one of the quartet seeking moderate/moderate left voters—has a photograph on her poster that looks as if it were selected by her worst enemy. In it she appears ugly, angry, and confused.
- Livni’s ad has several shots of Obama and one of her standing with new Secretary of State John Kerry. They seem to argue that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas really wants peace but Netanyahu blocked it. Perhaps this ad was designed by left-liberal American Jewish political consultants. It won’t go over well in Israel.
What’s astonishing is the obtuseness of the opposition, especially Labor. Netanyahu is going to win but the way to get the largest vote, becoming the official opposition and possibly his coalition partner, is to run on an energetic program of domestic improvements. The obvious opposition approach should be that it is the time to improve schools, the infrastructure, and reduce housing and food prices.
People are waiting to be told that their living standards can be improved without threatening their security. A winning theme would be to say Netanyahu has neglected these domestic issues. True, the economy has done very well but the price of relatively high employment, rapid growth, and low inflation has been high prices.
For breakfast just now I paid $3 for a croissant and $3 for a coffee in a country where income levels average half those in the United States. Young people can’t afford an apartment in a country where rentals are relatively rare and there is not a strong mortgage system or tax deductions for paying one.
That’s why there were social protests in 2011. While going into big debt and increasing subsidies—the trap into which most Western economies have fallen—would be a mistake there are certainly good shifts to be made. Instead, voters are being treated like idiots who will be won over by some silly slogan convincing them that either the prime minister is evil or will get them incinerated. That won’t win an election.
The splits in the opposition have become ridiculous. Four different parties are competing with no real differences among them and without a single charismatic leader. Mofaz may be a highly competent general but has shown himself a bad politician. Livni has failed repeatedly in office. Yair Lapid is following his father’s political path in bashing the Haredim (those inaccurately known generally as “ultra-Orthodox,” while Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, widely predicted to come in second, is a radio personality with little political experience. Three of them—except for Mofaz—just met to discuss unity and broke up in acrimony.
Livni has already announced she won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu while Lapid demands that there won’t be any religious parties involved. In other words, both of them plus the hapless Mofaz, have boxed themselves into a corner.
This brings us into the popular international theme about the alleged meaning of the election: Israel is moving to the right and rejecting a two-state solution. A lot of this is motivated by the agenda of making Israel look as if it is against peace, despite the fact that it is the Palestinian side that makes such a solution impossible.
Yet Netanyahu’s impending victory has nothing to do with any shift on that issue. Rather, it is due to the fact that the prime minister has done a reasonably good job, the economy is okay, terrorism is low, he’s kept out of trouble, and has shown he can be trusted to preserve security. Moreover, there is no very attractive figure, unity, or single impressive party on the other side. Given this situation, Netanyahu’s victory--meaning his party will come in first and he will form the next government--is a no-brainer.
There are four pieces of evidence supposed to indicate that the next government will be further to the right or more “hardline,” three of which are clearly bogus. First, several supposedly moderate candidates in the Likud primary were defeated. In fact, this group—one of whom, Benny Begin, is an honorable man but hard right—consists of nice guys who were terrible campaigners. Nothing is less surprising than that they lost.
Second, the hardline faction of Likud, led by Moshe Feiglin, a dangerous extremist, is supposedly stronger. In fact, though, Netanyahu held it at bay and it would have no influence in the next government as it has not had in this one.
Third, Netanyahu made a distasteful alliance with the party of the demagogic Avigdor Lieberman. While Lieberman is corrupt and a poseur, his right-wing militancy was for show and he never actually did anything materially. At any rate, with Lieberman under indictment for corruption, the political careers of his faction’s parliamentarians now depend on keeping Netanyahu happy. Moreover, they represent more of a Soviet immigrant pressure group than right-wing militants.
This leaves the real fear regarding the rising star of Naftali Bennett, head of the genuinely far right Habayit Hayehudi party. But the problem with the thesis, popular among Western journalists, that there will be a right-wing Netanyahu-Bennett coalition is that Netanyahu loathes Bennett and knows he would be a constant headache. Bennett’s party would attack every pragmatic step Netanyahu took—including those needed to get along with an Obama-led America--and ache for opportunities to threaten to walk out of the coalition or actually do so.
If such a coalition does happen it will be because Netanyahu could find no way out. It is more likely that he will do everything possible to avoid this outcome and work with some combination of other parties, including if possible Labor. Of course, such an outcome isn’t certain but is more likely than an all-rightist coalition.
The results will depend on the political math following the January 22 voting, with the key issue being how Netanyahu could assemble a parliamentary majority of 61 out of 120. Most likely would be an outcome in which the policies of the next government will be the same as the one ruling Israel for the last four years.
Right now, as Israelis realize, we live in an era when Israeli policy is necessarily more reactive and defensive. There is no diplomatic option for peace and Israel has no influence over the Islamist direction of Egypt, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon.
The big question, of course, is whether Netanyahu would ever attack Iran’s nuclear installations. I think the answer to that question is “no” for many reasons, only one of them being that this would lead to a confrontation with the Obama Administration.
After decades of hearing American writers and alleged experts misunderstand Israeli politics and thinking I can say that nothing has changed in this regard.