Benjamin Netanyahu May Have Actually "Lost" in the Israel Elections

Israeli elections are way more fun than American ones.

Generally, Americans know on election night who their next president will be; they’ve either won, or they’ve lost.

Israel’s parliamentary system is a lot more complicated. What matters is not just who the prime minister is, but who his (or her) coalition partners are. Parties run on lists; whoever gets the most votes has the first chance to negotiate a 61+ member coalition. (The Knesset, or Parliament, has 120 seats.) It’s too early to see exactly how this election will turn out, but one thing is clear: Netanyahu has put himself between a rock and a hard place, whether or not he keeps his job.


                Israeli Politics Cheat Sheet: (And you thought two parties was bad…)

 

Est. Seats

Economic Stance

Religious laws

Hawkishness

Pro-settler

Religious Right

29 to 31

 

 

 

 

Habiyit HaYehudi

12

?

Religious

Very

Very

Shas

11 to 13

Very left

Very religious

Yes

Yes

United Torah Judaism

6

Very left

Very religious

Moderate

Neutral

Secular Right

31 to 33

 

 

 

 

Likud/

31

Free Market

Neutral/secular

Very

Moderately

Yisrael Beitanu

Free Market

Very secular

Very

Not really

Otzma Leyisrael:

0 to 2

?

Secular

Very

Very

Center

24 to 26

 

 

 

 

Yesh Atid

18 to 19

Moderate

Secular

Moderate

No

Hatnua

6 to 7

Moderate

Secular

Moderate

No

Left

17

 

 

 

 

 Labor (Avodah)

17

Leftist

Secular

No

No

Far Left/Arab

14 to 18

 

 

 

 

Meretz

6 to 7

Very left

Secular

No

No

Hadash

3 to 5

Communist

Secular

No

No

United Arab List

3 to 4

Very left

Religious

No

No

Balad

2

Very left

?

No

No

Netanyahu’s Likud/Beitanu list has a clear plurality, but his options are now far more limited. Exit polls predict that Likud and its former allies will only have 61 or 62 seats. (A full count will not be available until Wednesday, but here are preliminary results.) Although this is technically enough for Netanyahu to get a majority and keep his job, it’s not enough for a stable arrangement. Forming a coalition is about giving up government ministries to smaller parties, and making concessions on their pet issues. At anytime, a party (or even individual MKs) can leave the governing coalition — forcing new elections if the coalition loses its majority status. If Netanyahu sticks to his old coalition partners, he’ll constantly be susceptible to blackmail by even a few disgruntled members. This is untenable, because the Israeli right wing is itself very divided. Netanyahu’s Likud Party has traditionally been a hawkish but secular pro-free market party. Yisrael Beitanu — the other party on Netanyahu’s list — has an even more hawkish and even more secular base.

This stands in contrast to the right wing religious parties who favor religious laws, a large welfare state with lots of government handouts, and expansionist settlement construction in the West Bank. While Netanyahu has been moderately pro-settler, the settler extremists on the right are at odds with Yisrael Beitanu’s vision of a pure, “loyal” Jewish state. (Avigdor Lieberman, the party’s leader and Netanyahu’s foreign minister, has gone so far as to suggest that Israeli Arab citizens and their villages be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction.)

One of the biggest mistakes observers of Israeli politics make is to lump the entire right wing together; the fact is, there are at least two right wings with very different goals.

Thus, Netanyahu needs a leftist or centrist party to join his coalition. This is what happened during the last election — the centrist Kadima Party won the most seats, but was unable to form a coalition, and thus Netanyahu became prime minister by joining with the right-wing parties and sucking in the left-wing Labor Party by making its then-leader Ehud Barak defense minister. Since then, however, the Labor Party ousted Barak, left the coalition, and replaced him with Shelly Yachimovich who defiantly refuses to even consider joining Netanyahu’s coalition. There is no chance the Arab parties, or the radical leftist Meretz and Hadash parties will join Netanyahu’s coalition. This leaves all the bargaining power with the two centrist parties: Hatnua (led by Tzipi Livni) and Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid). Lapid has said he will demand deep concessions for Netanyahu in exchange for joining the coalition. These concessions include limiting the special privileges that Orthodox Jews enjoy and — more importantly — restarting the peace process. Livni, a longtime rival of Netanyahu, is likewise unlikely to give in easily. As a result, Netanyahu can only keep his job by making deep sacrifices. Moreover, he cannot get away with superficial promises, because Yesh Atid or Hatnua could leave his coalition at anytime.

These results came as a surprise, and it was only recently that the center-left began to surge in the polls. Netanyahu called elections early (no Israeli prime minister has ever served a full four-year term before calling elections) because his opponents seemed vulnerable — and indeed, they were. Labor had suffered an internal split, while had Kadima completely self-destructed. The Israeli left was so desperate, the possibility of disgraced former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert running again was seriously considered. The peace process had broken down, but the Israeli public still placed a good heap of blame on the Palestinian leadership, and leftist commentators despaired over the fact that leftist parties had given up making peace a serious part of their platform.

There are several reasons why Netanyahu’s gamble may have backfired. Yair Lapid deserves some credit — the telegenic former journalist formed a new party from scratch, and led it to a shocking and unpredicted 18-19 seats. (I think my girlfriend has a crush on him, and I totally understand why.) Israeli displeasure over the economy may have also played a role. It’s also possible that — contrary to leftist woes — Israelis really did vote to give the peace process another chance, recognizing that Netanyahu’s policies have hurt peaceful Palestinian moderates, strengthened Hamas, and humiliated Israel internationally. Whatever the reason, this should bring hope to peaceniks and political junkies alike.