A Summing up of Israel’s 2015 Elections

The elections have been behind us for a month, so now is a good time to look back and sum things up. They were elections fraught with double standards, outrageous mudslinging and political spins, and almost no public discussion over the real issues that need to be dealt with in Israel.

No one really understands why we had to have an early election in the first place. Elections in Israel are (in theory) held every four years. In practice, governments recently rarely hold together for much longer than two or three years. What we do know is that one moment, we had a working government, consisting of Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, Lieberman’s rightwing “Yisrael Beiteinu”, Naftali Bennet’s religious-rightwing “Jewish Home”, Tzippi Livni’s center-Left “Hatnua” (which literally means “the movement”) and Yair Lapid’s center-Left “Yesh Atid”. There was obviously some friction between the Right-wing parties in the government and the center-Left parties, but there was no one issue that was unresolvable. The next moment, Livni and Lapid were caught red-handed offering to desert the coalition and join up with the opposition, effectively crowning the opposition leader, Yitzhak (“Bougie”) Hertzog, as an alternative Prime Minister to Netanyahu. Netanyahu found out, fired the two Ministers and called early elections. The Left claims that the bone of contention was Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s plan to lower the costs of housing by introducing a no-VAT program on first apartments bought by young couples. Netanyahu opposed this plan, because it actually raised demand for apartments, and therefore raised prices. Lapid wanted to be able to show he was fighting the raging prices and insisted on the plan.

Netanyahu fires Finance Minister Yair Lapid on live television, source: Screentshot, Channel 10.

Netanyahu fires Finance Minister Yair Lapid on live television, source: Screentshot, Channel 10.

***

For as long as I can remember politics (which is as far back as 1992, the first elections I experienced in Israel, as a nine year-old), the main and almost only issue discussed in elections was the foreign policy-security issue. What are we willing to give in return for peace with the Palestinians? How do we ensure the security of the country against the many foes surrounding us? These questions have dominated the public sphere for over two decades. The Left wants peace at all costs. The Right wants peace, but not at all costs and believes that by declaring that they are willing to pay anything for peace, the Left is ensuring that we will, in fact, pay everything. I think it’s pretty obvious which side I’m on.

The Left won the 1992 election, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, and began what is known as “the Peace process”. In those days, peace became the slogan of the Left, while it raised dread among the Right, who realized what the price would be. Sadly, the Left managed to make the words “Peace Process” gain a negative connotation in the minds of anyone on the Right. Because along with the “Peace Process” came the exploding busses and cafes, the shootings, the stabbings. Rabin famously called the victims of these terror attacks “sacrifices of peace”, and ploughed forward.

The years went by, the Left and the Right ascended to power one after the other. Every government since then has made an attempt at peace with the Palestinians, each government offering more than the last- and being turned down. But the word “Peace” is no longer in the lexicon of either the Right or the Left. The “striving for peace” on the Left has metastasized into “ending the occupation” [I’ve written 5 parts, so far, of a 7 part series on why there is no occupation. Hopefully I’ll finish the other two soon. Links here, here, here, here and here]. On the Right, talk of our “Historic rights and roots” in Judea and Samaria has been diminished to “protecting our security interests”.

Remains of a 2000 year-old aqueduct, in Wadi Qelt/Prat stream, leading water all the way from Jerusalem, to King Herods' palace in Jericho. The aqueduct, as well as the ruins of the Jewish palaces are in the Judean desert, which may become part of a future Palestinian state. Photo: my own.

Remains of a 2000 year-old aqueduct, in Wadi Qelt/Prat stream, leading water all the way from Jerusalem, to King Herods’ palace in Jericho. The aqueduct, as well as the ruins of the Jewish palaces are in the Judean desert, which may become part of a future Palestinian state. Photo: my own.

In 2011 the world social protests broke out, and Israel was no exception. But in Israel, the social protest was a political game changer. The Left was losing ground. Talk of peace was a hollow subject. Talk of ending the occupation is taboo in many circles. “Security interests” beats “ending occupation” any day. But when it comes to social rights and welfare, the Left will always have the upper hand. Who doesn’t want to hear that his country could be giving them more and that we deserve more? So for the first time, the security/foreign policy issue took a back seat in the 2013 elections. Netanyahu won those elections and began his third term, but his party took a beating, and eventually held less than one sixth of the Knesset seats.

Israel’s Left loathes Netanyahu. He appears to be unbeatable, and therefore they want him out of power. But they didn’t elect a suitable candidate to lead the Labor party, the main Left-wing party in Israeli politics. Instead, they elected “Bougie” Hertzog, with the funny voice, the nerdy look, no charisma, very few achievements to show for his many years in politics and his illustrious family lineage (he is the son of Haim Hertzog, the sixth President of Israel and the grandson of Rabbi Hertzog who was the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel), but he does have some skeletons in his closet, from when he chose to remain silent during an investigation into illegal foundations run by the Labor party in a previous election.

This time, the campaign completely ignored the issues. The Labor party’s campaign slogan was “It’s either us or him” referring to Netanyahu and counting on the public’s will to see him out of office. They kept mostly silent about what “us” would mean for various policy issues. The Likud’s campaign was no better. For the second time running, Likud refused to put forward an election platform, instead telling the public to look at their actions during the last term and to expect more of the same. In response to the Labor party’s slogan, Likud adopted “It’s either Us or them”, referring to Hertzog and his partner Tzippi Livni. And instead of the parties and the media discussing policy issues, they preferred to discuss whether Netanyahu’s lifestyle is too extravagant or not and whether or not he should be persecuted for the fact that his wife collected and returned a large number of bottles from the Prime Minister’s official residence to be recycled and that she kept the 4000 shekels (roughly 1000 USD) from these bottles for herself and later returned them. Later on, the discussion turned to the question of whether or not Netanyahu is offending US President Obama by speaking in Congress against the deal with Iran. The discussion never moved to the question of what should be done about Iran’s nuclear threats.

Eventually the election became about whether the Israeli public wants to see Netanyahu continue as Prime Minister or be replaced by Hertzog and Livni (Hertzog promised Livni a 2-year rotation at the helm, should they succeed). However, the public debate about Hertzog never moved past the matter of his voice, to discuss whether he is truly qualified to be a Prime Minister. Their campaign actually included a video in which Bougie’s voice was dubbed, which sparked a bunch of hilarious parodies. On the day of the election, the public surprised the pollsters and instead of voting for smaller parties, many people decided to vote for the two larger parties- Likud and Labor.

"Bougie" Hertzog's dubbed campaign video (screenshot).

“Bougie” Hertzog’s dubbed campaign video (screenshot).

The polls before the election predicted 20-23 seats for Likud (they had 18) and 24-26 for Labor (which had 15, plus 6 from Livni’s party, which merged with them). The exit polls, which were published at the closing of the vote declared a 28-27 victory for Labor. The true results that became clear the next morning painted a completely different picture. Likud won 30 seats in the Knesset and Labor won only 24. Both parties improved their positions in the Knesset greatly, but with only 24 seats, there was no chance of Hertzog being nominated to form a coalition.

Over the past years, Israelis have been protesting the cost of living, the cost of housing and the Rightwing government’s financial policies in general. One incident, which has become iconic of this protest, was when an Israeli living in Berlin posted on Facebook about the price of “Milky”, a chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top, being much cheaper in Berlin. The media has been following up on this by continually giving stage to Israelis who have left Israel to live in Berlin. The choice of Berlin, of all places, is no coincidence. For an Israeli to live in Berlin is an extreme statement. During the first decades of Israel’s existence, national solidarity was central, and for an Israeli to leave Israel for the comforts of other countries was unthinkable. But to live in Germany, after the horrors of the holocaust, is a statement of complete disregard for national identities and solidarities, even today, almost 80 years later. So you can understand how extreme a reaction it was, when the morning after the election, the media and Facebook were flooded with Israelis announcing their intentions to leave Israel for Germany. How many will actually follow through with their threats? Probably very few. We Israelis apparently have a penchant for Drama.

***

One thing that was extremely pronounced this election was the involvement of the media. Every single media outlet in Israel was aligned with a political camp or political party, and all means were justified to bring about the desired political ends. Ignoring items that don’t fit the agenda, highlighting insignificant items that do, skewing poll results, outright lies- we had them all. Yisrael Hayom, the most popular newspaper in Israel, owned by Sheldon Adelson, a friend of Netanyahu, supported Netanyahu of course. Makor Rishon is aligned with Jewish Home. Haaretz, Yediot Ahronot and Channels 1, 2 and 10 on television, are all aligned with the Left. Galei Tzahal, the popular radio station run by the army, is also aligned with the Left. The alignment itself is not what was surprising. Everyone in Israel knows the alignment of the various media outlets. What was surprising was how outright they were about it. There was no attempt at showing a semblance of journalistic objectivity. The news is no longer about the news. It’s a part of a political battle, and to hell with the right of the public to information. As a result, a plethora of alternative news sources are flowering in Israel these days, online. While the public showed its confidence in Netanyahu at the polls, it also voted no-confidence for the existing media, most of which was entirely convinced up until the very last moment that finally victory was theirs, and Bougie Hertzog is the next Prime Minister. I myself have barely looked at my ‘regular’ news sites and papers in the past month, instead getting my information from alternative sources.

***

Back to the Israeli electoral system- Israel doesn’t vote directly for Prime Minister. This is how the system works: Israelis vote for a party list, which gets Knesset seats, proportional to the number of votes the party gets. 25 parties competed in this election, but only 10 passed the 3.25% threshold. The largest party in the 20th Knesset will be Likud with 985,408 votes, which equates to 30 of the 120 Knesset seats. The smallest party is the far- Left Meretz, which got 165,529 seats, which are equal to 5 Knesset seats (one seat is equal to approximately 31,700 votes). Of the remaining 15 parties, one (the joint Ultra-Orthodox and extreme Rightwing “Yachad” party) came close to the threshold with 2.97% of the votes (125,158) and another (“Green Leaf”, for the legalization of Cannabis) got 1.12% of the votes (47,180). The remaining 13 parties shared 17,179 votes among them.

After the election results are published, each party leader must then meet with the President and declare his or her support for a candidate for Prime Minister. The President must then ask the candidate with the best chances of forming a majority coalition to do so. Netanyahu got the support of 67 of the Knesset members and therefore has begun negotiations with the other parties to form a coalition. He has 28 days to do so, with an optional additional 14 days (which end May 6th). If he fails to reach an agreement with the other party leaders, the task of forming a coalition will go to the next candidate, Yitzhak Hertzog.

The parties are now haggling over who will get which government ministries and what the main policy lines of the new government will be. A lot of names paired with ministries have been thrown around, as well as rumors as to who will and will not eventually join the coalition. Most of it is PR and meaningless rumors meant to pressure the various parties into giving up on some of their demands in this high-stakes poker game.

The most natural composition of the coalition would include Netanyahu’s Likud, Naftali Bennet’s religious- Rightwing Jewish Home, Avigdor Lieberman’s Rightwing “Yisrael Beiteinu”, both Ultra Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and Moshe Kahlon’s new Center-Right “Kulanu”, with a total of 67 Knesset seats. This would leave four parties in the opposition: Leftwing Labor, the Joint Arab list, the Center-Left “Yesh Atid” and the extreme-Left Meretz, with 53 seats combined. I wrote a post explaining the different parties- Here.

Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, the 20th Knesset was sworn in on March 31st. The main party blocs have remained mostly unchanged, but the new Knesset has 39 new members, which will have to learn to play the parliamentary game. The newly elected Knesset also has 29 women and 91 men, 104 Jews and 16 Arabs, who are represented in four different parties. Of the Jewish members, at least 11 are Orthodox and 13 are Ultra-Orthodox (for an explanation of the different religious groups in Israel, see my post- here).

Here are some of the notable new or returning Knesset members:

MK Benny Begin. Source: wikipedia.

MK Benny Begin. Source: wikipedia.

Benny Begin, Likud– son of the late PM Menachem Begin. He served in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 18th Knessets, including in minor ministerial positions. He’s considered a moderate Right-wing.

MK Avi Dichter. Source: wikipedia

MK Avi Dichter. Source: wikipedia

Avi Dichter, Likud– former chief of the Israeli Security Agency (the Shin Bet). Served in the 18th Knesset as a member of Tzippi Livni’s Kadima. Following the primaries in Likud, he and Tzippi Hotovely went to court over the 20th slot on the party’s list, with claims of miscounting. Dichter lost and was pushed back to the 26th slot, which was thought to be unrealistic. Likud won 30 seats in the Knesset, so Dichter must be very happy now.

MK Manuel Trajtenberg. Source: wikipedia

MK Manuel Trajtenberg. Source: wikipedia

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, Labor– Following the social protest of 2011, Netanyahu formed a committee to find ways of lowering the costs of living. Trajtenberg, an economics professor headed that committee, and some of his findings were implemented. He later tutored Yair Lapid in basic economics when Lapid became Minister of Finance in 2013.

MK Yoav Galant. Source: wikipedia

MK Yoav Galant.
Source: wikipedia

Yoav Galant, Kulanu– in 2010 Galant was chosen to succeed Gabi Ashkenazi as the IDF’s 20th Chief of Staff, after serving as head of the Southern Command. But suspicions of illegal construction done in Galant’s home sabotaged his appointment and Benny Gantz was appointed instead. Galant left the army and was recruited by Moshe Kahlon to be 2nd on his new party list.

MK Michael Oren. Source: wikipedia

MK Michael Oren.
Source: wikipedia

Michael Oren, Kulanu– served as Israel’s ambassador to the USA.

MK Rachel Azarya. Source: wikipedia

MK Rachel Azarya.
Source: wikipedia

Rachel Azaria, Kulanu– a noted social and feminist activist and deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.

These are the final election results:

Party Party leader Main agenda Seats in 19th Knesset Seats in 20th Knesset # of votes
Likud Benyamin Netanyahu Moderate Right 18-20 30 985,408
Labor + Hatnua Yitzhak Hertzog + Tzippi Livni Moderate Left 15+6 24 786,313
Joint Arab List Ayman Awda Arab Party (a combination of Communist, nationalist and Islamist parties) 4+3+3+1 13 446,583
Yesh Atid Yair Lapid Center- Left 19 11 371,602
Kulanu Moshe Kahlon Center-Right 0 10 315,360
Jewish Home Naftali Bennet Religious-Right 11 8 283,910
Shas Arie Deri Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox 10 7 241,613
Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman Rightwing 11-13 6 214,906
United Torah Judaism Yaakov Litzman Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox 7 6 210,143
Meretz Zehava Gal’on Extreme Left 6 5 165,529

***

What do Israelis do on election day?

General Election day in Israel is a national holiday, so the answer is that they spend most of the day not voting. They go shopping, hiking, barbecuing. I like the hiking option. This year, elections coincided with spring flowering and I went to see a hill covered in beautiful flowering Lupins, a relatively rare flower in Israel.

Lupins flower on a hill near Jerusalem. Photo: my own.

Lupins flower on a hill near Jerusalem. Photo: my own.

This is a joint post with  Global Elections 2015.

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