Stunning results out of Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu will barely be able to form a government following Tuesday’s elections to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
The coalition between Likud, Netanyahu’s governing party, and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu probably won only 31 or 32 seats—a net loss of ten. Sixty one seats are required for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
The big winner: TV anchor Yair Lapid’s new centrist Yesh Atid party, which won 18-19 seats. The liberal Labor Party, led by Shelly Yacimovich, will probably win 17 seats.
Former software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, who strongly supports expanded Jewish settlements (though he lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv) and even annexation of the largely Palestinian West Bank, garnered only 12 seats, despite a torrent of media attention before the election, including a profile by New Yorker editor David Remnick that suggested extremist parties were on the verge of a sweep. Didn’t happen.
“…It is clear that Israel’s citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible,” Netanyahu told ta small crowd of supporters on election night.
But this must have been a humbling experience to a man who seemed to bestride Israeli politics like a colossus just a few months ago. I don’t think it will stop him from attacking Iran if the Islamic Republic is on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon, but it weakens him substantially and forces him to seek consensus in a widely divergent government.
Clearly his alliance with Beiteinu, headed by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, was a major miscalculation. Bibi has had to muzzle the undiplomatic and embarrassing Lieberman, who was incidentally indicted on corruption charges weeks before the election.
And Netanyahu’s emphasis on Iran and national security simply didn’t resonate among voters who have given up on negotiations with the Palestinians and know that Israel lives in a bad neighborhood surrounded by enemies. So, what else is new?
What everybody missed was how deeply Israel’s citizens felt about domestic issues—rising prices, tight housing, limited opportunities for young people, and growing income inequality. Sound familiar?
Remember, while the media focused exclusively on the “Arab spring” a couple of years ago, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated peacefully in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv over high food and housing costs.
Yair Lapid scored points by calling for students in yeshivas (religious seminaries) to serve in the armed forces, from which they have been exempt. This is a hot issue in Israel, where the fault lines between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox haredim are widening.
If Netanyahu asks Lapid’s Yesh Atid party to join his coalition, the prime minister will have to give ground on this issue, which he has assiduously avoided.
Two-thirds of the electorate turned out to vote following a campaign routinely described as “lackluster.” Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post called it a “vote for internal change”:
This engaged and concerned electorate is supremely aware of the external challenges it faces… Still, it voted en masse for candidates who made those issues secondary in their campaigns.
Why? Because Israelis no longer feel those issues are important? No…Rather, the results bespeak a nation that has accepted the things it cannot change, and is now focusing on what it believes it can.
That’s the great thing about a real democracy—it’s full of surprises, often unpleasant ones for leaders who have gotten too complacent and forget the voters, at whose pleasure they really serve.