Despite wide expectations that the rightwing and religious parties would expand their influence in the Israeli Knesset, the outcome of the election was quite disappointing for these factions.
Instead, the election ended up expressing a general sense of confusion and loss of direction and the Israeli public’s lack of trust in its political leaders.
Netanyahu is expected to seek to form a broad-based government, built primarily around his alliance with Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party and the Jewish Home Party, possibly in addition to Shas, United Torah Judaism and Kadima parties.
However, it is unlikely that this government will be stable and harmonious. Indeed, its components will have to agree on issues like military service, the secularization of the state, and the preservation of the middle class.
By contrast, it is likely that there would be an accord within the coalition over security issues and that it will continue to prolong the peace process rather than resolve it. It will continue to create facts on the ground through settlements and Judaization, in tandem with the continuation of racist policies toward the Palestinian Arabs inside the Green Line.
It seems at first glance that the results of the Israeli general elections carry some signs of a certain change in the partisan and political scenes in the state of Israel. In summary, the Likud-Beiteinu alliance won 31 Knesset seats, followed by Yesh Atid (There is a Future) 19 seats; Labor won 15 seats; the Jewish Home Party won 12 seats; Shas won 11 seats; the United Torah Judaism Party won 7 seats; Hatnuah (The Movement) won 6 seats; Meretz won 6 seats; Kadima won 2 seats; the United Arab List won 4 seats; the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) won 4 seats; and the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) won 3 seats.
The results did not meet the expectations of the rightwing and religious parties, which won 61 seats, compared to 48 seats for the center and left parties, and 11 seats for the Arab parties. But the fact of the matter is that nothing fundamental has changed. The next government’s policies will be very much similar to those of the incumbent one, with some minor and superficial changes.
During their electoral campaigns, the parties and alliances put the socio-economic agenda at the top of their programs. The main reason these elections were held in the first place was the economic situation in Israel, with rising prices and costs of living, soaring unemployment and the accelerating collapse of the middle class.
The failure of the social protest movement in the summer of 2011 to bring about radical change, paved the way for some new and old parties to reiterate these social demands, and they subsequently won a large number of seats in the Knesset.
The solutions being proposed primarily involve sharing the burden; that is to say, compelling orthodox Jews (the Haredim) and Arabs in Israel to enlist in military or civil service, and passing reforms in the structure of the government. There is a broad debate on these issues taking place at present.
On the other hand, this election has shown an Israeli consensus over the legitimacy of settlement building, which is seen as a normal activity and a guarantee for the survival of Israel. There is a strong sympathy with the settlers, even on the part of the Labor Party, which is historically classified as center-left. This is while Israelis coming under Arab and international pressure that refuses to legitimize the settlements and take it out of the list of priorities in the negotiations with the Palestinian side.
The election dealt a blow to the Likud Party, but did not unseat Netanyahu. His alliance with the Yisrael Beiteinu Party was essentially aimed at reducing the latter’s influence on domestic and foreign policy, and subsequently its role.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is the only one capable of forming a government, something that has been known even before the election results came out. Indeed, the Jewish Home Party led by Bennett (12 seats) wants Netanyahu to form this government according to its own criteria, that is, the criteria of the extreme right. Meanwhile, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid (19 seats) wants to steer Netanyahu towards its own center-right platform.
Thus, both these parties are sympathetic to Netanyahu. The irony is that Netanyahu, while appearing weak at first glance, will be able to settle matters with these two parties and their positions between the center and the right. For this reason, the coalition that will be established by Netanyahu is likely to include: Likud – Yisrael Beiteinu (31 seats), Yesh Atid, and the Jewish Home.
Yet such a coalition would not enjoy stability, and would be subjected to the possibility of rapid disintegration at the slightest sign of dispute. For this reason, it will most likely try to bring in to the coalition the Shas movement (representing religious Sephardic Jews) which won 11 seats, bringing the total number of seats controlled by the coalition to 73.
Kadima, led by Mofaz, which has only two seats, may also join the coalition for a total of 75 seats. This would be a stable coalition, even if for a while.
Shas is expected to join the coalition, because as a political movement, it cannot remain for long in the opposition and outside government, given the interests it has in a number of ministries and government agencies that it has become accustomed to controlling.
For this reason, Shas leaders have expressed their willingness from the outset to negotiate portfolios and reach a solution acceptable to all parties. This represents preliminary approval by Shas to enter any coalition formed by Netanyahu, whether with Yesh Atid or the Jewish Home party.
This means that the center-left (i.e., the Labor Party and Hatnuah led by Livni), the Zionist left (Meretz) and Arab parties will remain outside the government, in the opposition, and away from influencing decision-making.
1- Protecting the eroding middle class, an issue of particular importance for Yesh Atid which fought the elections on the basis of a social agenda and made significant gains. Yesh Atid’s demands include creating jobs, improving housing conditions, giving housing incentives for young couples and improving the standard of living. Indeed, Netanyahu’s government, which was able to secure relative calm during its term, did not guarantee for itself a successful tally of seats in the Knesset. For this reason, Yair Lapid will have to learn the right lessons from this reality.
2- Israel’s security: there is a consensus and unanimity when comes to this issue, which is to protect Israel amid the volcanoes raging in the Middle East including: instability in Egypt after the revolution of January 25; the growing scope of the bloody clashes in Syria; allegations of fear of chemical weapons falling into the hands of “terrorist” organizations (Hezbullah or al-Qaeda… as Israel claims); the powder keg in Iraq; and most importantly, Iran’s nuclear program. This means that funds will continue to be allocated for armament, in conjunction with streamlining the various arms of the Israeli army, continuous monitoring of the situation in the Middle East, and constant summoning of the Iranian threat.
There is an apparent divide between the political leadership (represented by Netanyahu) and the military leadership (army command), where the former wants to carry out a strike against Iran and the second refuses to do so except at the appropriate time. Despite this, the new government will continue to strive to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Netanyahu still presents himself as the savior of the free and democratic world from the “Iranian devil,” as he calls it, and he has misled the Israelis into thinking that their survival depends on eliminating this threat.
It seems that Lapid and his party are inclined not to accept handling the defense ministry because of the many problems associated with this portfolio, and which may weaken him politically, when the main issues championed by his party are social and economic in nature. Subsequently, he prefers to focus on fulfilling his promises to his constituency.
3- The settlements issue: the elections have shown that most rightwing, center and left-center parties tend to perceive settlement building and settlements as part of Israel’s legitimate rights, and that any peace settlement with the Palestinians will therefore not be conditional on stopping settlement building. Naturally, this will be a hot topic before the EU and even the US administration, since continuing settlement activity weakens the chances of achieving a two-state solution. The resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians will not be easy given the position of the coalition parties on settlement building.
4- Palestinian Arabs in Israel: It is likely that the new government will continue to adopt the same stances as its predecessor towards the Palestinians in Israel; excluding them from active participation in the administration of the affairs of state, in contradiction with the principle of full citizenship. Israel refuses to recognize full citizenship for all its citizens, including the Palestinians, and require them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state first. In addition, Israel will continue with its policies of marginalization, neglect and restriction towards Palestinians in Israel, through racist legislation, and schemes meant to uproot wide segments of Palestinian society in Israel, mainly the Bedouin Arabs in the Negev region. Subsequently, the gap will grow between the Jewish and Arab populations. This confirms the bid by Israeli politicians to enforce racial segregation at all levels.
5- Managing the negotiations with the Palestinians: Netanyahu will seek to push Yesh Atid towards handling the foreign ministry in his new government, to get rid of the legacy of Avigdor Lieberman, and the political and diplomatic crises and problems he caused. Consequently, he may try to task Yesh Atid with handling negotiations with the Palestinians and this may help nudge the negotiating process out of the impasse it is in.
If Lapid accepts the appointment to the foreign ministry, then Netanyahu will steer the negotiations with the Palestinians, not towards a permanent and comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians, but rather in the context of what Netanyahu believes in: namely managing the conflict and negotiating to buy time, while pressing ahead with settlement building, in tandem with complete disregard for all threats and warnings from inside and outside.
For this reason, it is not expected to see in the foreseeable future any rapid development along the negotiations track. Diplomatic meetings may intensify, in conjunction with attempts to appease the US administration and the European countries. Furthermore, by putting the burden of responsibility of foreign relations on the new party Yesh Atid, while steering foreign policy from a distance, Netanyahu may be able to absorb the anger of the Israeli public, and curtail the popularity of Yesh Atid and its leader Lapid, who has since stolen the spotlights.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Prof. Dr. Johnny Mansour for authoring the original text on which this Assessment was based