The final results of Tuesday’s vote in Israel show that the big losers are not (as some would have it) the pollsters who had expected 32 seats to Likud-Beitenu, but Binyamin Netanyahu – the apparent winner and natural candidate for prime minister – and his team that gleaned 31 seats. Bibi’s fall from 42 to 31 seats amazed almost as much as the dazzling rise of Yair Lapid from none to 19.
To better appraise Israel’s vote, beyond the details of the lists and the characters, one should examine the vote flows compared to the 2009 elections. If we divide the exaggeratedly split party field into four major political areas, we see that: haredi religious parties (Shas and Yahadut Hatorah) increased from 16 to 18 seats, a gain of 2; the Arab parties (Hadash, Ram-Tal, Balad ) stand stable at 11; right-wing parties, the “Republicans” (Likud-Beytenu and Habayit Hayehudi), decreased from 49 to 43 (-6), and center and left parties, the “democrats” (Labor, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuahi, Meretz, and Kadima), increased from 44 to 48 (+4). So, a slight shift of the center of gravity to the left.
The distrust of Bibi is accentuated by the fact that his joint list with Lieberman loses 11 seats, but 5 of them are sucked into the neighbor and rival Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, The Jewish Home. Noteworthy is the “Democrats” overcoming this time the “Republicans”, following the model of alternation in place without exception since the 80s, with haredim and Arabs increasing their votes thanks to their slow population growth.
The main fact is that the sum “Republicans” + haredim, i.e. the outgoing government, diminished from 65 to 61 seats, while the opposition “Democrat” + Arab increased from 55 to 59. At first glance, therefore, Bibi’s coalition retains a slight advantage. But it cannot be the same team that had to anticipate the elections because it was unable to approve the budget law (which has to be passed by June) that will implement the inevitable expenditure cuts.
To get out of this impasse, a radical change in the rhetoric of public discourse is needed, and Netanyahu seems to have perceived this in his initial statements. Contrary to the opinion of many observers around the world, friends and enemies, the majority of the electorate does not think about the future of Israel in terms of nuclear Holocaust or the next hill in Judea and Samaria on which to place a trailer at night. Rather, Israel is viewed in terms of a modern society, competitive, culturally tolerant, in which housing must be accessible to all, services must work, and the distribution of resources must be more egalitarian. This is the great challenge for Bibi from which he will emerge either as a great politician or as a brief footnote in future history books.
The coalition government is formed by bringing together 61 seats, agreeing among them on a legislative program, and then possibly inviting other parties to share a few spoils in the division of power. The outgoing government would have the 61, but it no longer works, so you have to change. Likud-Beytenu (31, of which 20 Likud and 11 Lieberman), Yesh Atid (19) and Habayit Hayehudi (12) together have 62 seats. The chemistry between these parties is not easy, but not impossible.
Lapid and Bennett are two similar types, Israeli-born children of immigrants, between 40 and 50 in age, new to politics, established professionals and independent economically, residents in the good suburbs of Greater Tel Aviv, interested in improving the position of the fiscally squeezed middle classes. Bibi is made of the same materials, although slightly older, much more experienced, and influenced by his intense ideological beliefs (and those of his father, Ben Zion) and old political alliances.
Lapid, Bennett and Lieberman share the commitment to an equal division of burdens and duties of the haredim – military service, education that would includes a minimum of Jewish history, math, and English, and participation in the labor force. Lapid is intensely secular (like his father Tommy), Bennett is religious, but very different narratives are possible under a kippah. These last days, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, had launched a violent attack against Bennett, calling Habayit Hayehudi “a party of goyim.” On the other hand, Bibi and Bennett share a line of no negotiation with the Palestinians and activism in the construction of settlements, a line Lapid opposes, though perhaps not with the same intensity of Tzipi Livni or Shelly Yachimovich of Labor.
The tripartite agreement is still possible if Bibi will have the courage and the ability to do so. After that, some of the other parties – politically tamed and looking for some bits of power – will follow: first Kadima, fresh from shrinking from 28 seats to 2. Shas, no longer the power broker of Israeli politics, cannot impose its conditions and will have to accept some compromises on military service and work-study. Then some others may join, perhaps extending to over 80 the initial majority of 61 seats.
There are of course many other scripts, partly lacking the numbers, partly impossible due to the incompatibility of the actors. Lapid will not go alone with Shas to make the fig leaf of Bibi’s usual coalition. Yachimovich will not go alone with Habayit Hayehudi. Neither can Lapid go with Hanin Zuabi, the ultra-nationalist Palestinian figure.
Finally, to conclude with a smile, let us extract a rabbit out of the hat. Lieberman said that after the elections his parliamentary faction would remain separate from the Likud. And here’s a quick Machiavellian count: Liberman 11, Lapid 19, Labor 15, Bennett 12, Livni 6 = 63, with Bibi the opposition leader. Awesome? We’ll see. Especially when the alternative would be new early elections.
Sergio DellaPergola is professor emeritus at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.