Case Analysis 01 February, 2013

The January 2013 Elections to the 19th Knesset: Netanyahu Loses Power, Maintains Grip

Keyword

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

To date, no individual Israeli political party has achieved a parliamentary majority since the very first Knesset elections. The result is that every single Israeli government since the creation of a State has been a coalition government composed of a multitude of parties. For decades, the Israeli political landscape has been divided into two main, competing camps: the Nationalist Camp- which includes the parties of the Right, the Fascist Right and Jewish fundamentalist parties - and the Leftist-Centrist Camp. Notably, the boundaries between these two broad camps are malleable. While the competition between these two sides intensifies when approaching elections, the leader of the winning side - tasked with forming the cabinet- typically attempts to bring in political parties from the other camp to join a ruling coalition.

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu took the initiative of bringing the date of the elections forward, out of a belief that doing so would allow him to maintain his comfortable Knesset majority for another term. Yet, while the results of the latest (January 2013) election provided for a victory of the Nationalist Camp, giving Likud Chairman Netanyahu a slim majority of Knesset seats, the Likud Party itself suffered a setback. This was contrary to the predictions made by opinion pollsters during the campaign, who had forecast a comfortable or even a large majority for the Nationalist Camp. Nonetheless, the results give Netanyahu the chance to remain in power and form the coming coalition government.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the latest elections was the success of "Yesh Atid" (lit. There is a Future), a political party recently formed by broadcaster Yair Lapid, in securing 19 Knesset seats, making it the second-largest political party in the Israeli legislature, and a significant actor in the formation of the coming government. Yesh Atid is expected to become the main partner in the coming ruling coalition, alongside the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance*.

This assessment report aims to examine the factors which influenced the outcome of the latest Knesset elections, and in particular those factors which drove the waning of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu power, and the rise of Yesh Atid. The report shall also address the nature of the coalition which Netanyahu is likely to form.

 Various factors characterized the nineteenth Knesset elections, most notably:

1)   The lack of dominance by any given, single electoral agenda. Dominating the electoral campaign was a multiplicity of issues, reflecting the multiplicity of the political parties participating in the elections.

2)   For the first time in decades, the Occupation and the wider Palestinian cause did not feature in the electoral campaign.

3)   The Nationalist Camp presented an image of unity and consensus on both questions of leadership of the Likud Party within the camp, and of Netanyahu as its leader and candidate for the premiership.

4)   The failure of parties in the Leftist-Centrist Camp to coordinate a unified stance, and the continuous internal conflicts that took place between parties and groups within that camp throughout the election campaign.

With 67.8 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, the elections to the nineteenth Knesset also witnessed an increase in voter numbers in comparison to the previous two elections, in 2006 (63.5 percent) and 2009 (64.7 percent). Amongst Palestinian citizens of Israel, voter participation stood at 57.9 percent of those eligible to vote during the January, 2013 elections, compared to 53 percent in 2009. In other words, the difference in levels of voter participation between the Arab voting public and broader Israeli society shrank. Examining the details more closely, two important points stand and are worth mentioning:

Firstly, roughly 500,000 Jewish Israelis are permanently resident overseas. While they maintain the right to vote they are prevented from casting ballots in polling stations in other countries (the same applies to Palestinian citizens of Israel who live abroad for work or study).

Secondly, on the discrepancy of voter participation levels between Arab and Jewish voters: the level of voter participation by Jewish Israelis resident within the Green Line stands at 76 percent, a high figure by any measure. It is likely that this high voter turnout in the elections served the interests of the anti-Netanyahu camp, but not sufficiently to remove him.

The Likud-Beitanu alliance secured 31 seats -of which 20 will go to the Likud members and 11 to Yisrael Beiteinu members- as compared to the 42 seats which the parties combined held in the previous Knesset. The seats won by Netanyahu's other allies in the Nationalist Camp were as follows: HaBayit HaYehudi (lit. The Jewish Home) won 12 seats; Shas won 11 seats and Yahadut HaTorah (lit. Jewish Torah) won seven seats.

Within the Leftist-Centrist Camp, the results were as follows: Yesh Atid, a first time runner in the elections, won 19 seats; the Labor party won 15 seats, compared to the 13 which it held in the previous Knesset; Htnuah (lit. The Movement), founded and headed by Tzipi Livni, secured six seats; while Meretz won six seats, doubling its share of votes in the Knesset compared to the previous elections. Meanwhile Kadima, led by Shaul Mofaz, was barely able to attain the threshold number of votes needed to secure any seats at all, and was left with two Knesset seats compared to the 28 which it controlled in the previous legislature.

With regards to the Arab parties representing Palestinians living behind the Green Line, the National Democratic Alliance (also known as "Balad"), won three Knesset seats; the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (also known as "Hadash"), an alliance of the Israeli Communist Party and allied groups secured four seats; the United Arab List, which brought together the Southern Islamic Movement, the Arab Movement for Change and the Arab Democratic Party, also secured four seats.

Reasons behind the Losses of the Likud-Beitanu Coalition

The number of votes gained by the Likud-Beitanu Coalition showed a 25% drop compared to those which the alliance won in previous elections. Amidst the factors contributing to the fall in support for the Likud-Beitanu Coalition were:

1)   The persistently high cost of living and the increase in the cost of housing resulting in worsening living standards for both the middle and lower-income level Israelis. Netanyahu failed to resolve the economic difficulties faced by wide swathes of the Israeli public.

2)   Netanyahu holds advantage on all of his competitors with regards to the security-military agenda, yet he failed to impose its importance during the election campaign.

3)   In the eyes of the Israeli public, the Israeli assault on Gaza-initiated by Netanyahu as he approached elections- failed to achieve its aim and negatively affected Israeli voters.

4)   The formation of a joint electoral list between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, and the dualist nature of this list, drove away many of the supporters of the two parties who otherwise would have voted for one of them had they run separately. The low level of representation of Oriental (Sephardic and Mizrahi) Jews within their joint list was also noticeable, with the dominance of Ashkenazi Jews and recent migrants from Russia being glaringly obvious. This fact lent support for Shas in its bid to win over traditional and religious Oriental Jewish voters (as well as another two Ultra-Orthodox groups who failed to cross the electoral threshold, but who would have otherwise polled the votes needed for a total of three seats). Support for both the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu fell sharply in the vast majority of the 27 Israeli development towns in which the Oriental Jews make up the majority of the population. While these towns had previously been Likud strongholds, giving 46.6% of their votes to Netanyahu's party in the 2009 elections, that level dropped to 33% in the latest elections. Yet the inclusion of the extremist HaBayit HaYehudi (a nationalist-religious extremist political party, born of a coalition between the religious Mifdal National Party and the fascist Takomah and Molidit parties) led by its debutante leader Naftali Bennet, attracted West Bank settlers and religious Zionists, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, to vote for the Likud party. Additionally, the success of fanatic zealots in the preliminary elections within the Likud, and their securing of safe slots on the Likud-Beitanu's electoral roster, pushed some of the Likud's secular, "moderate" supporters away and into the arms of other parties, such as Yesh Atid.

5)   Fears surrounded the continuing tensions between Netanyahu and the American administration, and concerns were present with regards to whether Netanyahu's re-election would damage US-Israeli relations and isolate Israel internationally.

Netanyahu failed to grant the Israelis any hope for the resolution of their social, economic and political problems. He also failed to address the demand of "Military Service for All", which had been an enormously popular demand by Yesh Atid and was aimed, primarily, against the Ultra-Orthodox whose youth are exempted from military conscription and whose time is spent towards the study of the Torah. The Ultra-Orthodox parliamentary representatives, the Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, are also Netanyahu's coalition partners.

Yesh Atid: An Electoral Surprise

Unlike Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, adapted his electoral rhetoric and his party's platform to the demands of the Israeli public, and the desires of the middle and upper middle-classes, particularly amongst the Ashkenazim. He also catered to the youth vote. In doing so, he sought to instill optimism for the future, in contrast to Netanyahu's doom and gloom. Established in April of 2012, Yesh Atid expounded a number of catchy slogans and platitudes which had the backing of a majority of secular Israelis, such as "Equality of burdens" and "Military Service for All", which was aimed primarily at Ultra-Orthodox Haredim Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Lapid stressed the need to change Israeli priorities: the need to improve the conditions of the Israeli middle class; to resolve the housing crisis; to lessen the burden carried by the middle class; improve educational institutions; fight corruption; reduce the number of government ministries and to draft an Israeli constitution.

On the Palestinian issue, Lapid situated himself at the heart of the Zionist consensus, calling for Israeli retention of the major settlement blocs on the West Bank and continued settlement within them, and called for the retention of East Jerusalem. Lapid also called for negotiations with the Palestinians which would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in areas which formed part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories- seized by Israelis in 1967- on the grounds that such a state would preserve Israel's "Jewish character". The rejection of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees is a point of consensus amongst all Zionist political parties.

Yesh Atid-in terms of its ideology, economic agenda and its leadership-represents the interests of the upper middle and upper classes of Israeli society. The election results show that in addition to the youth, Yesh Atid's support came from secular Ashkenazim from within the upper middle classes and who mostly live in wealthy Israeli towns and cities.

It is not certain that Yesh Atid will be able to maintain its present level of power, nor to uphold its electoral promises during the coalition-building discussions with the Likud-Beitanu Alliance. Either way, the rise of a centrist, secular and nationalist party demanding change is not a new phenomenon in Israeli politics. The most well-known example of such a party is "Dash" (a Hebrew acronym for "the Democratic Movement for Change". "Shinui" (lit. Change), a party which formed out of the breakup of Dash, was led into the 2003 Knesset elections by Yossi Lapid (father of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid), and won 15 seats. Previously, these movements typically forged alliances with the Israeli Right which result in an overturning of the Israeli political landscape. Most famously, such an alliance between the Likud and the centrist Dash, led - for the first time - to the transfer of power in 1977 away from the Labor Party to the Likud, then under the leadership of Menachem Begin. While these parties represented middle class interests, and turned a general public sentiment into a political force in the Knesset, they never succeeded to hold on to power for any period longer than two parliamentary terms.

The Difficulties of Forming a Government

In order to ensure its stability, Netanyahu will work to fashion his government out of a broad coalition, and will officially begin doing so once he is tasked by [Israeli President] Shimon Peres. Israeli law allows a period of 42 days for Netanyahu to form a government and seek the Knesset's approval for it. Theoretically, Netanyahu has a number of options open to him with regards to his prospective coalition partners. He could choose a government which is drawn entirely from within his own camp, carrying only 61 Knesset members, but that would be a last resort for the Israeli Prime Minister. Doing so would leave him susceptible to political blackmail not only from his partner political parties, but also from individual Knesset members. Additionally, such an extremist government would face difficulties in the international arena. Nonetheless, the possibility of such an option will give Netanyahu bargaining power in his negotiations with other political parties which he might want to add to his coalition.

Primarily, Netanyahu will aim to negotiate with Yesh Atid group, with the aim of agreeing the broad outlines of the coming Israeli government, and allowing for the formation of a strong basis linking Yesh Atid with Likud-Beitanu in a coalition government. Netanyahu is also likely to hold coalition talks with all of the Jewish political parties within the Knesset, with the exception of the Labor and Meretz which have previously stated their unwillingness to participate in the government.

The multilateral negotiations towards the formation of a government will likely lead to crises, some real and others merely contrived before a cabinet can finally be formed. The difficulties and challenges standing in the way of these negotiations shall influence the type of the political parties taking part in the coalition and its size and scope. The first such challenge will be the contradictory positions on the question of "Military Service for All" between Yesh Atid on the one side and the religious Yahadut HaTorah and Shas parties on the other. While Yesh Atid is adamant about the need to implement this principle, both Shas and Yahadut HaTorah staunchly oppose it. The probability of finding a compromise between these two sides seems remote.

 In spite of the above, Likud-Beitanu, Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi share a common ground when it comes to economic matters. All three are capitalist parties which promote the free market and the reduction of the state's role in the economy, representing the interests of the upper echelons of Israeli society. Yet Netanyahu, aware of HaBayit HaYehudi inclusion of fanatic political zealots and its association with extremist settlers on the West Bank, appears hesitant and reluctant about becoming reliant on that group for his coalition. Such a step would hamper Netanyahu's ability to make any kind of overture with regards to the Palestinian issue, even if it were only a political maneuver to appease Yesh Atid or a gesture to avoid pressure from the US Administration or avoid a confrontation with it. Further to this, a series of other obstacles to the formation of a ruling coalition include the passing of the government's budget-which calls for large-scale cuts to close the financial deficit and the distribution of cabinet portfolios to those parties which will form part of the ruling coalition.

Conclusion

The latest Knesset elections resulted in the decline of the Nationalist Camp, which includes parties of the Right, the Fascist Right and Jewish religious parties, whose share of the Knesset declined from 67 to 61 out of 120 Knesset seats. The final result will allow Netanyahu the chance to form a coalition government, but after the expending of massive efforts in order to overcome the multiple obstacles and enormous challenges which presently stand in the way of his formation of a government. Netanyahu's future government will likely not be a stable one, and will most likely have to face early elections. His government is also likely to continue the settlement policy in various areas of the occupied Palestinian territories and particularly East Jerusalem. It is also highly unlikely that Netanyahu's new government will take a single step towards the resolution of its problems with the Palestinians, regardless of the participation or otherwise of the HaBayit HaYehudi in the ruling coalition. After all, in the absence of any sort of Arab pressure, Netanyahu has no intention or vision of offering any concessions or ending the policy of settlements, especially within Jerusalem or the settlement blocs. In fact, alongside the fanaticism of the extremists in Liebermann's Yisrael Beiteinu party, at least eight Likud Party members of the Knesset surpass even the members of HaBayit HaYehudi in their extremism.

 


* Netanyahu's Likud party ran on a unified ballot, together with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

 

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This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here