Thirty four parties were officially in the running. Polls indicated that 11 were certain of winning enough votes to enter the Knesset, two others were close to the minimum required, and four of the others attracted my attention as curiosities.
It will be another day before the ballots of Israelis allowed to vote at locations other than their neighborhood polling places will be tallied, i.e., official representatives overseas, soldiers at their bases, prison inmates, and hospital patients. The most precious of the hospital voters is our daughter Tamar, who presented us with granddaughter Geffen the day before the election.
What follows is a loose discussion of what the campaign and 99 percent of the total votes indicate about the Israeli population. By "loose discussion" I mean something other than my personal feelings, of which I claim to have few, and those carefully moderated so they do not get out of control. I am not reading tea leaves, but reporting what I perceive to be roiling us. Perhaps "roiling" is too strong for a political campaign that some described as somnolent. Turnout was 67 percent, two percent higher than in 2009.
This is not a assessment informed by a thorough analysis of polling that goes beyond "what party?" and into the various reasons for the vote. That will come from colleagues who specialize in such things, but not for some time until those kind of polls are tabulated and analyzed.
I make no claim that the themes described below can be ranked from the more to the less prominent or important in the voters' decisions. What I am describing is more like a salad, or a soup, of different themes apparent somewhere in the mix, rather than what was more or less important in the outcome.
The real "outcomes" won't be known for a month or more of negotiations toward the formation of a government, and it will be several years until we know what the government actually accomplishes. And whatever that is will not be entirely the product of the government, but a combination of what its members would like, and what is imposed upon them by events from outside or inside the country that are beyond their control.
One of the themes was a moderate "No" to the Palestinians. Only one prominent candidate, Tsipi Livni, campaigned in favor of re-starting a peace process. Livni's party trailed the other centrist-left parties, and will place only 6 of its candidates in the Knesset. The candidates of two larger parties, Likud our Home with 31 seats and Jewish Home with 11, promised more settlement activity, a rejection of removing settlements already established, with some of them rejecting any recognition of a Palestinian state.
Explanations for this theme include
•fatigue with the Palestinians and their international supporters
•a rejection as naive the condemnation of settlement from the White House and European capitals, and their calls for renewed negotiations
•a dim view of Hamas and its allies responsible for thousands of rocket attacks and having to be disciplined once again by the IDF
•a view that Israel, along with Palestinian security personnel and a weak West Bank government, can probably keep a lid on restiveness there, reinforced by West Bankers not wanting to give up their economic progress by going down the road of Gaza
•a flaccid West Bank leadership that seems intent on holding on but not much more
•a view of Arab spring, which sees it mired in violence and chaos, anything but democratic, and by no means encouraging the near term establishment of yet another Arab state alongside Israel
Together with this theme of rejecting a stepped-up peace process in order to produce a Palestinian State is a rejection of Israeli extremism. This may seem odd alongside the support given to Jewish Home and the movement to the right apparent in the line up of Likud candidates. However, it appears in the decline during the campaign of the support given to Likud our Home (from 42 seats at the beginning of the campaign to 31 at the end), and the support given four centrist to left of center parties with a total of 40-42 seats. Lapid's There is a Future won 19 seats, Labor 15, Livni's Movement 6, and Kadima perhaps 2 but still close to the minimum. Each of them campaigned in large or small part against the extremism apparent in Likud our Home and Jewish Home. Moreover, the most right wing of the existing parties will disappear from the Knesset. Its current formulation, under the heading of Power to Israel, did not reach the minimum required. And left of center Meretz increased its poll from 4 to 6 seats.
What may come of this combination of extremism and anti-extremism is more of the same. That is, stability or a modest expansion of settlements, along with low-to-moderate international condemnations, continued political constipation of the Palestinian leadership, bloodshed in Syria and Libya, now spread to Mali and elsewhere in Africa, and one or another kind of fluid instability in Egypt, Tunis, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia etc etc.
Social reform is somewhere on the table, but not in a way that is easy to define. In the background are the street demonstrations of 2011 with a couple of hundred thousand participants that led to the government's appointment of a special committee to consider social and economic reforms. However, those demonstrations occurred two summers ago. Last summer saw no such ferment in the streets. During the campaign, only the Labor Party was prominent in emphasizing the need for greater social benefits close to anything like the socialism of years past.
Yair Lapid was the big winner in this election, with his new party becoming the second largest in the Knesset. He campaigned with the vague demand of helping the middle class, and it is reasonable to interpret his voters as demanding a change in social policies. However, he shied away from even the mild socialism of Labor, and put more emphasis in demanding that the ultra-Orthodox do their share of work, paying taxes, military or other national service.
Not only Lapid, but also Naftali Benet (Jewish Home) and most of their party colleagues come to the Knesset with a minimum of governmental experience. Commentators are asking what they will demand, with whom will they coalesce, what kinds of problems might they cause for likely Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and what they will accomplish.
Several parties campaigned at least partly against the Haredim, reflecting the lack of resolution in response to Supreme Court decisions that blanket exemptions from the military are unacceptable. The Orthodox candidates in Jewish Home and even the Prime Minister--despite his previous coalitions with ultra-Orthodox parties--expressed more or less clearly that the ultra-Orthodox take on a greater share of contributing to the country's needs, and should expect less of a free ride with government support for their large families and perpetual study.
The Haredi and Arab parties are where they were, with about the same number of votes by their loyal communities, in the one case doing what their rabbis instruct, and in the other case voting largely by extended families.
One of the parties that seemed on the border line of entering the Knesset, but which received only half the the minimum number of votes, also echoed anti-Haredi sentiments. Its leading candidate, Rabbi Haim Amsalem, left the SHAS delegation of the former Knesset, included a woman and secular Jews in its list of candidates, and campaigned on the theme of integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the society with an education not only in sacred texts but also with lessons that will equip them for meaningful employment.
Outside of the headlines during the campaign, and having no impact on the results were four parties that caught my eye, and tell us a little bit about the nature of Israel. One of them is a morphed version of the party we've seen before advocating access to marijuana. It still calls itself the Green Leaf party, but now is making a more prominent theme of libertarianism. Marijuana is only one of the freedoms from government intervention in Israeli lives that it advocates. This is the closest Israel comes to anything like the Republican Party cum Tea Party of the United States. As far as I can tell, however, Israel's Green Leaf has no element of the American Republicans' love of family values or the Christian Right's concerns about abortions or gays. And I did not notice the Christian Right or the Republican Party of the United States advocating the legalization of marijuana.
Another party, with a bit of overlap with the libertarians of Green Leaf, is the Pirates party. This claims to be part of an international movement toward the future, with small European parties, calling for an end to traditional politics and government, and running things with perpetual referenda posted on the Internet. I've also perceived an element in behalf of the free downloading from the Internet of copyrighted material, but it is not easy to know exactly what this party is about. And insofar as it has not been close to the minimum required for entering the Knesset, it does not encourage a great deal of study.
An Arab-Jewish Workers' Party campaigned against the nationalist obsessions of traditional Arab parties that produce no tangible gains for their constituents. It asked voters to recognize the common needs of lower income Jews and Arabs.
Yet another curiosity was "Everlasting Covenant for the Salvation of Israel under the Leadership of Ofer Lipshitz." His promotional clips featured a middle age man expressing a biblical prophet's sentiment about being summoned by the Almighty to save Israel. Lipshitz's web site provides biblical sources in Hebrew and English, but otherwise has not made much of an impact on Google or the Israeli electorate, or even warranted a public condemnation by the religious establishment. One hears that Lipshitz is a plumber by profession, putting him in the professional category of a prophet-like Jewish carpenter who gained some prominece here years ago.
Guesses are that negotiations toward the creation of a government will be at least as exciting as the election. And with two newcomers (Yair Lapid and Naftali Benet) at the head of parties with 30 Knesset seats, along with Likud our Home with only 31, few commentators are certain about the nature of the next government, or its capacity to survive the tensions.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem