What do the Israeli Elections Mean? Answers from Kenneth Bob

Categories: Letters from the Leadership
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Ameinu President Kenneth Bob answers some common questions raised in the wake of the recent Israeli elections

How should one interpret the election results?

The common reporting by the Israel press about a narrowing right and center-left split of 61-59 seats in the Knesset is too simplistic. A better breakdown to consider is the right with 43 seats (Likud, Yisrael Beyteinu, HaBayit Hayehudi), the center with 27 seats (Yesh Atid, Hatnua/Livni, Kadima) the left with 21(Labor Party, Meretz), the ultra-orthodox with 18 seats (Shas, Yahadut Hatorah) and the predominantly Arab parties with 11 (Hadash, Balad, Ra’am/Ta’al).  This better demonstrates the following trends: a weakening of the right by eight seats, a strengthening of the left by five seats and changes of a few seats in the other blocs. The Israeli public sent a message to Netanyahu that, while he can continue as prime minister for the time being, they want a more moderate government going forward.

“OK Google, who the hell is Yair Lapid?”

For people not following the election campaign closely, the Facebook meme which shows President Obama typing on a computer asking “OK Google, who the hell is Yair Lapid?” says it all. The handsome former popular TV anchorman is without a question the big story of this election, receiving 19 seats as the second largest party. When he first announced that he was entering politics to set up a new centrist party, before he even had a party name or list of candidates, he received 20 seats in the polls. However, by the last week of the campaign various polls had him between 8-12 seats. A poll done by Ma’ariv of Lapid voters revealed this startling information: 21% of his voters said they decided to vote Yesh Atid the day of the election, and 41% decided a few days earlier. They were looking for an alternative and, depending upon their political tendencies, their thought process might have been one of the following: “I want my vote to moderate Bibi and Lapid says he’ll join a Likud led government, or “I want someone to deal with the social protest issues but I can’t vote Labor, they talk about socialism,” or “I am looking for a new politician to support and I like Naftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi, but he has some scary right-wingers on his list.”

One must ask whether Yesh Atid can survive as a political party as opposed to previous short-lived centrist parties, including Dash of the 1970s led by Yigal Yadin and Shinui of the 2000s led by Lapid’s father, Tommy. Kadima meanwhile barely held on to two seats after being the largest faction in the previous Knesset. The Knesset list of Yesh Atid newcomers includes impressive, competent people from a variety of professions, including those with municipal government experience and former Shin Bet director Ya’akov Perry. We will watch to see how they function as a party and how they develop their policy positions and strategies in real time.

Is Labor’s cup half full or half empty?

First the facts. After a devastating period under the leadership of Ehud Barak, having the party split in the current Knesset and seeing two past chairs of the party jump ship to join Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, the Labor Party received nearly 100,000 more votes than in the last election and added two seats in the Knesset. This can certainly be seen as stabilizing the party and gaining strength.

On the other hand, at the pre-election high water mark the party was polling 22 seats and had every expectation that it would be the second largest party on election day. As a result, there is a lot of criticism of party chair Shelley Yechimovich’s handling of the campaign, including the insistence on stressing that the party was “centrist,” “social democratic” and not a leftist, peace party. This positioning became fodder for Israel’s political satire television shows, and when Yechimovich herself appeared on such a program, the host introduced a drinking game in which every time she said one of the key phrases in response to a question, all of the interviewing panelists drank a shot of whiskey.

The irony is that the social democratic label ended up having limited appeal among the targeted Tel Aviv crowd, and many preferred Lapid’s more capitalist message or Tzipi Livni’s emphasis on peace negotiations. There were also Laborites who embraced the “pure” available leftist label, and voted Meretz.  In the campaigns of all of the parties there was a strong emphasis on the leader of the party, and in Labor’s case, it did not appear that Yechimovich connected with non-traditional Labor voters.

Labor and Meretz now have a critical role: to work together as a “fighting opposition” in this Knesset and to continue to build support for their cause among the Israeli public.  Perhaps out of this splintered moderate Israeli political landscape, a new electoral coalition of Labor-Meretz-Hatnua could emerge…stranger things have happened.

Did the 2011 social protest movement impact this election?

It certainly influenced Yesh Atid, Labor, Hatnua and Meretz as all included social activists in realistic places on their lists. Two young, high profile protest leaders, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, were elected on the Labor list. All of these new legislators will certainly introduce a greater sense of urgency around social justice issues in the Knesset. However, they will quickly run into a state budgeting process that will call for budget cuts in sensitive areas. The government and opposition will, no doubt, have their first confrontation over this issue.

Will the new government address peace with the Palestinians?

It all depends upon how Netanyahu goes about setting up his government and Lapid’s resolve in using the status given to him by the electorate. Lapid’s early statements indicate that a return to the negotiating table is a condition for his joining the government; will he specifically demand this? Will he stick to his principles once he has settled into that comfortable government chair?

The coalition math is complicated due to the fractured election results, which is why some have suggested that Bibi needs two governments, one to pass the budget and ultra-orthodox military service and another to re-engage with the Palestinians.  A coalition based upon Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi would comfortably address the first set of issues, but is not a recipe for success when it comes to engaging with the Palestinians or the Americans, due to the anti-two state solution rhetoric of HaBayit Hayehudi’s Bennet.  Shas is opposed to drafting yeshiva students and holds views closer to Labor regarding budget cuts to social services, however, has been open to peace negotiations in the past, and is a comfortable partner for Bibi……if he even wants to go in that direction.

Stay tuned…we might be talking about new elections sooner than later.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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