Israel: more resigned than right-wing
Nathalie Rothschild reports from Israel on the nonsense idea that this week’s election will signal a shift to the rabid right
Tomorrow, Israelis go to the polls to vote in a general election. The result is already seen as a foregone conclusion. The big question has not been whether the joint right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beitenu slate will win, but by what margin. Add to this the rise of the nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party and it would seem that Israelis have taken an extreme-right turn. Yet the mood here in Israel is not militant; it is resigned.
The opposition parties have accepted as a given that the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be re-elected. As a result, they have foregone formulating election platforms in favour of debating whether they will cooperate with or work against Netanyahu’s Likud party, which is running on a joint ticket with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home). Lieberman is the hard-liner who resigned as foreign minister last month after being indicted on corruption charges.
While political horse-trading is by no means unique to Israeli politics, each of the big and small players in this election are, in their own selective ways, sweeping hard issues under the rug. With Netanyahu seen as a shoo-in, tough decisions and new policies have been displaced in favour of a scramble to be Israel’s top opposition politician. This general-election campaign has all the dramatic turns, intrigues and back-stabbings of a juicy reality show. The rise of the politics of personality is not unique to Israel, but in a region with some serious issues, we need something more than this.
So depending on which party you turn to, Israel’s deep fiscal deficit is so last week, the volatile relations with Hamas and Gaza are so last month, the social-justice movement is so last summer, and the peace process is so Nineties.
Keep your wife out of it
While there is no real challenger to Netanyahu for the post of prime minister, the big star of this general-election campaign is Naftali Bennett, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party. He is the elite military man turned high-tech entrepreneur who defected from Likud after reportedly locking horns with Netanyahu’s wife Sara, who is seen as a tantrum-prone woman with a love of shopping and meddling in her husband’s affairs.
A week to go before the elections, Habayit Hayehudi released an ad showing Bennett and Netanyahu under the slogan ‘strong together’. That was after Bennett had insisted, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10, that he would have no problem working with Netanyahu again as the two, after all, served in the same elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. He then joked that he and Sara, on the other hand, mostly went through a ‘terrorism course’ together.
Bennett, Likud’s former chief of staff when it was in opposition, is dedicated to securing Israel’s Jewish character and to convincing Israelis that there will be no peace plan with the Palestinians, who might as well give up their hope of establishing a sovereign state. With the help of his secular partner, Ayelet Shaked, Bennett is siphoning off both religious and secular nationalist voters from Likud.
United in mutual loathing
While Bennett and Netanyahu jostle for the settlers and for those who have lost interest in negotiating with the Palestinians, Israel’s leading voice for the two-state solution is now Tzipi Livni. Livni is the lawyer who followed former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert into the Kadima (Forward) party, but in late 2012 formed the centrist Hatnuah (The Movement) party. This left previous security minister Shaul Mofaz at the helm of Kadima, producing election ads in which he poses with Sharon, who has been in a coma for seven years.
Livni has insisted that Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Avoda (Labour) party, and Yair Lapid, head of the newly formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, should join her in a centre-left bloc in order to challenge Netanyahu and the right and to win over undecided voters.
Lapid is a former news anchor and movie star who has vowed to restore peace talks and to end the privileges of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yachimovich is a former journalist who has rebranded Labour into a party focused on economic justice, in the vein of the large-scale protests sparked by middle-class discontent in the summer of 2011.
But Yachimovich and Lapid ganged up on Livni after she told national media that she would refuse to sit in an extreme-right government without Labour and Yesh Atid. They accused her of simply trying to boost her own party and of engaging in an elaborate spin campaign after portraying a meeting between the three leaders as unfruitful because of Yachimovich’s and Lapid’s supposed unwillingness to cooperate.
Yachimovich and Lapid said Livni had prevented a centre-left bloc from being formed before the deadline for submitting the parties’ candidate lists. But Livni hit back, saying the two preferred to malign her and put their own narrow interests before the good of the public.
The big loser: turnout
This chaotic landscape – of which the above is just a snapshot – doesn’t say a great deal about where Israeli voters actually stand.
In the 2009 election, just 65 per cent of Israelis voted. According to pollsters, turnout is especially low among several key groups – political moderates, people under 30 and Israeli Arabs. In other words, groups that tend to favour Netanyahu’s opponents.
Israel’s right-wing swing in this week’s election has widely been seen as inevitable, but the polls also indicate that Israelis who want an alternative to the right cannot bring themselves to vote for the centre and left-of-centre candidates.
And a survey by the Midgam Project showed that right-wing voters who cast a ballot in 2009 are ‘less enthusiastic’ about choosing right-wing parties this time around. According to a December 2012 poll, two thirds of Israelis support a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, in contrast with the right-wing policies of settlement and even annexation.
The last polls published before the election all point to the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance garnering the most seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but their popularity is at least partly based on a widespread dispirited mood and political disillusionment.