POMED Notes: “Elections in Israel”
The Project on Middle East Political Science sponsored a panel discussion entitled “Elections in Israel” on Thursday (1/24). Moderated by Dr. Marc Lynch of George Washington University, the event featured four professors: Ilan Peleg of Lafayette College, Yoram Peri of the University of Maryland, Jonathan Rynhold of George Washington University, and Gershon Shafir of the University of California-San Diego.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Speaking first, Ilan Peleg said the elections created uncertainty and instability in Israeli politics. He said they were impacted primarily by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman running together, Yair Lapid (leader of the new Yesh Atid party) and Naftali Bennett (leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party) deciding to run, and the center-left parties declining to run as a unified opposition. Peleg said the center struggled because they appeared to be based on their leaders’ personal ambitions and “their message tended to be muffled, unclear, and very often uni-dimensional.” He said the division of the right and the center’s weakness helped what remains of the left, but that its core issue, solving the conflict, was not addressed clearly. Meanwhile, Likud was forced to move to the center for both ideological and tactical reasons, which is likely to continue. Overall, he called the elections a great disappointment because they ignored the conflict. Peleg predicted that the new government would resemble the old one, but that it would be unlikely to last four years. He concluded that Netanyahu would not change his policies unless there was a major external development.
Yoram Peri opined that elections are the best time to look deeply into society and observe its changes. He observed that instead of the expected move to the right, the balance of power between the right, left, and center blocks remained the same. The change was within the right wing block, which became more extreme and religious. Peri said this change did not reflect Israeli society at large. He noted that the success of a center-left party is not as novel as it is being reported, as there has always been this type of party. Peri said the left’s major problem was the exclusion of Arabs, and that with them they could have formed a coalition. He asserted that the younger generation of Israelis got fed up with the old politicians, in part because many are criminals. The important issue was the cost of living, and young Israelis voted for parties led by young, charismatic people. Peri observed that nearly half of the elected Knesset members are new, which is an unprecedented amount of turnover. He noted gains among women, students, and the social protest movement, and that voter participation increased. Peri argued that parties had declined as most of their lists were not chosen democratically, but dictated by their leaders.
Jonathan Rynhold noted that it was an opportunity for the center left when Netanyahu and Lieberman united. Four seats moved from the right-religious bloc to the left-Arab bloc. He observed that the Israeli elites are moving to the right, but the public is not. Rynhold said that Israelis have supported partition since the first intifada even though they gave up on the peace process after 2000. However, because disengagement from Gaza and Lebanon has been followed by rocket attacks, the average Israeli worries about security. Yet he argued, because Israelis were confident in Netanyahu’s victory and therefore security, they were free to think about other issues like the cost of living. Rynhold noted that the demonstrations have been by the middle class, and that a poll showed that Israelis’ top priority for more government spending is education. This relates to the anti-ultraorthodox vote, as they receive a disproportionate amount of education funding. He said the left needs a Rabin, Barak, or Sharon—a General with credibility on the Palestinian issue, to rebound, but that centrism is real, resilient, and has a clear agenda. Rynhold said the new government will seek to “equalize the burden” in Israel by drafting the ultraorthodox into the military. He said Netanyahu wants a party on each side of his to provide room to maneuver on foreign policy where Iran will be the top issue.
Gershon Shafir focused on the Zionist Orthodox, seeking to explain how they rebounded to quadruple their seats after dwindling to three in 2009. He credited their struggles to “the rise of ethnicity” in politics and a failed competition with the settler movement after the 1967 war. Shafir said their success was due to “the victory of religion light” in Israeli society and their willingness to compromise on some issues. In regard to the conflict and Oslo Accords, they offered what they call a pacification plan that entails annexing Area C, offering citizenship to the Palestinians living there, and granting full autonomy in Area A and Area B with Israel maintaining military control. Shafir joked that the plan could only possibly pacify Israelis and that this is what moderation looks like to Israelis in 2013.
During the Q&A, Peleg noted that Israelis do not have enthusiasm for addressing the conflict but that the issue of equity is very important. Peri said the issues of the territories and peace will be determined solely by Netanyahu, who initially equivocated, but now clearly has no intention of negotiating. The question is what pressure there will be on him within the government. He said most Israelis will follow their leaders in whatever direction they decide to go and cited a religionization of Israeli society. He said the E1 issue is more symbolic than practical and that the new government will make it harder for Netanyahu to build settlements there. Rynhold said the religious were looking for someone who would force the ultraorthodox to serve in the army, and that was Bennet. The ultraorthodox are no longer content to sit back and take money but are pushing into the public sphere. He suggested that Iran is the only issue that could force Netanyahu to move on the Palestinian issue. He said Israel and Netanyahu does see rupturing relations with the U.S. as a red line. He noted that Obama needed to “hug the Isareli people” to get room to talk about issues like settlements. Shafir said it is important to distinguish between the ultraorthodox and the nationalist-orthodox.