The myth of Israel’s lurch to the Right
The weakness of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new cabinet, supported by a bare majority of 61 out of 120 deputies, is a direct result of bickering (not wholly comprehensible to outsiders) within the right-wing camp, which has left Avigdor Lieberman’s party outside. Behind this, however, there lies a deeper reason for this weakness – the right’s failure to win an outright parliamentary majority in the last election. The entire bloc of right-wing and religious parties that are Netanyahu’s ‘’natural partners” won 57 seats – down from the 61 in the previous Knesset.
In that Knesset, after the 2013 election, a purely right-wing coalition of 61 was theoretically possible. Netanyahu refused to rely on this majority and chose to form a cabinet with centrists Lapid and Livni; the collapse of this coalition in 2014 triggered an early election. While the Likud won this election handsomely, the right-wing block, even if it puts its act together, can no longer govern the country on its own without the support of a centrist force. This support is provided by Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, with its 10 sears.
How stable this partnership between the right and (a part of) the center is going to prove, remains to be seen. It may well be stable enough at least for some time, because Kahlon, as Minister of Finance, will have a vital interest in keeping the coalition together – at any rate until he can demonstrate economic accomplishments. But the loss of the overall parliamentary majority by the Israeli right is a highly significant, if often overlooked, outcome of the recent election.
This outcome was widely perceived, in Israel and abroad, as a triumph of Netanyahu and the right. While the former point is certainly correct, the latter is not – at any rate if one looks at long-term trends in public opinion. The Likud obtained its large plurality at the expense of other right-wing parties, Netanyahu’s junior coalition partners. Many of their supporters were successfully persuaded that the chances of the right, as a whole, staying in power depended decisively on the Likud emerging from this election as the largest party.
In the 2009 election, the entire block of right-wing and religious parties (those whose voters know they are voting for a government headed by Netanyahu) received 65 seats. In 2013 it received 61 seats, and in the recent election – 57. The trend is clear. It is true that this time, a small right-wing party failed to pass the threshold and thus ‘’wasted” many votes for the right.
But the right fell short of the 50 percent of the popular vote, even if these votes are taken into account. In fact, it failed to obtain a popular majority already in 2013, but received a majority of seats for technical reasons, because of the way seats were allotted; this time, the same technical rules caused it to lose the parliamentary majority, too.
Some would dispute the designation of Kulanu as centrist, because Kahlon was, not long ago, a Likud minister with no particular record of moderation. But this party ran on a clearly centrist political platform, and, even more importantly, it refused to commit itself, during the campaign, to joining a right-wing coalition.
A candidate with left-wing roots who refused to undertake to unseat Netanyahu, if possible, would not be considered by anyone as belonging to the left. By the same token, a former Likud minister who says that he does not rule out serving in a government headed by Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog is indeed a centrist, and a vote for him should be presumed to have been given for the center, not for the right.
The Israeli electorate has thus moved in recent years, since the 2009 election, to the center. These years have been a turbulent and threatening period of time that might well have been expected to benefit the right. The “Arab spring” that started in 2010 has produced what many call an Islamic winter. Much of the Middle East is in flames. The forces of the “Islamic State’’ are not far from our northern border; they threaten Jordan and from there, potentially, the West Bank.
Repeated rounds of fighting with the Hamas in Gaza, with Israeli cities coming under rocket fire, reminded public opinion of the danger, constantly stressed by the right and Netanyahu personally, that any part of the West Bank evacuated by Israel (at any rate at this point) might fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists and be used to fire on Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport.
People rarely vote for ‘’hope and change’ under such conditions. That the Israeli electorate has nevertheless moved during those years –indeed not to the left, but to the center – is a sign of fundamental pragmatism and moderation.