UPDATE: With 95% of the vote counted, Likud’s victory is even more sweeping than reported in this post I wrote earlier. Jerusalem Post reports 30 seats of Likud, 24 for Labor. Kulanu (10), Bayit Yehudi (8), Yisrael Beitenu (6), Meretz (4), Joint List (14), Yesh Atid (11).
Common wisdom says your first impression is always best. This holds true about the Israeli election. A week ago I wrote a post predicting that whatever the result, the Likud and Israeli far-right would win the election, cobble together a governing coalition, and things would go from bad to worse in terms of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, U.S., and rest of the world.
Then earlier today, just a few hours ago, I began hearing about desperate speeches Bibi was making via social media and the press, in which he was pulling out all the racist stops in a last-ditch effort to appeal to the nationalist base and stave off a disaster. My mistake was to believe the polls saying Bibi was finished. I thought his last-minute effort would fail and Bibi would be history.
But the old battle-axe fooled all the analysts and pollsters, who predicted as recently as last Friday a centrist victory and Likud disaster. As usual, Bibi knew his constituency better than the liberals and leftists who hoped for something different. He knew what motivated the average voter. He knew the red-meat phrases that set them salivating. He knew, in short, that fear and racism trumped the public’s growing impatience with his rule.
Bibi’s closing message was, modeled on Louis XIV, “Apres moi, les Arabes!” And it worked. The Guardian reports that Likud has picked up from four-five seats and is either equal to the Zionist Camp of even one seat ahead. Despite the fact that President Rivlin has voiced his strong preference for a national unity government, I think he won’t be able to ignore the huge momentum which caused a 20% shift in voting patterns in the past four days that drew this last-minute surge to the Likud. It has the momentum. Despite my despising Likud and all it stands for, they deserve the right to form the next government.
If they do, it puts a huge windfall in the hands of Moshe Kahlon, who won nine seats. He holds the cards, especially since he’s the only portion of the rightist coalition that bends even slightly toward the center. Kahlon is a Likudist at heart, but a shrewd pragmatic politician. As a minister, he helped break down the cell phone monopoly, which appealed to Israeli consumers and gave him a largely undeserved reputation as a populist concerned with social justice issues.
The last election’s Flavor of the Month, Yair Lapid, tried to take on this issue after his victory. But he took on an economic portfolio without any real power or experience necessary to introduce real reform. If Kahlon is smart, he will negotiate a deal to give himself real power, as opposed to a fig leaf. This will mean that Kahlon could be a provocative member of the governing coalition. He’s also someone with great ambition who wants to be the next prime minister.
If he takes on the social justice-economic reform agenda and succeeds, he could topple the current government at will, bring on elections, and crown himself the next PM. This, of course, depends on his success in the ministerial portfolio he chooses for himself.
There are several losers in this election: Lapid’s causes was reduced from 19 seats to 11. The Joint List only won 12 seats instead of the 13 expected in polls. Lieberman barely crossed the electoral threshold. Though other Israeli politicians have staged comebacks in the past, his days may’ve passed. Labor is a major loser here. It coasted on the polls saying to was sure to win. It, in the form of its campaign leader, Isaac Herzog, offered little new other than an improved relationship with the U.S., continued talking with the Palestinians (but no peace deal), and a turn away from confrontation with Iran to economic issues. Labor’s main platform was: we’re not him. That’s not a platform. That’s an avoidance mechanism. It doesn’t offer a way forward. It offers a way to walk away from the past without pointing to a future.
Israelis haven’t elected a Labor government in fifteen years. And there’s a reason for that. What did Labor offer except a slightly more centrist version of the status quo? There are no Obamas (2008 Obamas, that is) in Labor. There are only stolid organization men and women.
Though Bibi won a victory, he really pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. That’s no great achievement considering this is his third term in office. It’s very likely this will be his last. It leaves the future open to the next rightist demagogue to dominate Israeli politics for the next 20 years. It could be Kahlon or Bennett. It likely won’t be Lieberman. This isn’t a very hopeful prospect. But given the history of the past twenty years, I wouldn’t bet on the hope and change thing for Israel any time soon.
Bibi made a promise to his voters over the past few days that there would be no Palestinian state in his next term. He’s pointedly and publicly renounced his own previous two-state policy and U.S. policy since 1967. Already, Likud hasbara mavens like Gidi Grinstein of Reut Institute have been telling the NY Times that since Bibi is a largely “pragmatic” politician he may yet come back to the two-state position. And the universe may start over with a second Big Bang!
Let’s just say Bibi has an infinitely malleable relation with the truth. He can say anything to anyone and at any time and what he says is worth about as much as the paper it’s written on (or less). In other words, and as Sarkozy told Obama during an unguarded moment: “I can’t bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” To Bibi, of course, truth is relative. His own political interests and the survival of Israel (the two are almost always one and the same) predominate. Truth must serve them. When truth is useful, use it. When it’s not, make up something that sounds like the truth. Enough people will buy it so you can get by.
Given this, there is no room for a relationship with the Obama administration, especially given his Congressional speech and the fallout it evoked. Considering Likud robo-calls which warned voters that “Hussein Obama” would dictate an Israeli capitulation in peace talks, I don’t think there will be any congratulatory phone calls from the White House.
The world will continue turning away from Israel. There will be another war in Gaza or Lebanon (the link is to strategic analysis from a security think tank closely associated with Likudist ideology). After all, Bibi has routinely used Gaza as a punching bag whenever needing to burnish his security credentials. With his shaky government and hold on power, he will have to play the war card, perhaps more than once. While Israel needs war for domestic political purposes, the world doesn’t.
BDS will strengthen. Israel’s isolation will worsen. The UN will continue the process of formalizing Palestinian statehood, perhaps even making it official. The question is which way with the “Hussein Obama” administration go. Will Obama continue the process he’s started of getting a spine? Will he change U.S. policy in the United Nations? Will he allow a statehood vote? Will he change his approach to referral of Israel to the ICC? These are all wild cards. But remember Martin Luther King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice?” Obama’s borrowed it in his second inaugural address. Maybe he’ll remember that the next time he has to make a decision regarding policy toward Israel.