March the 18th 2015 Israel woke up to a surprising elections’ result. What seemed to be a turning point in Israeli politics resulted in the validation of an establishment that has been leading the country for the last six years. In what the very first exit polls presented as a tight race, Likud emerged once again as the strongest party in Israel, securing 30 seats.
Herzog and Livni’s Zionist Union followed with 24 seats, while the Arab parties’ Joint List kept its promises, ending up being the third major force in the 20th Knesset with 13 seats. Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid also went on to gain 11 seats. Kulanu, a freshly born party founded by Moshe Kahlon, former Minister of Welfare and Minister of Communications, won 10 Knesset seats. The right wing Habeyt Hayehudi, led by the religious multimillionaire Naftali Bennet, ended up with 8 seats, whereas the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism respectively gained 7 and 6 seats. Avigdor Lieberman‘s Yisrael Beiteinu managed to pass the electoral threshold winning 6 seats, whilst Meretz, the ‘hope’ of the Israeli Zionist Liberal Left, gained a disappointing 5 seats.
This result represents a rather huge surprise, given that the last polls published before the voting started were projecting a completely different scenario, giving Herzog’s/Livi’s Zionist Union a lead of at least 3 seats ahead of Likud. In fact, on March 12th, the day on which the very last polls were published, Likud was given 21 seats only. Israel usually depends greatly on pre-elections polls, which had been proven to have a very narrow error margin until now.
Looking back over the past 2 months’ electoral campaign, it seemed to be clear how tired Israel was of Netanyahu’s government. The focus, from both the center-leftist and purely centrist parties was on public dissatisfaction, caused by what we could call ‘first world’ problems. Social and economic welfare issues, with particular emphasis on the cost of living and housing, was a common thread seen through the electoral campaign, even for ultra-orthodox parties.
In Israel, half of the population struggles to get through its monthly expenses with an average of NIS 6800 in outgoings ($1800). The cost of housing has risen by 84% in the last couple of years and the wealthier set in the country earns nearly 14 times that of the less fortunate. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the entire electoral campaign was strongly based around these issues, with the hope to build stronger ties between the state and the people.
During this elections’ campaign, every sign seemed to lead to an inevitable change in the Israeli leadership. From the early stages, the Zionist Union centred its campaign on the ‘it’s us or Bibi‘ slogan. They tried using Israeli people’s disappointment to gain strength and portrayed each and every measure taken by the past Likud government as a failure, encouraging the public to realise that a change was needed.
The biggest and clearest sign of people’s disappointment towards Netanyahu‘s leadership was a demonstration held on the 7th of March in Tel Aviv. On this occasion thousands of people took the street and gathered in Rabin Square to show their discontent, calling for a change within Israeli politics. Again the focus was centred on economic issues and their impact on everyday life, criticizing the way in which security and foreign relations have been managed by Netanyahu at the expense of people’s interests.
This approach was pictured as negligent by the opposition parties (as well as most of Israeli media), through a series of official reports, such as that on housing published by the State Controller, clearly exposing the government’s responsibility in the current economic situation of the country. This, together with a very detailed economic program published by the opposition, focusing on housing, health, education and cost of living, made the public opinion think that the Zionist Union was presenting a clear and effective alternative to what Israelis have been exposed to and experiencing for the last six years.
On the other end, Netanyahu’s electoral campaign chose to focus on different aspects, mainly by mocking his opponents. In a series of video advertisements, the Likud deployed all its means in order to present how disastrous the outcome would have been should the Zionist Union be elected. This party was pictured as childish, unexperienced and not really worried about Israeli people, one that could have led Israel to chaos in an already unstable regional landscape. This strategy helped in creating uncertainty within the Israeli public, mining their will to choose the unknown against the disappointing yet certain and well known strength of Netanyahu’s government.
Moreover, Israelis do not forget about Palestine. The issue of occupied territories was the big elephant in the room for most of the electoral campaign, left aside and sometimes even completely ignored by most of the political parties. Only its direct impact on the life of Israeli citizens was discussed, i.e. the security budget, given that in any other respect the average Israeli would have been touched by parties’ intension to negotiate for peace.
An interesting fact to be considered in light of the elections’ result is the statement released by the Likud that withdrew what Netanyahu said during his Bar Ilan speech in 2009. Specifically, this statement was interpreted as follow: the possibility of a demilitarised Palestinian State recognising the existence of a Jewish state, mentioned in the 2009 speech, was no longer considered. This reading was not denied by Netanyahu’s office or by the Likud until after the elections, as an obvious denial of the possibility for a Palestinian State to be formed and an official end for peace negotiations. These declarations, made just a couple of days before the polling stations officially opened, resulted in boosted support for Bibi, contributing in ensuring him the victory. A factor which suggests which one is the primary attitude towards any possible peace negotiation among Israeli people.
Whilst nearly every party stressed on its Zionist nature, de facto marginalising, sometimes excluding, Israeli Arabs from the picture, the real surprise of the 2015 Israeli elections is the strength gained by the Arab parties, which are now the third major force in the Knesset, even if they are unlikely to be part of the next governmental coalition. In fact, the law raising the electoral threshold, a move initially intended to exclude minor parties from the Knesset, ended up paving the way for a more effective representation of Arabs within that very region. 20% of the Israeli population has been relegated to the margins of the decision making process, until now.
At the time of writing, President Reuven Rivlin is starting meetings with representatives of the major political forces that are to recommend who is the most suitable candidate to form the next government. The President will then announce who will be given the task to form a coalition capable of governing with a majority of 61 Knesset’s seats. The ‘man in charge’ is obviously expected to be Netanyahu, who will easily form a government with the support of right-wing, ultra-orthodox, and centrist parties.
Within this scenario, although it is easy to predict how the next government will be formed and who will form it, it remains hard to guess whether the political, social, and economic situation in Israel will stay the same. What both Arab and Jewish Israelis have learned so far is to keep their expectations low. It is when expectations and hopes are raised that the biggest disappointment waits around the corner.
Editor for Middle East at Asfar