Despite what you read in your newspapers and saw on TV, as well as the incessant warnings about impending doom from the eventual winner, Israel’s election wasn’t only about Palestinians. Instead, it was a stage in a historic realignment of Israel’s political system.
Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has likely won re-election by frightening enough Israelis over perceived threats from the Palestinians, Iran and ISIS, his victory hands him just one-quarter of the seats in parliament for his party, Likud. Together with his natural ally, Jewish Home, it’s still only a third.
It’s a sign that the emphasis here is changing—slowly, but perceptibly.
For at least half the electorate, the election was about domestic issues like the widening income gap, the impossibly high price of housing and the cost of living in general.
While Western media covered the results of the election by taking out its collective calculator and adding up the blocs in the parliament to judge who’s for peace and who’s against peace, for many Israelis, that’s so last century.
In 2015, there is only one side to the Palestinian issue—the right wing. The left has moved on.
Candidates representing the moderate Zionist Union, headed by Labor, commented on the security issues when asked, but they preferred to talk about domestic issues.
That’s not to say that even a Zionist Union-led government would not be dragged into Palestinian diplomacy by an ever-eager West itching to demand that Israel make concessions, ignoring the fact that Israel has twice offered the Palestinians a viable state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and parts of Jerusalem, in 2000 and 2008—and the Palestinians turned them down.
Not all Israelis in the center and left are as viscerally aware of that as I am, since I’m the reporter who discovered Israel’s 2008 proposal, only to have my employer, The Associated Press, ban me from writing about it.
But many on that side of the aisle are sad members of a club called “Let down by Oslo.” That’s a reference to the peace process that started with secret negotiations in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians in the Norwegian capital and was supposed to result in a peace treaty. As it turned out, the peace process reached its logical conclusion twice—in 2000 and 2008—but didn’t bring peace. The frustration has led many moderate Israelis to throw up their hands in despair and look to solving their own domestic problems instead.
One result of this shift is the declining strength of both main parties, Likud on the right and Labor on the left.
Back in the last century, the two parties together could expect to get about two-thirds of the seats in the parliament. In 2015, the two got less than half.
In the past, it was easy. If you favored a hard line toward the Arabs, you mostly voted Likud. If you preferred compromise, you probably voted Labor. There were satellite parties with similar ideologies, all based on diplomacy. Orthodox Jews and Arabs had their own parties, and that was it.
Occasionally a “centrist” party would surface and do well for a single election, then disappear—because there’s really no center between compromise and no compromise.
Now, parties concentrating on domestic issues are being mislabeled “centrist,” because journalists and analysts can’t get their heads around the fact that Israel’s electoral spectrum is no longer two-dimensional—for peace or against peace.
The process of forming a coalition hasn’t started yet, but it’s already clear that the new government will be a mixture of parties based on diplomacy and parties focusing on domestic issues. A quick analysis shows that at least half the voters made economics their top priority. Pre-election surveys yielded the same results—some placing the Palestinians fourth behind three main domestic issues, all economic—housing, cost of living and income gaps.
What’s going on here is a historic realignment of Israel’s political system away from diplomacy and toward domestic concerns. Most parliaments in the world are elected on economic issues, discounting the pseudo-parliaments divided along religious lines, as in Iraq and Lebanon. In joining the dominant framework, Israel is showing its maturity as a nation.
The realignment is likely to take another decade or more. Until it shakes itself out, the nation will be difficult to govern, because the largest party, whose leader becomes prime minister, will not even have a majority in its own ruling coalition. Governments are doomed to fall every couple of years, and every time they do, and an early election is called, two things will happen:
- More and more Israelis will decide which party to vote for on the basis of pocketbook issues.
- Western media will continue to do its calculations about the significance and meaning of the elections based on their analysis of what each party intends to do about the Palestinians.
This shift will become “official” in the eyes of the world only after the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved and is no longer an issue in Israel’s election campaigns. The results of this election show that enough Israelis care about it in a negative, fearful, threatening way to keep it on the agenda for some time.
But there is likely to be a limit as to how long a significant part of the public can be frightened into ignoring its own needs. And considering the futile state of the “peace process,” the transition from diplomacy-based to economy-based elections here is likely to happen quicker than the blinkered world is ready to acknowledge.