2013 Israeli Parliamentary Elections: More the Same in a Totally New Game

As the day progressed yesterday, it became increasingly apparent that the supposedly boring and predictable Israeli parliamentary elections might not turn out that way. We are thus very pleased to have the first of two post-election reports to present today in our election reports seriesfrom George Washington University political scientist Evgeny Finkel.

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The 2013 Israeli elections, which were expected to be uneventful and predictable, almost led to a tie between the Benjamin Netanyahu-led right wing block and its rivals on the center-left of the Israeli political map and substantially changed the distribution of power in the parliament. As of now, 99 % of the votes have been counted, so the overall picture is clear. This post is not a detailed post-election report, which will certainly be warranted when we have the final numbers. Rather, it is a collection of thoughts and reflections about the likely outcome and the ways in which these elections differed from the previous ones. For background information on the parties and the key events that took place since the last election in 2009, I encourage you to read the pre-election report by Hebrew University’s Reuven Hazan.

The 19th Knesset, a 120-member unicameral legislature, is going to look more or less like this:

  • Likud Our Home, created by a merger of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud with Lieberman’s Our Home Israel – 31 seats (down from combined 42 seats won in 2009)

  • There is a Future (Yesh Atid), a brand new anti-Orthodox party headed by Yair Lapid, catering to the interests of the Jewish secular middle class – 19 seats

  • Labor Party  – 15 seats (up from 13 in 2009)

  • Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party, supported mainly by the Sephardic Jews – 11 seats (no change from 2009)

  • Jewish Home, a right wing, hawkish party with a strong religious component – 11 seats (up from 3 in 2009 )

  • United Torah Judaism, and ultra-Orthodox religious party – 7 seats (up from 5 in 2009)

  • The Movement (Hatnuah), a new center-left party, established by the former Foreign Minister and the Kadima leader Tzipi Livni – 6 seats

  • The left-wing Meretz ­– 6 seats (up from 3 in 2009)

  • Kadima, which was the largest party in 2009 with 28 seats, was virtually wiped out, and barely passes the electoral threshold with expected 2 seats

  • The Arab parties: United Arab List—Ta’al, and Balad, and the ethnically mixed, but predominantly Arab Hadash are expected to have 12 seats combined (up from 11 in the 18th Knesset).

In sum – Likud Our Home decisively won the election. Currently, the only person that can prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from continuing being the Prime Minister is Benjamin Natanyahu himself. Given the staunch anti-Orthodox stands of Lapid and his party, there is virtually no way in which the center-left parties can form the government, even if they rely on the Arab parties to provide outside support for the Lapid-Labor-Livni-Meretz coalition. At the same time, Likud Our Home also lost the election. Benjamin Netanyahu was essentially running against himself. His two main rivals, Lapid and the Labor Party leader Shelly Yechimovich are political novices, TV and radio hosts with zero experience in the government or in the military; hardly an asset in the country where many people are confident that when it comes to state’s survival, the leaders’ first major mistake might well be the last one. Yet, the combined Likud-Israel Our Home list received only four seats more than Likud alone managed to win in 2009. As this is a combined list, out of thirty-one seats only about twenty will go to Likud proper, and it is unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to effectively control his party’s increasingly hawkish and radical faction that demonstrates its substantial shift to the right.

Building on the perceived lack of any viable alternatives to Netanyahu’s leadership, and presenting him as the only candidate capable of dealing with Israel’s security challenges, firsts and foremost the Iranian nuclear program, the Likud Our Home campaign strategy sought to put the political system into the hibernation mode and cruise safely to victory. As a result, with the exception of an openly-offensive-bordering-racist Shas ad on marriages and conversion to Judaism, the campaign was exceptionally dull and boring, especially by the Israeli standards. Netanyahu refused to participate in debates with other parties’ leaders and his party’s campaign was virtually non-existent. It is possible that I mistake overconfidence and arrogance for a strategy, but one way or the other Netanyahu’s famous rhetorical and drawing skills could have been put to a much better use. The strategy failed to produce the desired result because a large portion of the political debate, especially among young people and left wing groups, moved to on-line forums where it proved to be quite effective. While the Likud constituency seemed to fall asleep in front of their TV sets, the opposition mobilized on Facebook.

I don’t know whether 2013 will be remembered as the “Facebook election,” but it is clear that social networks and new media did play an important role in this mobilization effort, which should not be surprising in a technologically developed country like Israel. In the last couple of days, the Israeli segment of Facebook was virtually flooded with Meretz, Lapid, and Labor supporters mobilizing, organizing, and convincing one another that victory is possible. When all these people showed up at the polling stations in the morning, the Likud leadership was first stunned, later alarmed, and finally somewhat helpless. The final turnout was precisely 66.6%. It was only slightly higher than the 65.2% turnout in 2009, but the total numbers are somewhat misleading. Until 8pm, the turnout was 4-5% higher than in 2009 and the highest since 1999 (the election which Netanyahu lost). According to the preliminary data, this time around the turnout was unexpectedly high in places that traditionally vote for the center-left. Those who were determined to organize to vote showed up early, alarming the Likud, and using Facebook and the Likud leaders’ concerned statements to urge even more centrist and left-wing Israelis to cast their vote because a change of government seemed to be quite a real possibility.

Finally, social scientists will find the 2013 election particularly interesting in two more respects – the impact of US-Israel relations on Israeli domestic policy, and the linkage between war and electoral outcomes. In the past, putting relations with the US on a collision course was a sure way for an Israeli leader to lose elections. It seems that this time sour relations with President Obama did not harm Netanyahu, and possibly even helped him. It is also unclear (at least to me) whether having a mini-war in the midst of the election campaign actually affected the outcome. Probably not much, if at all, but not having the data I would state again that this is only speculation. The questions of audience costs and the connection between wars and electoral performance have been extensively debated in the US context (here, here, here). Now scholars can test their hypotheses on another case.

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