A Likud party supporter holds a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 21, 2013 in Jerusalem
The left wing parties did not manage to take advantage of the ruling Likud’s poor performance in the Israeli election. Why? A continued rejection of the brand left wing and politicians and parties associated with it, writes Dr Josef Olmert in a post-election analysis. © AFP
A Likud party supporter holds a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 21, 2013 in Jerusalem
Last updated: April 29, 2013

Likud lost, the left did not win

Banner Icon Israeli politics The left wing parties did not manage to take advantage of the ruling Likud’s poor performance in the Israeli election. Why? A continued rejection of the brand left wing and politicians and parties associated with it, writes Dr Josef Olmert in a post-election analysis.

The Israeli elections ended almost precisely as predicted by repeated polls during the campaign. The combined bloc of Netanyahu’s Likud and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu remains the largest single party, though its loss of seats somewhat exceeded the already pessimistic predictions during the campaign.

Neither was there a surprise regarding the major success of the new right-wing/religious star Naftali Bennett whose revamped Jewish Home party gained 7 seats. Altogether, when all said and counted, taking into consideration the soldiers as well, who traditionally vote for the right wing/religious parties, the old Netanyahu coalition may have lost 2-3 seats only.

But in this case, the numbers may be misleading as these missing seats will deprive Netanyahu of the ability to re-establish his nationalist/right wing coalition, forcing him to turn to other possible partners. It is here where the real surprise occurred – both in terms of the big winner of this elections and the political trend which is associated with the winner.

Yair Lapid, a TV presenter and the son of former Justice Minister Tomi (Yosef) Lapid, established a new party, Yesh Atid (“we have a future”), out of the ruins of the Kadimah Party, and polled 19 seats. Lapid is at the very center of Israeli politics. He shied away, as if from a plague, from the brand left wing, which some commentators tried to attach to him. As soon as the election was over, his surrogates went over board to affirm the fact that the young, charismatic new leader is deeply rooted in the center of Israeli society and politics.

Lapid is a conservative right wing politician as far the economy is concerned, dovish on the Palestinian issue, proponent of the two state solution and an opponent of settlement expansion, yet all this is always presented with a very strong hawkish emphasis on security matters, including unconditional support to the Gaza wars in both 2009 and 2012. Moreover, the rhetoric used to justify both the political dovish approach as well as the hawkish security policies is classic Zionist narrative, reflecting a profound belief in the just cause of Israel and the Zionist ideology.

Just like his late father, Lapid is a strong critic of the role of the religious parties in public life, particularly the sweeping exemption from military service which is almost automatically granted to many thousands of Yeshiva (religious schools) students. But, while he is portrayed by the religious establishment as a sworn enemy, he is not at odds with religious people as such. In fact, he has religious members, including a rabbi, in his parliamentary caucus.

The answer is that the Israeli voter continues to reject the brand left wing and politicians and parties associated with it. Tzipi Livni herself rejected the brand, though espousing distinctly dovish positions. Yet, her stands on the economy are distinctly conservative, free-market oriented, without a shred of leftism. What proved to be her Achilles heel in the campaign was the emphasis on the two states solution, something that seemed to belie her overall centrist image, and made her look more leftist than she really is.

Then there is the Labor party under Shelly Yechimovitz, like Lapid a former TV presenter. She, unlike Livni, did not emphasize the Palestinian question, but defined herself as left wing on the economy. What she may have gained by her moderate positions regarding the Palestinian situation, she lost by adopting leftist economic rhetoric, and by doing so, giving credence to allegations levelled at her from the right that she is RED in disguise…

Meretz made no bones about being left wing; extremely dovish, socialist and anti-religious. No surprises there, no gimmicks, the only party defining itself as left wing.

So, some mathematics is in place here to explain the final score of Livni, Labor, Meretz and Lapid. The Kadimah party had 28 seats in the outgoing Knesset. It gained only 2 now. Livni, previous leader of Kadimah polled 6, Yechimovitz, boasting before the elections that she would double her tally from 13 to 25, ended up with only 15. Meretz had 3 and now has 6. Lapid gained the rest, taking 2-3 seats from Likud voters who were not unduly worried by his centrist positions.

If, on the other hand, we lump Livni, Yechimovitz and Meretz together as left wing, they have 27 seats in the new Knesset. Not a number to be dismissed – but Livni simply resists the definition, leaving only Yechimovitz and Meretz in that column. Together they now have 21, a net gain of 5, still a great political failure, the magnitude of which can be illustrated by the fact that the mother-parties of them polled 65 seats in the first Knesset elections in 1949. So, the historic trend is clear. History aside, what was proved on 22 January 2013 is that the Israeli centrist voter, whose existence was dramatically in display as judged by the performance of Lapid, simply does not want to turn left.

All the polls taken in Israel show consistently that at least half of the population does support the two states solution. A bonus to the left? In theory, but not in practice, as a much bigger number of Israelis do not believe that it is a possible, realistic solution due to what the vast majority of Israelis perceive to be Palestinian intransigence, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, or outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist, as in the case of Hamas.

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The far left tends to ignore all this and pin the full blame on Israel. Bad politics in a country living under the shadow of an on-going world criticism. The soft left, Labor under Yechimovitz, seems to try and pretend that the problem somehow is going to be resolved, again bad politics, because it offends those hard-core leftists who vote Meretz, and moderate, centrists who suspect that they do not get the true Labor position. Add up to this rejection of socialist solutions to the socioeconomic woes of the country, and we have the reason as to why the Israeli left wing was left on the sidelines, when so many Knesset seats became vacant.

Josef Olmert
Dr. Josef Olmert is Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina. A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities. He has served in senior positions in the Israeli government. Dr. Olmert was a participant at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and subsequent Israeli/Syrian peace talks.
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