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Israel’s Elections: Dirty Tricks and Rearranging Deck Chairs

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Richard Silverstein
Jan 23, 2013

Yes, that title is a bit harsh.  But we’ll get to that later.  There is much to say about the results of today’s Israeli election. But in essence, very little has changed and what little has–not for the better.

Let’s start with winners and losers.

Losers: Bibi big time. Lieberman, though less so. They both negotiated a Grand Strategy of joining forces before the elections, expecting that merging would add votes and bring a homogenous right-wing majority. That approach was resoundingly rejected by voters. It might have worked if they’d offered a compelling campaign message or party platform. But the only thing Bibi offered was a new Sinai fence and appointing a Likud moderate (Moshe Kahlon) to sell Likud as caring for the downtrodden. Who was that supposed to motivate?

Among the other losers was Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party. She ran a single issue campaign: social/economic issues. This might’ve worked except that Labor hasn’t been convincing on these issues since it was last a truly left-wing party, which goes back several decades. No Israeli sees Labor as truly caring about anyone other than well-heeled fellow-Ashkenazi Jews. Labor did better than the last election, but not as well as expected.  Shelly renounced the Conflict and even said Labor wasn’t a left-wing party.  If Labor isn’t left-wing, then what is it?  Nothing.

Another modest loser was Naftali Bennett. He was supposed to be the rising star of the far-right. As voters abandoned Likud, they were supposedly flocking farther to the right. Polls predicted Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party would gain 16 seats, when he actually won 12. On the other hand, for a guy who founded his own party and came from virtually nowhere, it’s not a terrible showing. Those who follow internal Israeli right-wing politics speculated that a big Bennett win would set up a challenge for leadership in four years between Bennett and Lieberman. But this is not the sort of win that creates a kingmaker.

Winners: First and foremost, Yair Lapid. His centrist Yesh Atid party won far more seats (19) than expected. He is certainly the kingmaker of this election. In fact some, who I believe are stretching things a bit, say he could become prime minister of a center-left coalition. Barrring that, he will make or break Bibi’s next government. If he joins, then Netanyahu has a center-right coalition government without any need for Shas or religious parties. If Lapid refuses (which seems unlikely to me given how grasping Israeli political parties are for power and perks), then Bibi must cobble together a coalition with Bennett and the religious parties.

Lapid is a smooth, handsome former TV newscaster (like his father) who decided the nation needed him in the Knesset (like his father).  But unlike his father, who founded the centrist, secular Shinui Party, Lapid has no discernible platform or policy.  He’s for the average guy is the best I can make out.  But he was a breath of fresh air compared to hacks like Bibi and Avigdor, and that’s why Israelis desperate for something different embraced him.

Another big winner was Meretz. It ran a vivid, intense social media campaign visible all over sites like Facebook. You couldn’t miss the Party’s green logo and catchy slogans. This, along with the desperation of the left-wing voter at the political ascendancy of a vicious, strident right-wing political movement, motivated the Meretz voter. It gained seven seats, a number it (or its predecessor parties) hasn’t seen in decades.  My only problem with Meretz, and it’s a big one, is that it too has no real vision for the future of the State of Israel that is anything other than a Jewish state.  You can see that by the fact that whenever Israel goes to war, no matter how unjust the cause, Meretz is right there waving the flag.  They did it in 2006 during the Lebanon War, then in 2009 during Cast Lead.  Meretz was modestly critical during the last Gaza adventure, which was an improvement.  But just barely.  Nevertheless, credit should be offered to the Party for doing something few other parties did–they ran a campaign about issues that mattered.

Now a word about a Party that was a loser–and also a winner.  Eretz Chadasha ran a brash, in-your-face campaign attacking corruption, economic stagnation, and oligarchy.  Polls I reported yesterday predicted it would win between two and four seats.  But as of now, it didn’t.  Why?  Now, that’s an interesting question.

Israel may forbid reporting of election surveys within five days of an election, but it doesn’t forbid dirty tricks of which there were many attacking Eretz Chadasha.  Instead of banning election surveys authorities might want to think about banning the U.S. equivalent of robocalling.  This one recounts a call a Party voter received (listing the cell phone number from which it originated):

The last poll done last night reveals the following parties will not pass the threshold: Kadima, Am Shalem, Eretz Chadasha.  Every wasted vote is a vote for Bibi.

Who do you think such tactics benefit?  My guess is Labor, but it could be any number of parties.

Yesterday, I reported polling stations where there were no ballots for the Party’s voters.  They were told by officials in some cases that the national election committee had told them the Party had withdrawn from the race.  Even B’Tselem’s Jessica Montel tweeted expressing some disbelief in the Party’s claims.  The accompanying image is of a polling station displaying the voting papers for the various parties.  The Eretz voting symbol was a Zayin (“Z”).  There is no Zayin ballot in this image.  Itay Adam, the Party’s campaign manager, sent me numerous SMS messages (one,twothreefour) from would-be voters living in different communities saying they were told they couldn’t (or shouldn’t) vote for the Party.

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t

Further, my well-placed Israeli source is privy to polling that was done by a competing Party during election day.  The pollster asked voters if they’d changed their mind at the last-minute.  Many Eretz potential voters were convinced by the aggressive campaign of center-left bloc parties against Yaniv’s party, fearing that voting for it would waste their voice and weaken the entire bloc. Most of these votes went to Lapid, giving him 1 additional seat.

Did Eretz’s political enemies steal its seats?  Hard to tell.  But my guess is that they sufficiently suppressed their vote so as to deprive them of the two seats they stood to gain, according to one poll I reported yesterday.

Why is Eretz Chadasha a winner?  Because it showed a vigorous political campaign can be run without major media exposure.  The Party used ten videos called The Method to present its platform.  The videos were compelling, even shocking.  And that impressed voters.  This Party proved that the J14 movement and its issues still resonated with voters.

Commenters here have gotten the impression that I endorsed the Party.  They should understand the difference between being a blogger and a citizen.  As a blogger, my job is to highlight important social and political issues.  In doing that I sometimes present ideas or figures I agree with and sometimes I discuss issues or individuals who I may feel are important, but with whom I’m not fully in accord.  I hope I made clear that while I thought Eretz Chadasha was an important social phenomenon, it was far too early to judge whether it would be effective.  Were I an Israeli citizen, I probably would’ve voted for a different Party.  But I thought what Eretz was doing was important and should be highlighted.

Finally, let’s address the issue of Israeli Palestinian voters.  Voting in this community has gradually declined over the years as it has soured on its compact with the Jewish majority. Electoral politics have gained Palestinians very little over the years. Levels of public funding were low and remained so. Public services, minimal and never improved. Palestinian MKs were continuously under police investigation for their political activities (one, Azmi Bishara, was even driven into exile). When not under interrogation ,invective and threats were hurled at them in the halls of the Knesset by Arab-hating MKs like Lieberman and his flock. In short, the State gave this voter no reason to care. And until someone presents a vision of Israel as a truly democratic state with full rights for all, Palestinian abstentions will fall even lower in future.

I read an interesting Facebook post by an Israeli political consultant who works for Labor and Meretz candidates.  He argued, quite reasonably, that the Jewish left cannot win an election without a vigorous Palestinian vote.  Unfortunately, he didn’t address how to achieve this.  But this is crucial.  It goes to the heart of the failing of the current Israeli political system.  It cannot be a democracy because it doesn’t treat Palestinians as equal citizens.  These members of Israel’s largest religious-ethnic minority will, as I wrote, vote with their vote against a State which treats them so miserably.  There is only one way to bring them back into the system: create a State that embraces them fully.

There is currently one party that embraces Jews and Palestinians as equal political partners: Chadash.  But it wins only four votes in every election.  So the chances of masses of Israeli Jews flocking to Chadash and clamoring for transformation of Israeli society are slim to none.  There is one way this could change.  If Israel annexes the West Bank.  Then Israelis could wage a full-scale battle calling for awarding everyone citizenship and full democratic rights.

Returning to the “deck chairs” motif from the headline: until Israel becomes a truly democratic state, I would maintain that electoral politics is an empty gesture.  No one MK can change the basic nature of the State.  The only thing the Knesset can do is make things worse.  But not better.  Liberal Zionists seem to wait with bated breath before every election wishing and hoping for a miracle.  Perhaps Labor will win.  Then things will be better.  So goes the mantra.  But Labor cannot win.  And even if it could, its policies would be little changed from Likud’s.

The last time a Labor government had a chance to really change things was Yitzhak Rabin’s in 1995.  Adherents of the same movement in power now made sure he never succeeded by killing him.

This article was posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 5:57 am

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