MERIA News Special Issue, Volume 10, Issue 3-10/04/2006
The 17th Knesset elections took place following a series of political events dramatic even by Israeli standards. The Gaza Disengagement Plan brought a new strategic concept of unilateralism to the forefront of Israeli policy thinking.
The political fallout from the introduction of this new policy was the eruption of a bitter dispute within the ruling Likud Party, which had dominated the politics of Israel for a generation, since 1977. The dramatic decision of PM Ariel Sharon to split this party–which he had helped create–made the holding of new parliamentary elections inevitable.
For a time, the results of the March 28, 2006, elections looked like they would be a foregone conclusion, as the new Kadima Party created by Sharon scored commandingly high ratings in opinion polls. The opinion polls in December 2005, consistently predicted a Kadima return of about 40 Knesset seats. Such a mandate would give a firm political base for the further pursuance of Sharon’s chosen strategy. The Prime Minister’s own sudden departure from the political stage, however, in early January, 2006, once more reintroduced an element of unpredictability into the campaign. In the last weeks leading up to the election, the new Kadima Party began to shed significant amounts of support, according to polls. By March 28th, while Kadima was still reckoned the likely victor, the margins of the expected victory had become a matter of central interest.
The predictions of falling support for Kadima proved accurate, and the new party, while victorious, scored far lower than its leaders had hoped, though still sufficient to form a government. This article will focus briefly on each of the party lists in the election, observing their campaign performance and the implications of the outcome.
By far the most significant result of the 17th Knesset elections was, of course, the victory of Kadima – a party which came into existence less than half a year before its assuming power. Observers of Israeli politics had long been aware of the apparent potential for a party of the center, given the distribution of public opinion in Israel. Opinion surveys have consistently confirmed that a sizeable majority of Jewish Israelis favor some form of territorial concessions to the Palestinians but do not accept the assumption that there is a credible Palestinian partner, the idea underlying the 1993 Oslo agreement and those which followed during the 1990s’ peace process.
A party able to present a credible centrist message was thus likely to prove a formidable political force. Efforts in the past to create such a party, however, had proved abortive. Going back as far as the late 1970s, such attempts had fallen on the rocks of entrenched party loyalties in Israel. The Democratic Movement for Change in the 1970s, the Third Way in the early 1990s, the Center Party in the 1990s – all had proved unable to break the two-party-dominant pattern of Israeli politics. Kadima now appears to have achieved this, ushering in a new political map in Israel.
The party’s victory, however, was, as noted above, in far smaller dimensions than had been expected. Kadima’s 29 seats do not enable the party to dictate terms to its coalition partners. Kadima is committed to a strategy of further unilateral concessions as outlined in Ehud Olmert’s Convergence Plan. Given the results, Kadima will have difficulty mustering a majority of Jewish Knesset members to support the Convergence Plan. Kadima, taken together with Labour and the Pensioners’ Party, and assuming support from Meretz from outside of the coalition – amounts to exactly 60 seats. Thus, in order to pass legislation for a further unilateral withdrawal in the Knesset, Ehud Olmert will need the support of at least one of the Ultra-Orthodox parties. This will complicate the coalition negotiations, and may have serious implications for the possibility of a unilateral disengagement on the West Bank.
While Labour’s 19 seats represents a slight decline in the party’s level of Knesset representation, the results have been seen as a vindication of the new direction taken by the party in the period following the victory of former Histadrut (trade union) leader Amir Peretz over Shimon Peres in elections for the party’s leadership. Labour’s campaign certainly represented a new departure for the party. Throughout the campaign, Labour remained consistent in its stressing of socio-economic issues and avoidance of detailed reference to its diplomatic plans and record.
There were two reasons for this strategy. First, the party’s past “dovish” positions were largely viewed as discredited. Second, the party–formerly viewed in Israel as the representative of Israel’s social, economic and security elites–sought to ‘re-brand’ itself as a campaigning social-democratic party. Peretz proved a vigorous and energetic leader. The reception he received in Israel’s periphery and development towns – traditional strongholds of the Likud and Shas–was encouraging for Labour.
Labour strategists believe that their campaign successfully identified a growing interest among the public in seeing increased emphasis on social and internal issues in the political discussion, based partly on the fact that Kadima did represent a basic consensus regarding regional and security policies. As such, while this time around the results constituted only a bare holding of ground by Labour, there is a general sense in the party that Labour is on the right road to constituting a key force in a transformed Israeli political map.
For Likud, the 17th Knesset elections resulted in a very severe defeat, and the termination of this party’s role as the dominant force in Israeli politics. This was a role which Likud had held in essence since its first election victory in 1977. In the period 1977-2006, Likud had been a presence in government for all but seven years (1992-6, and 1996-9). For the entirety of its period in government, with the arguable exception of the 1984-6 period, Likud had constituted the dominant element in the coalition. As such, for this previously mighty political party to see its support eroded to a level of 12 Knesset seats constitutes a bitter blow.
The Likud’s campaign, in direct contrast to Labour’s, sought to concentrate almost exclusively on diplomatic and security matters, as well as striking all the party’s traditional themes. Following the victory of the Islamist Hamas movement in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections on January 25th, 2006, at the beginning of the Israeli election campaign, Likud made the Hamas issue a central part of its campaign. The slogan adopted by the party was: “Likud: strong against Hamas.” The Likud campaign attempted to portray Kadima’s Convergence plan as a dangerous policy of concessions which would allow Israel’s enemies, including Iran, to move into the vacuum left by further unilateral withdrawals. The campaign also included a singling out of Olmert, and a comparison of his record with that of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader.
The Likud campaign nevertheless proved unsuccessful. Netanyahu’s problems were two-fold. In the first place, his own recent term as finance minister, while judged successful in overall economic terms, had led to hardship and resentment among precisely those sections of the population among whom Likud relied for its core support. Netanyahu tried to address this issue in the course of the campaign by explaining what he portrayed as the desperate situation of the economy prior to his arrival at the finance ministry. But his explanations appear to have failed to convince. This also carried the political advantage of his making direct attacks on his predecessor in that job, Silvan Shalom, who also happens to be his main rival for the Likud leadership.
The large number of Israelis who approved of Netanyahu’s economic measures, meanwhile, appear to have been unconvinced by his hard-line views on the diplomatic process. The center-right credentials of Kadima’s leaders may have rendered them less vulnerable to attacks from the right on the charge of being naive on matters of security. The downfall of the once-dominant Likud is one of the central outcomes of the elections of 2006.
One of the surprise success stories of the elections was the historically rightist Yisrael Beiteinu list, headed by former transport minister and prime minister’s office director-general Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, an immigrant from Kishinev in Moldova, relied heavily on the support of voters hailing from the former Soviet Union.
Yisrael Beiteinu’s program, however, did not focus mainly on the parochial concerns of the immigrants. Instead, Lieberman’s party showcased its original, deeply controversial plan for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lieberman professes opposition to the unilateralism of Kadima. At the same time, his party’s plan envisages the creation of a Palestinian state. Lieberman recommends, however, a series of border adjustments which would place Arab towns currently in Israel within the borders of the future Palestinian state. Such a notion represents a major departure from the traditional thinking of the Israeli right.
The second surprise success story of the 17th Knesset elections was the totally unpredicted achievement of 7 Knesset seats by the Pensioners’ list, led by former senior security official Rafi Eitan. The Pensioners’ success may be seen as evidence of a shift toward a greater presence of social and economic issues on the Israeli electoral stage. Pensioners in Israel have been hard-hit in the process of economic reform. There is high public support for the restoration of at least some aspects of the benefits denied them by the recent overhaul of the welfare system in Israel. In this respect, the success of Rafi Eitan’s list may be classified alongside the respectable showing of Amir Peretz’s Labour Party. The Pensioners’ also benefited from a certain element of a protest vote from younger Israelis. This latter element is also of significance – coming together with the low number of eligible voters participating in the election (just under 63%), and the general, much-noted indifference toward the campaigns of the various parties.
The achievement of 12 seats by the Sephardi, Ultra-Orthodox Shas list represents a significant success for party leader Eli Yishai. Long in the shadow of his charismatic predecessor, Aryeh Deri, Yishai may now claim to have won an impressive endorsement from the voting public, which will give Shas the bargaining power it needs in order to acquire resources for the social and economic structures which are the basis for its support.
Shas is a unique presence in Israeli politics, combining as it does religious ultra-Orthodoxy with a clear ethnic message to poor, Sephardi voters. The party’s voting base is considered both more secular, and more hawkish than the party leadership. As a non-Zionist force, Shas does not rule out the possibility of territorial concessions. The party’s focus is not on external issues and matters of land, but rather on the maintenance of the educational and social structures it has created for the maintenance of religious observance among its public. As such, Shas is a possible contender for participation in a Kadima-led government. Shas is known to be particularly concerned to re-enter government at the present time, because of its need for patronage for its educational and social structures. The party does not operate on a democratic basis, however, and the final decision on joining the coalition will be taken by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the movements’ founder and overall leader.
The achievement of 9 seats will be a disappointing result for the leaders of the newly merged National Religious party and National Union lists. The 2006 elections were the first occasion when the two parties had run together on a single list. The joining of NRP with NU represented the coming together of the traditional sectional party of Israel’s religious Zionist population (NRP), with lists associated with the hard right of the political spectrum (NU).
Historically, the NRP has represented the communal interests of “modern Orthodox” (dati) Israelis who combined nationalism and membership in that group. Its main purpose was to serve its constituency, though increasingly the party became close to a single-issue party supporting the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The NU has been an explicitly right-wing nationalist party which criticized Likud as too willing to make concessions.
Since there is a large overlap between these two parties’ supporters, the unification made a certain amount of electoral sense. However, in the 16th Knesset, the National Union (which then included Avigdor Lieberman) had 7 seats, while the NRP had 6. So the 9 seats achieved by the new party represents less than had been hoped for, while still leaving the NRP/NU a significant presence in a somewhat fragmented Knesset containing a large number of medium-sized lists.
United Torah Judaism
With 6 seats, representing Israel’s Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox communities, the UTJ faction has predictably roughly maintained its previous level of support (the faction had 5 seats in the 16th Knesset.) The non-Zionist UTJ is in politics mainly to safeguard the educational and social interests of the population it represents, and is likely to support any government formed, without taking up ministerial posts, in return for guarantees to maintain allocations in this regard.
With 5 seats, compared to 6 in the previous Knesset, the left-wing, secular Meretz list may be included among the losing parties in the 2006 elections. Campaigning on a combined diplomatic and socio-economic program, the party suffered, according to a number of activists, from a set of problems which in a way mirrored those experienced by the Likud on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Party leader Yossi Beilin is associated in the eyes of the public to whom Meretz’s social and economic policies might be thought to appeal with a diplomatic stance of being too trusting in the Palestinians and too eager to make concessions or take dangerous risks. On a broader level, Beilin is seen–rightly or wrongly–as a representative of Israel’s social elites. The Geneva and Oslo Accords which the party favors, meanwhile, are discredited in the eyes of a large number of centrist Israeli voters, who consider that they are based on the illusion of a credible peace partner, where none actually exists.
United Arab List-Arab Renewal
This combined list, which includes former PLO Advisor Dr. Ahmed Tibi, as well as Taleb a-Sana’a of Israel’s Beduin minority, and a number of prominent Islamist activists, has now emerged as the largest of the lists representing Israel’s Arab citizens. This is the most traditional-oriented of the three lists representing Arab Israelis, and supports, among other things, greater powers of jurisdiction for Islamic courts.
The list was formed by the merger of Ahmed Tibi’s Arab Renewal movement with the United Arab List – which is dominated by the southern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Led by Ibrahim Sarsur, the list is particularly popular among Israel’s Beduin population. The fact that it has now eclipsed the two more secular-oriented Arab Israeli lists is a significant development in the elections which has been unjustly ignored in coverage of the results.
Hadash is the list of Israel’s communist party, campaigning on a combined program of support for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a social democratic economic platform. For historic reasons, the communist party was for a time the central focus of electoral support for Israel’s Arab citizens. Today, its fortunes are declining, though it is likely to remain as a marginal force on the political map.
National Democratic Assembly (3)
The National Democratic Assembly, led by Dr. Azmi Bishara, is a more Arab nationalist-oriented list, which stresses the need to end Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Bishara has attracted controversy in recent years, due to his outspoken support for Arab nationalist causes, and his direct challenges to the basic symbolism and identity of the State of Israel.
A high level of apathy and indifference were to be found among Arab voters in the 17th Knesset elections, with a large number dissatisfied at the performance of their representatives, and not convinced that their representatives are able significantly to influence the political process.
RESULTS OF THE MARCH 28, 2006 ISRAEL PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS –
IN PARENTHESES, NUMBER OF SEATS HELD BY PARTY IN THE 16TH KNESSET
Kadima: 29 (–)
Labour: 19 (19)
Likud: 12 (38)
Shas: 12 (11)
Yisrael Beiteinu: 11 (–)
NRP/National Union: 9 (7)
Pensioners: 7 (–)
United Torah Judaism: 6 (5)
Meretz: 5 (6)
United Arab List-Arab Renewal: 4 (2)
National Democratic Assembly: 3 (3)
Hadash: 3 (3)
The 17th Knesset elections have given political expression to an emerging centrist consensus in Israel on the key issues that have defined the Israeli political divide for a generation. There is a sense in which it is felt that the old dreams of both the Israeli left and right – the ‘New Middle East’ and the ‘Whole Land of Israel,’ – have not stood the test of reality. As such, a cautious approach to external affairs – not ruling out concessions but not expecting a final status accord in the immediate future – has emerged. The existence of this new consensus makes possible the entry into the discussion of key domestic issues which could not previously make themselves heard above the impassioned debate for and against territorial compromise. Hence the notably greater importance and weight afforded internal issues this time around when compared to previous election campaigns.
The relatively low turnout in the elections, and the much remarked upon growing sense of apathy and disillusionment with the political class – which also gave rise to protest votes such as for the Pensioners’ Party, were also particularly notable aspects of these elections. Finally, the growing estrangement of Arab Israeli voters from the political process, and the growth in power of the Islamist-influenced United Arab List must be a matter for concern and attention.