Most public opinion polls predicted a landslide victory for the right wing in Israel’s recent elections given its secular and religious divisions. However, 48 hours before the start of the ballot, the electoral scene shifted and word of the decline of the Likud-Beiteinu Bloc, led by Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, began to spread. On the other hand, the new centre party, Yesh Atid, led by the former journalist, Yair Lapid, and the left-wing party, Meretz, started to take the lead.
The final result embodied the predictions made by the last public opinion polls. The right wing and centre (including the left) were both rewarded and were almost equal in the number of seats they won leaving Netanyahu without a sufficient margin for manoeuvre.
Why did Netanyahu and his allies decline?
Prominent commentator at Yediot Aharonot Newspaper, Nahum Barnea, answered this question previously and the final results confirmed his predictions. According to him, “One of the interesting characteristics of the 2013 elections lies in the inability of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud – Beiteinu alliance to pique the interest of the public. Apparently, the reason for this is the sense of boredom felt by the public as a result of seeing the same faces and experiencing the same political manoeuvres.”
Therefore, in Barnea’s opinion, feelings of boredom pushed several large sections of the public into supporting other parties and new leaders, such as Yesh Atid, HaBayit HaYehudi and Labour parties.
There is also another reason for the decline of Netanyahu and his allies – Israel’s economic crisis which Netanyahu tried to cover up prior to the elections. According to Yediot Ahronot, it became clear that Netanyahu tried and failed to prevent the Bank of Israel from publishing its report 2 weeks before polling day as he is demanding an increase in the percentage of public tax and is making large cuts in the budget in order to lower the deficit.
At the end of 2012, the deficit amounted to NIS 39 billion (about $11billion USD), i.e. almost twice the NIS 20 billion deficit projected by Netanyahu’s government. The Bank of Israel report confirms that, among other things, the deficit in the budget could become much larger after 2013 if the government does not take immediate action, such as increasing the percentage of public tax and reducing the budget of all ministries. Furthermore, the report also confirms that the budgets spent by the government on education, security, health, welfare, and infrastructure projects have greatly exceeded the appropriations ceiling set within the overall budget for 2013 and the upcoming years.
Why did Netanyahu try to prevent the publication of the Bank of Israel report?
The answer, according to Yediot Aharonot economic analyst, Gaud Lethor, is “because it contradicts statements made by Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Finance, Yuval Steinitz, asserting that the next government will not increase the tax rate, nor will it reduce the ministry budgets.”
In light of these facts and figures, the people of Israel agree that even if Netanyahu returned as head of a new government, he won’t have the ability to make critical decisions on issues that are surrounded by extreme differences of opinion, such as the recruitment of young ultra-orthodox Jews into the army, the issue of the budget, or even the issue of a military attack on Iran.
Furthermore, there is an emerging phenomenon on the Israeli scene that will have its repercussions; the centre and the left wing are rising. Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party, has a future. This is most clearly evidenced by Netanyahu’s rush to congratulate him following his centre party’s impressive results which make them the second most powerful party in the Knesset, and Netanyahu’s attempts to lure him into cooperating with him to form a new expanded government. In his campaign, Lapid focused on a political program that called for changes in the state. The most prominent conditions of his program were the drafting of ultra-orthodox Jews into the army or in compulsory civil service; the advancement of the middle class; the building of 150,000 residential apartments; and making amendments to the ruling system. Lapid’s program was popular among young people, especially those in colleges and universities as they felt he thought about them politically and treated them as a sector worth his interest.
Needless to mention, Lapid isn’t very different from Netanyahu and his allies on the issue of Jerusalem or settlements. He has made calls for Jerusalem to remain unified and for the major settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel. Moreover, he is an advocate of the “two states for two people” project, and seems more serious than Netanyahu on the issue of resuming negotiations with the Palestinians.
The left wing, represented by the Labour Party, did not succeed in winning over twenty seats as they had hoped. However, the seats they did win maintain their position as an influential player in the opposition. As for the Meretz Party, it doubled the number of its representatives which indicates an increased awareness in supporters on the left who are more determined than those of the Labour Party. If the left wing parties unite in a parliamentary opposition front, the political influence of the left will become more tangible and effective.
Can a centrist government be formed without Netanyahu and the right wing parties?
This option is theoretically possible on three conditions: firstly, the unification of the left as one front. Secondly, Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party must agree to head a coalition government that does not include any right wing parties. Thirdly, the Arab parties in the Knesset must approve participation in a coalition government as there is no way the necessary parliamentary majority will be acquired without their participation, or at least, their approval – keeping in mind that Lapid refuses coalition with Arab parties.
However, another major reason that may prevent the formation of a centrist government is the lack of an experienced figure in the centre and left wing parties that can compete with Netanyahu. Yair Lapid lacks the political experience, as this is his first time being elected to the Knesset, as well as the fact that he does not seem to be ready to compete with Netanyahu just yet. Perhaps he would rather bargain with him to enter the new government on terms that suit him personally and are rewarding to his emerging parliamentary bloc.
In the end, the right wing failed to control the political scene, Netanyahu’s extremism has broken and he can no longer make critical decisions on the issue of a military strike on Iran. Moreover, the suffering of Israel’s economy will force any future government to give it priority, listen more to the advice of the Obama administration, and give more consideration to the US President.
After the elections, Israel seems less like it is feigning and more like it is willing to commit to America’s policy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.