Last week I explained here how the Israeli electoral system works. A high percentage of Israeli citizens participated in the fully democratic process, the votes were counted, there were very few appeals to the Central Election Committee and the final tally was officially announced and recorded.
Ever since the announcement last week, many prominent commentators, both in Israel and here, have been trying to explain the decisive victory of the Likud Party headed by Bibi Netanyahu over the Zionist Camp party headed by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
Numerous respectable polls during the weeks leading up to the elections persistently showed parity between the right-wing Likud and the left-wing Zionist Camp party, even after Bibi’s powerful, if controversial, speech before Congress.
Though nuances may differ, depending on one’s own political perspective, the Israelis understand, have internalized, and are moving on (some joyfully, others apprehensively) in what is actually a pretty familiar political situation.
But many American commentators, politicians and so-called “experts” either don’t understand, or just don’t want to take the time to understand, the subtle shades and tones of the motivating dynamics of the Israeli voter.
So for them and for those of you who are maybe a bit confused, here is my “simplified guide to the perplexed” of Israeli politics:
The issues concerning Israeli voters (in order of importance):
Security: In its 67 years of existence, tiny Israel has fought 10 full-blown wars, conducted numerous overt and covert operations against terrorist organizations dedicated to its destruction and suffered hundreds of fatal terrorist attacks and rocket and mortar fire against civilians in their homes, riding buses or driving on the roads. Security and national survival are the most important issues considered by Israelis in any election. In this election this was even more important because of the current inevitability of Iran having nuclear weapons in the very near future combined with its brutal taking over of Arab countries in the region, the deterioration of hitherto stable regimes in the Middle East, the growth and expansion of ISIS on Israel’s doorstep, the strengthening of al-Qaida…and the pervading, growing perception (whether true or not…) that America is, at best, slowly abandoning its traditional friends in the Middle East (including Israel) or at worst, is planning an alliance with Iran.
‘Right’ and ‘Left’
Right/Left: Unlike here, in Israel the concepts of “right” and “left” refer primarily to a party’s platform on the Israeli/Palestinian/Arab World issues and only secondarily on economics, housing and education, where both Likud and the Zionist Camp are pretty close. The easiest way to explain is:
Right equals hawkish: Peace with all neighbors through negotiations, stronger deterrence, pre-emptive operations, regional security and defense coalitions, preferential allocations to improving the IDF and Intelligence networks, etc.
Left equals dovish: Peace with all neighbors by negotiations, stronger deterrence, pre-emptive operations, regional security and defense coalitions, preferential allocations to economic needs.
Since both parties have security and economic planks in their platforms, they are normally defined in Israel as: Likud: “Center Right,” and Zionist Camp: “Center Left”
Peace process: Two-state solution
Both Likud and the Zionist Camp are on the record in full support of an ultimate “two-state” resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Based on statements by leaders of both parties, there is little or no daylight between them on the following elements of a final agreement:
- It has to be negotiated with a credible leader who has the support of a majority of the Palestinians and most of the Arab heads of state (for the “Arab Plan” to kick-in). Abu Mazen has neither.
- The Palestinian State must be demilitarized.
- Israel maintains control of all air-space and air-waves.
- The eastern ridge of Samaria and the Jordan Valley remain under IDF control.
- Gaza and the West Bank are one package (no “three-state” solution”).
- No foreign troops anywhere.
- That current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) does not have the authority to deliver on an agreement, even if he had the will to sign one.
So Netanyahu’s answer to an Israeli reporter’s question published the day before the election was accurate, according to both parties. Since Abu Mazen cannot deliver on an agreement, and Hamas will quickly take over any area evacuated by Israel (just like in Gaza in 2005), then this is not the time to make a deal.
Here is the full exchange:
Bibi: “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this time and time again,” Netanyahu said.
“We (the Likud) are realistic and understand.”
Netanyahu was then asked specifically whether he meant that a Palestinian state would not be established if he were re-elected prime minister. He answered, “Correct.” OK — here he could have qualified his answer a bit better.
But was this why Likud won the elections? Not according to the analysts. In fact a poll taken by Likud over the weekend, but not allowed to be published two days before the election, showed that Likud would win with a comfortable margin of between five to seven seats.
Here’s my analysis of why, in the end and with a large voter turnout, Likud won:
- Security is issue No. 1, and despite the fact that Herzog’s security “credentials” are better than Bibi’s, his campaign failed to emphasize it.
- Joining up with Tzipi Livni, who is not popular among most Israelis, probably cost Herzog the election. The last-minute canceling of their rotation agreement did not help.
- Israeli society today is split between those who have more and those who have less. This was cleverly projected in Likud campaign ads in this election as “Tel Aviv” (Herzog) versus “the rest of the country” (Likud).
- Bibi’s campaign emphasized the threats facing Israel from Iran, Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, Iran, ISIS, al-Qaida, and did I mention Iran?
- Herzog’s campaign emphasized social and economic issues, as well as security.
- But perhaps the most important issue that moved many still hesitating to vote for Likud, even if they don’t really like Bibi (does anyone?), was the prominent publicity given in Israel’s media outlets to the brazen and heavy-handed way that the White House gave thousands of dollars to a get-out-the-vote left-wing organization called V15, and sent Obama’s top campaign advisors to Israel help Herzog’s National Camp party overthrow Bibi and the Likud leadership.
In exit interviews, voters said that the U.S. administration’s attempt to influence the elections, with U.S. taxpayers’ money, was the ultimate definition of “chutzpah” — and the main reason they voted Likud.
Israelis are proud, independent and don’t like others, especially those who are clueless, telling them what to do.
I hope that the lesson has been learned: Chicago rules don’t apply to Israel.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org.