In Knesset: New faces, new parties, but same left-right split

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Here are a few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not a game-changer: From an outside perspective, Israel would seem politically very unstable. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of two. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 19 seats.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much has changed in the right-left power split. Yes, the right wing lost a little ground — from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 60 seats in the new one.

Members of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party celebrate in Tel Aviv after hearing the results of exit polls. photo/jta-flash90-yehoshua yosef

But within the rightists’ camp, votes moved from the more moderate Likud right to the farther right Jewish Home party. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to lump all the centrist and left-wing parties together.

The biggest winner of the center, Yesh Atid, espouses positions on Palestinian-related issues not dissimilar from Likud’s in many respects. Both favor negotiations with the Palestinians (though skeptics say Likud’s position is more rhetorical than genuine). Both favor retaining the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, and both oppose any division of Jerusalem. Most notably, Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, has made clear he wants to join a coalition with Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 15 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This represents a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: six seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the seats occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of Bay Area immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is guided by Lapid, a former TV personality and the son of the late politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

Women: The new Knesset will have more women; Yesh Atid leads the way with eight female representatives. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, Meretz has three and Jewish Home has two. Hatnua and Hadash each has one. Among the newcomers will be the parliament’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction to just two seats. Various factors doomed Kadima: the rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua, which itself captured just six seats; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it appears to be nearly the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud–Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again — now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building — but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time, it appeared to be for Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 11 seats, up from just three as the NRP in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift further right on security issues.