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The New Israelis: Israel’s Election Results

“The Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country and it wants me to build a coalition that would create three major changes domestically: more equal distribution of the national burden, affordable housing, and change in the system of government.” – Benjamin Netanyahu

It was the incalculable element – would Israel veer more broadly to the right, or would that course be checked by various political elements to the centre? The money was on a good showing by orthodox and nationalist forces that would push Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition into an even more extreme position on compromise (or non-compromise) with the Palestinians. Instead, the political commentators were baffled. Benjamin Netanyahu won the narrowest of victories for his right-wing bloc (his own Likud-Biteinu grouping getting 31 seats), assailed by a good showing by Yesh Atid, party whose slogan is “We’ve come to make a change.”

These results come in the aftermath of huge social justice demonstrations that marked Israel’s agitated political landscape 18 months ago. For some reason, these were neglected in the political analysis. The indignation that was registered had various targets: the increasing costs of living (rents and house prices), costs of transport, childcare, fuel. As one student leader, Itzik Schmuli told a rally in Tel Aviv that September, “We are the new Israelis. And the new Israelis want only one simple thing: to live with dignity in this country.” Those forces have not vanished.

From having seen Yesh Atid (There is a Future) as a fundamental and even anti-patriotic threat, Netanyahu found himself calling its leader, television personality Yair Lapid, urging the making of history. “We have the opportunity to do great things together.”

Lapid is by no means convinced, though Netanyahu has made it clear that “we must form as wide a coalition as possible, and I have already begun talks to that end this evening.” For Lapid’s vision of a coalition is one that does contain moderate forces from across the political spectrum.

That said, the pendulum need not swing to the centre, stuttering if Benjamin Netanyahu should find willing partners among ultra-Orthodox parties. Jewish Home, led by the populist high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett came in with 11 seats, a lesser showing than what was promised prior to the poll. Its leader’s ascent to power has troubled Palestinians, given that he feels negotiating on their status is not only academic but dangerously futile. “There is only one truth and it is simple. The Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.”

The Palestinians’ best, though idealistic hope, was for a Netanyahu defeat. That view was certainly shared by the Labour party’s Shelly Yachimovich, whose party netted 15 seats. The increased emphasis on the settlement program in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, deemed illegal under international law, and the continued embargo of Gaza, have effectively scuppered the U.S.-brokered peace talks from 2010. The mood towards Iran is also ominous.

With such potential partners as Jewish Home, which has gone so far as to suggest partial annexation of Palestinian land, the government’s focus has the potential to be even more belligerent. Netanyahu can also count on the parties of the right for an aggressive stance against Iran. “The first challenge was and remains preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.” The pessimistic view is certainly held by such observers of Israeli politics as Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large at the Daily Star and based in Beirut. His view is conventional: a Benjamin Netanyahu victory suggests the demise of the two-state solution and increased tension from aggressive “Zionist” policies. But this election was not fought on international concerns. It is striking that only 10 percent of Israelis cited Iran as a major concern, as opposed to more pressing domestic pressures. The Prime Minister and his people are not necessarily speaking the same language.

The polarised vote in the elections can act as a potential fetter on Netanyahu’s more aggressive agenda. The Israeli figures who have made it their platform to negotiate with the Palestinians have been Lapid, but even more explicitly, Tzipi Livni’s own party. She has reason to be pleased with the result, having received seven seats. While it oozed sentimentality, the moment of her arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital to greet the arrival of the newborn of one of her candidates, Merav Cohen, gave her pause to comment. “This wonderful baby symbolizes what we are fighting for – the decisions that need to be made deal with life and death, with peace and, God forbid, even war.” Her position had been seen as increasingly irrelevant to Israel’s politics, a travesty given the fact that it is possibly one of the few realistic assessments of the Palestinian problem – at the very least that they are there and demand to be recognised. They are not going anywhere, and nor are the problems.

Will the new Israelis manifest in this coalition? The question that should be asked most prominently is whether the fresh and the new will be tried regarding matters of social reform and broadly, those on peace. Lapid’s Yesh Atid offers that chance, given the party’s promise to deal with the housing shortage and abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students. The interest firstly lies in reforms domestically, but the immediacy of dealing with the peace process, and Iran, will be unavoidable.