Israeli Politics Manfred Gerstenfeld


Gerstenfeld report


Manfred Gerstenfeld

The election results for the 20th Knesset determined both major winners and major losers. Yet just a few days earlier, while looking at the polls, one could have still justifiably argued that there was not much need for the elections – the expected results of the various political blocs seemed broadly similar to those in the outgoing Knesset.

The main winner of these elections, even more so than his Likud party was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He had become a general target, and the attacks were not limited to those of the opposition parties. A variety of people outside the political realm, such as a group of 200 former senior defense and intelligence officials, published advertisements and campaigned against Netanyahu.

The Likud had taken a huge beating back in the 2013 elections when it ran together with Avigdor Liberman’s party, Israel Beitenu. In the outgoing Knesset it only held 18 seats. It will now have 30 seats. The Zionist Union’s distorted central message was that Netanyahu had totally failed in leading the country. Its party leaders, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, claimed that the only logical consequence was that Netanyahu had to go. The Zionist Union’s claim was false. At a time of major economic problems around the world, Israel has done quite well. In the military field, Israel is far from a failure. Netanyahu has also resisted considerable foreign pressure to cede more territories to the Palestinians, most of which would probably have turned into additional areas controlled by the Islamo-Nazis of Hamas.

Another big winner of these elections was Moshe Kahlon’s new Koolanu party. Kahlon is a former Likud MK whose main merit as Minister of Communications was the radical reduction of telephone and internet costs. Although his party list did not have many nationally known candidates, it managed to get 10 seats. It will be impossible for Netanyahu to form a government without Koolanu. Kahlon will most likely become the Minister of Finance, a position for which he campaigned and which Netanyahu already promised him before Election Day. Strategically, Kahlon might be better off obtaining the Minister of Housing portfolio, as he could then reorganize the Israel Land Authority and manage to lower housing prices. Housing costs are a strong concern for a large number of Israelis. The Housing ministry may still be held by one of Kahlon’s party members.

A third clear winner was the Joint (Arab) List. During the 19th Knesset, Israel Beitenu had managed to get majority support in favor of raising the elections threshold from 2% to 3.25% of the total vote. Liberman thought that a higher election threshold would result in the elimination of some of the smaller Arab parties. However, the various Arab parties represented in the Knesset managed to overcome their differences for the purposes of establishing a joint list, consisting of communists, Islamists and Arab Palestinian nationalists.

The Joint List also succeeded in raising the Arab voter participation. The Joint List obtained 13 seats, as against 11 of the combined Arab parties in the 19th Knesset. They might have been helped by a very ugly comment by Netanyahu on Election Day where he declared that Jewish citizens should get out and vote because the Arabs were voting in massive numbers.1

The losses were quite pronounced as well. The Yesh Atid party, officially centrist but in practice leaning toward the Zionist Union, got 11 seats as against 19 in the previous Knesset. Its charismatic leader, Yair Lapid, seemed to have managed to shake off most criticisms of his responsibilities as Minister of Finance, yet it didn’t help him in the elections.

The religious parties all lost some of their electorate. The modern-Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi, led by Naftali Bennett, returns with 8 seats as against 12 in the present Knesset. In the last few days, many of its voters apparently deserted to the Likud. Shas, in the first election after the death of its religious patron Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, came down from 11 to 7 seats. United Torah Judaism listUnited Torah Judaism lost one of its 7 seats, partly due to the call of extremist Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach to boycott the elections. Finally, the Yachad party, led by former Shas leader Eli Yishai, did not pass the election threshold. All in all, the religious parties obtained a combined 21 seats as against the 30 seats they held in the 19th Knesset. Two of the religious Yesh Atid MKs, Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern and Rabbi Dov Lipman, lost their seats as well.

Another major loser was Israel Beitenu. It ended up with 6 seats as against 13 in the outgoing Knesset. This outcome has most likely been influenced by a major corruption scandal that came to light at the beginning of the election campaign, in which a key party member MK Faina Kirschenbaum, stands accused.

Another loser was the extreme left-wing party Meretz. It lost one of its 6 seats. When it looked that it stood to lose a second seat, its leader Zahava Galon announced that she would take responsibility and leave both the Knesset and party leadership so that number 5 on their list, Tamar Zandberg, could remain a Knesset member.2 Galon has in the meantime rescinded her taken her resignation.

The Zionist Union is incorrectly perceived as another major loser of the elections. Yet Herzog, by running a joint list of his Labor Party together with Livni’s Hatnuah, managed to create the second largest political faction in the country, well ahead of all the others. The Zionist Union won 24 seats as against a combined 21 seats the two parties got in the previous elections.

As no polls are allowed two days before Election Day, the general public sentiment, according to the last of the published polls, was that the Zionist Union was ahead of the Likud by several seats. In the last few days before the elections, the Likud made a furious effort to regain ground. One major element of its campaign was its participation in the massive right-wing rally held in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv on the night of Sunday, March 15th. 3 Netanyahu also contacted many voters with a pre-recorded telephone message, right through and including on Election Day.

The three exit polls held by Channel One, Channel Two and Channel Ten were massively erroneous.4 They gave the Likud 27 or 28 seats, as against 27 seats for the Zionist Union. These numbers were already considered a huge success for the Likud, in view of the last polls published before the elections. There is less of an excuse for those responsible for the highly inaccurate exit polls, as compared to those who published the many dozens of polls throughout the campaign. It may well have been that many voters, right up to getting to the ballot box, changed their voting intentions.

The most logical option for a coalition seems to be one backed by 67 MKs. It would include besides the Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Koolanu, and Israel Beitenu.

The challenges before the new government are great. The socioeconomic concerns of the electorate are substantial. The delegitimization campaigns against Israel will only get stronger. This the more so as Netanyahu has come out against the establishment of a Palestinian state.5

The relationship with the US needs major improvement. It is not only an issue of personal tensions between the leaders of the two countries. Such an improvement can only be possible to a limited extent while the White House is occupied by President Barack Obama. During his presidency, the worldwide status of the US has declined greatly. Obama has also frequently ignored or even whitewashed extreme crimes emerging from many parts of the Muslim world.


1 Lahav Harkov, “Netanyahu warns: The Left is busing Arabs to vote, the Right is in danger,” The Jerusalem Post, 17 March 2015.

2 Gil Ronen, “Galon Resigns, Won’t Run for Meretz Chair Again,” Israel National News, 18 March 2015.

3 Lahav Harkov, “Netanyahu tells TA rally: We can close gap with Herzog, The Jerusalem Post, 15 March 2015.

4 Niv Elis, “Exit poll gaps leave pollsters in Israel scratching their heads,” The Jerusalem Post, 18 March 2015.

5 Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu: If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian state,” Haaretz, 16 March 2015.

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