Who won Israel’s elections?

January 31, 2013

Tristan Brosnan looks at the implications of the recent elections in Israel.

THE JANUARY 22 Israeli elections for the Knesset--Israel's parliament--confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party had enough support to enable him to continue as head of the government--but just barely. In late October, Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel, Our Home"), announced that the two parties would run on the same ballot in this year's election, thus uniting Israel's two largest right-wing parties.

The Likud-Beiteinu ticket won 31 seats in the Knesset, a combined loss of 11 seats from Likud's previous 27 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu's 15 seats. Despite the loss of 11 seats in the Knesset, the Likud-Beiteinu alliance won enough seats to enable them to form a coalition government. Such a coalition will likely need to include one of two relatively new parties that have gained traction in Israel.

HaBayit HaYehudi, or the "Jewish Home Party," is a far-right party led by Naftali Bennett and has a strong base in Israel's settler communities. HaBayit Hayehudi, which was formed in 2008 through the merger of three small far-right parties, rose from obscurity to win 12 seats in the Knesset, coming in third place.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The other party, Yesh Atid or the "There is a Future" Party, is considered a centrist party headed by former-television-anchor-turned-politician Yair Lapid. In perhaps the most talked about development, Yesh Atid won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming in second place to the Likud-Beiteinu slate.

While it's clear that Netanyahu did not receive a mandate to rule from Israeli citizens, the elections were far from a resounding defeat for the Israeli right.

In fact, it's safe to say that the far right made significant gains in the election. Of the support that the Likud-Beiteinu slate lost, most went to HaBayit Hayehudi. The rise of HaBayit Hayehudi and its leader Naftali Bennett is representative of the ascendancy of the radical right in Israeli politics and the attempt by Israel's settlers to dominate and dictate policy. It has become a symbol of a post-Oslo Zionism that refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Bennett is a former commando in the Sayeret Matkal, a Special Forces unit of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), who, after leaving the military, became CEO of a software company he helped found and then a multimillionaire after the company's sale. He's become both the candidate of the fanatic settler movement and Israel's suburbanites because of his advocacy for a "return to Jewish values" and his militant nationalism.

Bennett has also openly called for the annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank. According to Britain's Guardian newspaper:

Instead of a two-state solution, Bennett has proposed the unilateral annexation of Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that contains all Jewish settlements and is currently under Israeli military control. Palestinians living in Area C could either take Israeli citizenship or relocate to the Palestinian-governed 40 percent of the West Bank.

Bennett has stated his belief that there could never be Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and is one of only a few Israeli politicians to have come out against a two-state solution. "If we hand over [the West Bank] to the Arabs, life here will be miserable and in constant conflict for the next 200 years," he told the Guardian. "I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That's the equation."

In every way, Bennett represents a push to the far right: he argues that Israel didn't do enough to go after Hezbollah during the 2006 war in Lebanon; he has criticized Netanyahu for limiting the recent bombardment of Gaza to aerial strikes instead of conducting a ground invasion; and he's developed a "Stability Plan" that would annex Area C of the West Bank and turn the West Bank's cities into Israeli-controlled bantustans.

The racist and bloodthirsty politics of Israel's settlement communities have gone from a fringe movement to the political mainstream by way of Naftali Bennett.

THE ELECTIONS may have been a loss for the Likud-Beiteinu slate in terms of seats, but it's clear that the Israeli far right has retained and even strengthened its presence in the Knesset.

Even the make-up of Likud has substantially changed. "The party's last few 'moderates' have now been replaced by ultra-nationalists, including religious settlers," according to Jonathan Cook. "Moshe Feiglin, this latter group's controversial figurehead, won the 23rd slot on the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, ensuring his place in the parliament for the first time."

Feiglin is yet another far-right bigot, having once said in an interview, "You can't teach a monkey to speak, and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers." Now he is an elected official and policy maker in the Israeli Knesset.

During the elections, each party puts forward a list of party candidates, with the leader of the party at the top of the list. Likud's list was purged of the party's most well-known moderates. Out of the top 20 candidates, 12 support at least partial annexation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

Some liberal Zionists, including here in the U.S., have celebrated Yesh Atid's second-place ranking, seeing it as a victory for the "two-state solution" and "peace negotiations" over Netanyahu's leadership and policies.

But Yesh Atid's popularity wasn't a vote against Netanyahu's policies towards the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu's policies--including defense and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, targeted assassinations, drone strikes and periodic military bombardments of Gaza--remain hegemonic.

Yesh Atid and its suave leader Yair Lapid campaigned mainly on economic issues, education reform and support for eliminating the draft exemption for orthodox seminary students. Because of this, Lapid has gained a reputation as being the candidate of the Israeli middle class.

So what's the difference between Likud and Yesh Atid's policies toward the Palestinians? While Netanyahu's coalition has had a policy of no negotiations, Lapid has called for renewed "peace negotiations."

Of course, this is only rhetoric. By "negotiations," Lapid and his party mean they're willing to accept Palestinian obedience and subjugation, especially when it comes to the Israel's illegal settlements.

Yesh Atid's eight-point party platform includes their goal of "striving for peace according to an outline of 'two states for two peoples,' while maintaining the large Israeli settlement blocs and ensuring the safety of Israel."

The Israeli "centrist" party Yesh Atid, it seems, is no different from the Israeli right in regards to Israel's settlements, which violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, numerous UN resolutions and rulings by the International Court of Justice. Lapid, like his political counter parts in Likud, wants "peace" on Israeli terms.

This is why Zionism, whether it be "centrist," liberal or conservative, is so toxic; it leads to the same policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but they are wrapped up in the language of "negotiation" and "diplomacy."

As Lapid plainly put it in a speech he gave at the illegal settlement of Ariel, "'What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them [Palestinians] and put a tall fence between us and them." The important thing, he added, is "to maintain a Jewish majority in the land of Israel."

In reality, there is little difference between Netanyahu and Lapid in regards to the Palestinian people. On paper and in theory they are for the "two-state solution," and in practice they are for occupation, discrimination and state violence.

LAPID AND Netanyahu have already met to discuss creating a coalition government with Likud-Beiteinu. Netanyahu will stay on as prime minister, and the Likud-Beiteinu alliance will be at the center of policy and decision making, meaning the coalition will retain the same ultra-nationalist and militarist policies towards the Palestinian people and the Occupied Territories.

For Palestinians, the results mean more of the status quo: apartheid and occupation.

As Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, wrote about the election outcome in an article entitled "What Israel's election outcome means--and doesn't mean":

It does mean that the apartheid system will be further entrenched. Ultimately, this election will bring little change in the status quo. The incentives for the next Israeli government, just like the last Israeli government and the one before it, are tilted heavily toward perpetual occupation--that is, apartheid.

Even before the ballots were counted, Washington made clear that the outcome of the election would not change its stance toward the issue. Domestic U.S. politics...is likely to ensure that U.S. policy continues to alleviate the costs of perpetual occupation through unwavering military, economic and diplomatic support, so that Israel's colonial enterprise is always a politically and economically profitable one. Israeli politics can then continue to focus inward, debating how best to ensure prosperity for Jewish Israelis, while walling off Palestinians and the vast majority of the rest of the world.

While the center of gravity moves to the right, Palestinians continue to face the brutal consequences of occupation. IDF soldiers have killed at least six Palestinian youths between the ages of 15 and 22 since the start of the year. Just before the elections, Israel's housing ministry approved 198 new settlements for construction in the Occupied Territories and the watchdog group Peace Now reports that construction activity is the highest it's been in 10 years.

Justice and liberation for the people of Palestine won't come through the Knesset or through "peace negotiations" with the likes of Netanyahu or Lapid, but rather through collective resistance from below. Our strength is in our resolve and our numbers, and our demand is for a free Palestine.

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