Israel’s elections confound critics
January 23rd, 2013
10:57 AM ET

Israel’s elections confound critics

By Josh Block, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Josh Block is CEO & president of the Israel Project, a 501c3 nonpartisan organization based in Washington D.C.  A former Clinton administration official at USAID, Block was also a member of the senior staff at AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby. You can follow him @JoshBlockDC. The views expressed are his own.

The months leading up to yesterday’s Israeli election were filled with confident forecasting. Israeli voters, analysts told us, were turning rightward and even losing confidence in the Jewish state's democratic institutions. Voter turnout would slouch toward all-time lows, and remaining voters would empower a government that was, depending on a pundit’s particular verve, “hardline,” “extremist,” “ultra-nationalist,” – or even worse.

Israeli voters, however, had other ideas. And now many of those pundits are expressing surprise at the turnout and composition of Israel’s 19th Knesset.

By the time polls closed last night, two-thirds of Israeli voters had cast their ballots, exceeding the last election's turnout after inching toward levels not seen in over a decade and a half. The Israeli public – caricatured on the eve of the election by one far-left voice as "sleepy, complacent and apathetic" – turned out to be far more engaged than many had imagined.  Admirers of Israel’s boisterous democratic culture had every reason to feel buoyed.

And if Israeli voters spoke loudly, they also spoke clearly.

The night’s big winner was the centrist Yesh Atid party, which garnered 19 seats, far outrunning election-eve polls to become Israel's second-largest party. Founded and led by Israeli TV personality Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid offers a post-ideological pragmatism. The party couples an emphasis on tough national security with an explicit endorsement of a two-state solution, and promotes free market policies while insisting on the need to bolster the middle class. Meanwhile, Yesh Atid’s avowedly secularist agenda, its core brand, is expressed in terms of the need to integrate Israel’s ultra-orthodox and Arab minorities into the state's civil and military institutions.

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Lapid himself is a secular icon in Israel. Though yesterday marked his first election night as a candidate, he is no stranger to politics. His father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, headed Israel's top secular liberal party, Shinui (Change), for seven years at the beginning of the last decade. While Yesh Atid is not strictly modeled on Shinui, it is in many ways its modern reincarnation.

Lapid and his party seem to reflect the current mood of the Israeli electorate: skeptical of Palestinian intentions but willing to take risks for peace, averse to old-style Israeli socialism but opposed to shredding Israel's social safety net, and socially liberal while respectful of religious expression.

As expected, the Likud-Beitenu list of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to anchor a ruling coalition majority in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, landing 31 seats. It should surprise no one that Netanyahu's first coalition-building phone call after polls closed was to Lapid. Netanyahu has shown a strong predictive preference for broad centrist coalitions to those including religious parties and those to his right. He has repeatedly endeavored to forge coalition governments with Israel’s center-left parties, as with Labor and Kadima after the last election.

Netanyahu – like Ariel Sharon before him, who in his second political incarnation proved a pragmatist rather than an ideologue – is today the leading centrist among his Likud colleagues. And he appears already hard at work on building a center-right coalition – much like Sharon and Lapid the Father teamed up to do ten years ago. Given the little distance between the two on key issues – both are free-market-oriented, both are committed to a two-state solution including an undivided Jerusalem – it is highly likely that they will sit together in Israel's next government.

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Last night's third-place party, and the one likely to lead Israel's Opposition in the next Knesset, is Shelly Yachimovich's Labor party. On foreign policy, Labor hews to the country’s consensus, sharing widely held skepticism of Palestinian intentions, while remaining committed to a negotiated solution. Domestically, Yachimovich has oriented the party to the left, moving to slow and even reverse Israel's economic liberalization. The party is projected to receive 15 seats in the incoming Knesset.

While doomsday predictions of Israel’s illiberalism, endless caricatures of a country being transformed by some emerging ultra-orthodox monopoly, and threats of a radical shift to the right may have been en vogue for pundits (and useful for those whose political agendas are served by such misleading portrayals) they stand in stark contrast to reality – and to the real State of Israel. Although it may confound Israel’s critics, the distribution of votes makes it overwhelmingly likely that, once again, both Israel’s next government and its opposition will be led by parties that back the two-state solution.

Israelis woke up on Wednesday to a new political configuration, but a largely unchanged political reality. The country’s center-right and center-left blocs, within which different parties compete for and cannibalize each other's votes, have been roughly stable for over a decade.

Last night, a centrist country, rooted in liberal, Western values identical to our own, gave its vote to parties clustered around the political center. Those who predicted a different outcome will now have to ask themselves which of their assumptions, or their agendas, led them so far astray.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East

soundoff (134 Responses)
  1. John Carlson

    Israel's election confounds everyone including Israili politicians. It 's awesome warching real democracy in action!

    January 25, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
  2. rami

    falafl for sale!! call....

    January 25, 2013 at 4:04 am | Reply
  3. empresstrudy

    Liberals are just grumpy that Hamas didn't take over. Or the Nazis, either one.

    January 25, 2013 at 8:58 am | Reply
    • BushFamilyAreNazis

      The Nazis were funded by the Bush Family (remember Prescott?). That would be the GOP.

      January 25, 2013 at 9:27 am | Reply
  4. real rob

    Interesting how the same "expert" pollsters and pundits that got it all so wrong, now want to tell us they know what is next?[they dont],..This election result is a clear message that old days and old ways are no longer the only! way,,,"something new" is coming there, It will take time to grow, but it will happen, is happening,..The past is past, it is usefull as a lesson in what not! to do, and thats all it is, is the now and perhaps maybe? tommorrow? that is the new deal,,nice to see this change, we will be watching with very real interest,..

    January 25, 2013 at 9:29 am | Reply
  5. Maksim S.

    So refreshing to see peaceful yet vibrant democracy functioning well in the Middle East. Naturally, our freshly re-elected president has never gone there and has no plans to go. Obama would rather spend time going to talk to Russia, Saudis and Egypt...
    Where is a democracy speech from the only democratic part in the entire region?

    January 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  6. empresstrudy

    The 'experts' were wrong because they wanted to be wrong. They promised an outcome THEY WANTED not one that actually reflected what the voters wanted. CNN was hoping that Hamas neo Nazis would pull out a sudden victory and declare a new Holocaust. But somehow, Israeli voters didn't get that order. Generally speaking though you can safely ignore almost everything CNN has to say about Israel and about Jews in general. CNN stands for the destruction of Israel at all costs. It stands for the ethnic cleansing of Jews and some kind politically digestible genocide and anything that contradicts that is ignored. Just like their swearing literally every day for the last 15 years that the evil Jews were going to bomb Iran tomorrow morning. Wrong every day every time because it doesn't reflect reality it reflects their own desire to see Iran exterminate all the Jews. So if CNN is simply howling what it wants to happen and not what has happened or is happening, then there's no point in bothering to listen to anything they have to say on the subject at all.

    January 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  7. paul n michael,.pnm,.

    get off the plant an or earth jews mow.signed the so called meek an pnm,.

    January 25, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Reply
  8. paul n michael,.pnm,.

    take the nazis to we could give 2 f ,s,.pnm,.

    January 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  9. StanCalif

    Netanyahu is an idiot! No Western country has any trust in this idiot! His primary goal was to get the US to attack Iran for him, he could not do this himself. Thank God Obama refused his demand. We, the USA, cannot afford another "shock and awe" campaign. lsrael needs to "grow up" and become a member of the free world. Every "settlement" announced when dissed by the US does nothing but forment more violence. Netanyahu has dissed us on numerous occassions. His control over our Congress only goes so far.

    January 27, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
    • miriam

      Unless you are the officially elected representative and spokesman for Western countries, your claim is false.
      Any honest democratic leader should respect the vote of another democracy, especially when its electorate has chosen to re-elect its leader.

      It is well known that it is the US who would prefer that Israel did not act alone against Iran, despite the fact that it is Israel who is threatened with annihilation by Iranian leaders and who are located closer to Iran than other Western countries, all of whom, along with the Arabs, are afraid.

      Netanyahu is the leader of the freest country in the region and freer than many Western states.
      He and his electorate know what is best for Israel.

      January 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  10. rightospeak

    I think it is a great picture of Mr. Natanyahu with him holding a voting ticket , I think. I am sure he is smiling because he knows it is all b.s.

    January 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  11. Rick McDaniel

    Israel is between the rock and the hard place, and fear is rampant.

    January 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Reply
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    June 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply
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