Israel's general election Tuesday, Feb. 10, upended its traditional party structure of four political blocs – left-wing, right-wing, religious and Arab. Most foreign observers tended to group together “the left” parties which support peace talks with the Palestinians and Arab governments, i.e. the ruling Kadima, centrist Labor, left-wing Meretz and the Arab factions. The parties considered right-wing, hawkish and security-oriented are Likud, Israel Beitenu, the National Union and the religious parties.
These simplistic classifications went by the board Tuesday.
The 2009 election ended in a near tie of 28:27 (of the 120-member Knesset) between foreign minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima and the opposition Likud headed by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The so-called right-wing, conservative bloc beat its opponents by 65 to 55, leaving Netanyahu the only contender with enough allies to form a coalition government.
At the center of the earthquake was the near-eclipse of Labor, the party which founded the state of Israel and has been dying on its feet for two years, and the demise of the far-left doveish Meretz. The national religious bloc has also lost its once powerful grip on every administration.
In the upheaval of the latest poll, the once standard four-bloc structure of Israeli politics suddenly lost its relevance, culminating a process creeping under the surface for some years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's analysts define the factors which dominated this first-of-a-kind election.
A demographic revolution
First, Jewish demographics have changed dramatically. The immigrant community which arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has become integrated in Israeli society. In this election, 1.2 million eligible voters were ex-Russian out of a total of 5.2 million.
In the army, their sons and daughters mingle with their second- and third-generation native contemporaries who have little patience with politics and are engrossed with concerns typical of most Western youngsters, careers, travel, fashion trends and a good time. Families are troubled by falling standards in education and their uncertain earning power
The concept of earlier days that everything comes down to politics has receded into the past.
Second, the average contemporary Israeli voter is tired of living in a constant state of war but equally disenchanted with peace diplomacy. He sees the Western promise of two states living in peace and security as utopian and unconnected to the reality he sees around him. The Palestinians may rail against “the occupation” but when confronted, many don't particularly want their own state either – certainly not under their current leaders.
In this election, many Israeli voters were motivated by the depressing conviction that peace diplomacy with Arab or Middle East governments is bound to lead nowhere because it is clouded by military threats, the most significant at present being Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Peace diplomacy does not avert wars
The outgoing administration, headed by prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, were committed to the Annapolis process initiated by the Bush administration and held long talks with Palestinian leaders. Olmert even broached indirect talks with Syria. Yet in the last two years, Israel found itself embroiled in two wars and its population, north and south, bombarded with enemy missiles.
The 2006 conflict with Hizballah eroded people's trust in its army's invincible ability to defend the homeland, but this failure was placed at the door of the politicians at the top.
Third, The prevalence of corrupt practices among politicians in power accounts as much as any other shortcoming for the consistent failure of any party to gain majority support in election after election. This time, none claimed even one-quarter of the Knesset's seats. Corruption is held responsible for inept government and the spread of organized crime.
Fourth, The quality of Israel's leadership has deteriorated to the point that few voters award them national stature. The mythic messiahs who founded and led the state in its first four decades, such as David Ben Gurion and Menahem Begin, have been succeeded by humdrum hacks. Not surprisingly, few last out their full four-year terms in office.
The voter looked for – but did not find – a leader to clear up the mess
Putting all these elements together, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's analysts conclude that the voting pattern in 2009 had little relation to the left-right, dove-hawk, Socialist-conservative lines of yore.
The electorate went in search of a party capable of bringing change and the hope of a solution to the current mess. Since none of the four leading contenders, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor's Ehud Barak (defense minister) and Avigdor Lieberman, was able to convince the voter of this capability, no single party won the election.
Netanyahu was rated competent for dealing with a national economy brought low by the global financial crisis, but the voter implicitly advised him to recruit foreign and defense ministers outside his Likud.
Livni's inept performance in negotiating with Palestinians and her inexperience was overlooked by voters who liked her clean slate and honesty. But they held back from empowering her to lead a government.
Barak was chosen to outlive his dying party by an electorate which gave Labor a humiliating 13 seats, just enough to keep him in defense in any future administration.
Lieberman, although a rough upstart for some, overtook the veteran Labor with15 seats – not because he was stigmatized – inaccurately – as a raving, far-right racist, but because of his affinity to the Russian voter and because many 18-22 year-olds, some casting ballots for the first time, liked his blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder, rather shocking style.
With all this going on, the old-timer Left didn’t stand a chance.