For decades, Israeli government swung between two blocs led by the roughly right-of-center Likud and the left-of-center Labor. This pendulum was regular and rarely fraught with major shakeups. The last one occurred 34 years ago when, for the first time, a Likud-Liberal alliance under Menachem Begin ended the monopoly on power Labor had held from the period before Israel’s inception in 1948.
On Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, the Israeli voter told the politicians that it was time for another shakeup, the second in Israel’s 63 years of statehood.
The 2013 general election therefore awarded Lkud leader Binyamin Netanyahu a record third term as prime minister – but only just. His party’s grudging victory (31 out of 120 Knesset seats) was hemmed in with clear messages. This is your swan’s song – was one, and Likud must undergo a thorough airing and reform before the next election – was another.
The other traditional party, Labor, fared even worse with a scrappy 15 seats.
The voter had told the two political forces which built Israel that the division of rule between them is over.
Two newcomers in their forties were pushed to prominence: Yair Lapid, who founded a new centrist party Yesh Atid (Future) a year ago and brought it into second place after Likud (with 19), without ever serving in parliament or politics; and Naftali Bennett, who turned a fading, moderately religious party, Jewish Home (12 seats), into a vibrantly attractive mixed bag of youthful contenders.
Netanyahu quickly discovered that he can’t stitch together a government coalition without one or the other of these political tyros.
Israelis less hung up on security, more on a better life
Likud was given to understand that it may stay in power for another term in its present format – but only as the leader of a historic and orderly transition to the next generation aged between 22 and 45 with responsibility for grooming those successors for their future roles as the nation’s leaders.
Almost half of the new parliament, the 19th Knesset, is made up of newly-elected members, one quarter of them women.
This election also brought to the fore five radical changes in the collective Israeli mindset:
1. Neither security nor the Palestinian question were talking points in the parties’ campaigns. Although some 60 percent of Israelis will say when asked say that security tops their concerns, they gave their votes to the parties promising to lower prices, provide affordable housing and close the social gap.
Yair Lapid promised to promote middle class interests and annul longstanding collective exemptions from military service, national service and taxation, in order to make the ultra-religious Jewish community and Israeli Arabs pull their weight with the rest of the country.
The ordinary Israeli thus used the election to pick a new brand of national leaders – not necessarily former generals or security chiefs, but rather civilians able to implement political and social reforms; captains of industry with the vision to maintain Israel’s standing as an innovative electronic, scientific and technological superpower; and technocrats for making Israel a pleasant place to live in and visit.
Israelis feel safe enough to transfer security posts to civilians
2. While well aware of the perils posed by a nuclear Iran, upheavals in the Arab world and the rise of Islamist regimes next door, Israelis as individuals showed that they finally feel secure for the first time, confident enough in their country’s military might to risk transferring power from a security elite to a new breed of civilian politicians with no security background or agenda.
Understanding this change, Netanyahu has started rethinking the appointment of a former chief of staff, his current Vice Prime Minister, Moshe Yaalon, as defense minister. Instead, he is mulling taking charge of defense himself and appointing a former general as the defense ministry’s administrator; or, alternatively, bringing Ehud Barak out of retirement back to the post, as a non-political professional appointee.
This would be the first time the key portfolio has gone to a technocrat rather than a political insider.
3. For almost half a century, Israelis have been haunted by the intractable Palestinian issue, constantly pushed in their faces as a prism for examining every aspect of their lives. This endless preoccupation never brought a solution one whit closer. But for the first time most Israelis as voters showed they are ready to push the Palestinian question to the side of their national experience and let military and security professionals get on with its complexities.
This attitude is attributed to three factors:
a) Seeing the Palestinians split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, both controlled by external Arab and Western interests, the average Israeli is no longer willing to let them dictate the tenor of his life.
b). Behind their threatening posture, the Palestinians no longer confront Israel with a real security threat. Even a third uprising (intifada) would not pose the Jewish state with an existential threat.
Lapid heads for foreign ministry
The centrist Yair Lapid, who said he endorses Netanyahu’ consent to the two-state solution and devoted his campaign to domestic issues, spoke for many when he commented that it was time to stop thinking of Israeli-Palestinian relations in terms of marriage – but rather as a divorce. Any divorce proceedings are liable to be drawn-out, complicated and leave some problems unsolved. So too the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he remarked, until reality steps in to change the situation.
Lapid hopes to land the foreign affairs ministry at the end of coalition talks with the prime minister.
c) During the unfolding of the Arab Revolt from December 2010, Israelis took a good look at President Barack Obama’s Arab-Muslim policies and concluded that, while the US President contributed generously toward upgrading Israel’s military and security capabilities, he acted at the same time to keep Israel’s strategic options in check. They learned to live with the fact that US-Israeli military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation is ongoing – but only up to a certain limit. When it comes to such critical issues as a nuclear Iran, there is a parting of the ways between Washington and Jerusalem.
Religious parties break up under the whirlwind
4. A landmark decision to appoint a technocrat outside politics to the Israeli defense ministry, if Netanyahu so decides, would open the door for him to bring professionals into other key cabinet posts, such as finance.
The 2013 vote proved that the division between Left and Right was no longer germane to Israeli politics.
Israelis have stopped following the debate between the welfare state and a free market economy, big and small governments. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and her avowal of a Social Democratic agenda to overthrow what she called the "swinish capitalist economy” did not resonate with the average voter.
Despite unacceptable social and income gaps and other shortcomings, Israel has in the last five years weathered the world economic crisis pretty well and feels safe enough to break with economic as well as hard-and-fast security traditions – even to importing a finance minister from outside the political elite..
5. The traditional religious and rabbinical parties, which have always enjoyed a safe niche in government, have lost control, hit like the rest of the political establishment by a fresh whirlwind brought in by the 2013 election.
Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) broke with established custom to become the first party to place both secular and religious candidates on the party slate and appeal to a mixed constituency. After breaking down these tough barriers, Bennett came out of the election calling for a national debate to revitalize Jewish tenets and adapt them to modern life – a call for revolutionary religious reform that is bound to reverberate across the Jewish world. He is now bidding for the religious affairs portfolio to make good on these reforms against the strong resistance of the powerful establishment rabbis.
All these interesting new faces and parties may prove to have the staying power to turn Israel’s political map on its head – or fade away as nine-day wonders. It is too soon to tell.