From Alan Dowty
In the week since Israelis went to the polls, the operative word in the media seems to be “inconclusive,” based on the near-tie between the two largest parties and the prospect of bone-wearying bargaining before a government emerges. Both observations are true, but nevertheless the election did register a sharp and significant shift in the Israeli body politic.
Tzipi Livni managed to hold Kadima together and lose only one seat, against expectations, even managing to beat Likud by one seat. For the first time in Israeli political history, a strong centrist party has actually lasted for more than one election; this is a personal achievement of great note and possibly the harbinger of a long-term structural change of major significance. But having said that, the real import of the election was the clear victory of the right.
Only in 2003 have the right and religious parties, as a bloc, achieved such success; in essence, the 2009 election has erased the impact of the 2006 election that followed Ariel Sharon’s defection from Likud and the establishment of Kadima. We are back in 2003, when the second intifada produced the most hawkish Knesset ever. Israel’s turn to the right is a long-term development set in motion by the second intifada, the rise of Hamas as the pivotal Palestinian player, the intrusion of Iran, and what is seen by many Israelis as the failure of unilateral disengagement in Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. In this context, the 2006 election was a transitory fluke.
In 2006, center and left parties won 70 seats, while right and religious parties held the remaining 50. Now the center and left are reduced to 55, including 11 seats held by Arab parties, while right and religious parties hold a combined 65. The Jewish left was devastated, dropping from 24 seats to 16, as many of its voters moved rightward to Kadima, replacing voters who moved rightward from that party back to Likud, their original home. Thus Kadima maintained its strength while Likud more than doubled its numbers.
Religious parties considered separately did not actually gain; ultra-orthodox (haredi) parties lost a couple of seats, while the remnant of the old National Religious Party appeared in a new guise as “The Jewish Home” and emerged with only three seats. For the first time in Israel’s history, the religious camp in the Knesset will be dominated almost entirely by the haredim; the national religious camp, long a fixture of the Israeli scene, has practically disappeared.
The other winner on the right, apart from Likud, is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which has outgrown its Soviet immigrant base and has managed to attract a growing clientele with its unique mixture of secularism and a new model of hawkishness based more on ethnicity than on territoriality. This is not the old right wing of “Eretz Yisrael Hashlema” (The Entire Land of Israel); Lieberman is ready to reduce the Arab presence in Israel not only by surrendering Arab population centers on the West Bank and Gaza, but even by ceding Arab-inhabited areas of Israel itself.
Israel’s turn to the right does not mean the end of the two-state solution as the dominant model for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Apart from Lieberman’s heterodoxy, Likud’s platform neither endorses nor rules out a two-state solution, but simply condemns any further unilateral withdrawals on the model of Lebanon in 2000 or Gaza in 2005. Thus the differences between the parties are less far-reaching than differences that have sometimes existed between parties joined in the same government. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu can therefore pursue his announced goal of a National Unity government, knowing that in any event there will not be serious peace negotiations over basic final status issues so long as there as no unified Palestinian negotiator in control of all Palestinian territories and able to implement a final agreement.
For the same reason, the formation of a government dominated by the right, with or without Kadima as a junior partner, will not stir up any untoward clashes with the new U.S. administration. With no serious peace talks in the offing, efforts will focus on stability and conflict management rather than a final resolution. A hawkish Israeli government can still work on strengthening the viability of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and otherwise working toward the day when Hamas can no longer cast an effective veto over an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And in any event, all Israeli parties as well as the United States are likely to be more focused in the near future on the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
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