How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Yair Lapid at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy Reuters / Amar Awwad)
By the time Israeli voters went to the polls on Tuesday, the nearly universally accepted wisdom held that the right was ascendant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's faction -- which comprises his own conservative Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman's even-more-conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party -- was poised to win almost twice as many seats as its closest challenger. Netanyahu's erstwhile chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, was leading the surging Bayit Yehudi, a right-wing nationalist party calling for the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank. These two parties alone were expected to win around 50 seats, which would put Netanyahu in a dominant position when it came to forming a governing coalition.
The parties considered to be left-wing and centrist, meanwhile, were floundering. The Labor Party, led by Shelly Yachimovich, was expected to win fewer than 20 seats -- likely becoming the second largest party in the Knesset but still not achieving anything close to the dominance it enjoyed in the 1990s under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. Hatnua, a new party chaired by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who led Kadima to win more votes than any other party in the 2009 elections, seemed likely to take only a handful of seats. Yesh Atid, helmed by the former newsman Yair Lapid, was expected to pull in a respectable ten to 12 seats -- not bad for a newcomer but not enough to make much of a difference in the government. These three parties might have been able to defeat Netanyahu with a united front, but their leaders instead spent their time squabbling. All this -- together with a Likud primary that expelled the party's moderates and elevated its hardliners, the emergence of Bayit Yehudi as a viable party to the right of Likud, and the expected increased presence of settlers in the Knesset -- indicated that Israel was set to move further to the right.
Once the results of the voting began to roll in, however, a new narrative quickly emerged. Not only did the joint Likud-Beiteinu list do worse than anticipated, winning only 31 seats, but Lapid's Yesh Atid outperformed expectations, coming in second with 19 seats. Bayit Yehudi won 11 seats, a respectable showing but not the 16 seats some polls indicated it would receive. Finally, the far-left Meretz Party doubled its representation from three seats in the previous Knesset to six in the new one. Suddenly, observers who had just hours before spoken of Israel's rightward drift were proclaiming the center and left's comeback. The conventional wisdom about the election is now that Yesh Atid has reinvigorated the Israeli center, debunking the notion that Israel's electorate necessarily leans to the right.
The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday's results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party's history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni's Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.
Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid's views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.
The basic fact remains that the Israeli electorate leans right. Israelis are willing to negotiate with the Palestinians, but the violence of the second intifada and the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza have made them hesitant to support dramatic peace overtures. It would be a mistake, therefore, to see Netanyahu's losses as the result of a resurgent center. Likud's decline largely came from the hard-liners who left the party and jumped on the Bayit Yehudi bandwagon because they believed that Netanyahu was not committed to protecting the settlements and to holding on to the West Bank permanently. Even Yesh Atid's gains can be attributed to some right-leaning voters' decision to abandon Netanyahu for Lapid, who presents a blander and more comforting version of right-wing politics, focused mainly on reviving the middle class. Nobody in Yesh Atid is advocating annexation, as some Likud members are, but Lapid also did not campaign on reviving the peace process, as Livni did. Lapid's brand of politics is reminiscent of U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called compassionate conservatism, which painted a moderate image but drew in right-leaning voters.
In short, neither the rise of Yesh Atid nor Likud's decline means that the Israeli center won. Rather, they show that the hard-line right opted to move even further right, and the non-ideological right opted to back a softer version of the agenda it already supported.