Israel’s election is over. Let’s hope the healing can begin.
It looks as if the Bibi-Sitter will be taking care of Israel again. As I write on the morning after the March 17 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud appears to have won 30 seats. The Zionist Union, which pollsters predicted to upset Likud, ended up with only 24.
Netanyahu has already declared victory. But, since this is Israel and the winner needs 61 out of a possible 120 Knesset seats to form a government, his future depends on what kind of coalition he can cobble together among parties and leaders with wildly divergent interests and agendas and who have been taking shots at each other for months.
The only good coalition is one which would lead to the kind of electoral reform that would stop these stalemates and compromises once and for all. But I’m not holding my breath.
The most striking development in this election was Netanyahu’s 11th hour decision to abandon all pretense of being a centre-right candidate and appeal to hardline voters on the right.
The day before the election, he announced there would be no Palestinian state under his watch. On Election Day, he railed against “left-wing NGOs” he claimed were bringing Arab voters to the polls “in droves.”
The 71.8 per cent turnout, the highest since 1999, did include more Arab voters than in the past.
Although he later backpedalled and said everyone should be entitled to vote, Netanyahu’s comments came across as racist and divisive, and should have alienated undecided or centrist voters.
And yet his comments about Arab voters and rejection of the two-state solution appear to have struck a chord with right wing voters who were turned off by the Zionist Union’s “anybody but Bibi” approach.
McGill University professor Gil Troy, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, believes this support came from voters who had not cast a ballot in years, many of them from what he calls the “second Israel” – Sephardic Jews who felt marginalized by the Ashkenazi elite represented by the left.
Indeed, it appears that most of Likud’s gains since the 2013 election have come from right wing voters who abandoned parties like Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, which lost four seats, and Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, which lost seven – in favour of a stronger Likud.
So, Netanyahu did not really broaden his power base or increase his appeal to voters in the middle.
There will be 28 women in the 20th Knesset, one more than in the last government, and 17 Arab members.
The centrist vote appears to have moved from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which lost eight seats, to Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party, which picked up 10 seats.
The Zionist Union was the big loser, even after Tzipi Livni seemed to recognize she was a liability to the party and announced she would not share the role of prime minister with coalition partner Isaac Herzog in a new government.
But it’s too soon to rule out Herzog and the Zionist Union. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is expected to pressure Netanyahu to partner with his former rivals and form a national unity government.
It sounds crazy, especially since the two parties are completely at odds over settlements, the peace process and a future Palestinian state. But it’s a possibility, and a solution that could be remarkably effective, if egos gave way to pragmatism.
“Some of Israel’s greatest achievements, from the Six Day War in 1967 through the defeat of hyperinflation in 1985 to last decade’s war on terrorism were delivered by unity governments,” says senior Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El.
A national unity government would be the only hope for electoral reform, which is impossible when small single-issue parties hold the balance of power.
Which leads us to Kahlon, the man now considered the kingmaker.
He could join forces with his former party Likud – despite his differences with Netanyahu – if Netanyahu agreed to include the other centrist party, Yesh Atid, in a centre-right coalition instead of the religious parties.
Kahlon would likely want the post of finance minister and a commitment from the prime minister to focus on poverty, housing issues and reducing the high cost of living.
There’s even a slim chance that Kahlon could use his influence to bring about a Likud-Zionist Union government.
It would take courage from him, and a serious paradigm shift for Netanyahu, to choose this option over rounding up the usual suspects for a right wing coalition that would be hobbled by special interests and would further alienate the United States and the European Union.
But this is Israel, and stranger things have been known to happen.
After such a divisive campaign, the new government has to find a way to move beyond pettiness and personal attacks and embrace what Gil Troy calls “Zionist can-doism” – the unity among disparate populations that created the miracle we know as the Jewish State.