2015: Victory For The Democratic Center?

Israel’s last pre-election poll shows that Isaac Herzog, the head of the Zionist Union—a center-left coalition of the Labor Party and former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah—is likely to win twenty-four seats or more, opening a four seat lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Neither is remotely close to winning the sixty-one seats needed to form a government after Tuesday’s election—leading parties build coalitions with smaller parties—but the Zionist Union’s surge has inspired excitement among liberals that is harder than usual to restrain. Although about ten per cent of voters are still undecided, Herzog seems to be trending up, with Netanyahu trending down. President Reuven Rivlin is required by law to award the mandate—the right to attempt to cobble together a government—to the leader who is most likely to succeed. Unless the ten or more parties that are expected to win seats declare a preference for prime minister in advance, and Netanyahu emerges as most likely to make a majority, Herzog’s projected plurality should be enough to compel Rivlin to award the mandate to him.

Netanyahu could still emerge triumphant; Israeli polling is not as reliable as one might hope. Even if the polls are accurate, Herzog will need support from some uncertain sources—most importantly, from Moshe Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu party, who came from Likud. Yet Herzog’s likely strong showing, and the new coalition he represents, portends some long-term shifts in the political map. Netanyahu has polarized the country, much as the former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did in the early nineteen-nineties. Netanyahu has declared Likud the anchor of the Israeli right, repudiated the feasibility of a two-state solution, brazenly defied the White House (Likud robocalls refer to “Hussein Obama”), and rallied mainstream conservative voters to identify with ultra-nationalist settlers and ultra-orthodox communities. Netanyahu assumed, when he called for this early election, back in December, that, like Shamir, he could rely on Likud’s traditional base. Manifestly, he cannot. Instead, Netanyahu and Herzog are enacting an enormously significant battle between two political camps: the parties of Greater Israel and the parties of Global Israel—and the latter has the social momentum. Even if this election does not produce an immediate change at the top, it will almost certainly be pivotal.

Since 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud first won power from the Labor Zionist parties that founded the state, Israel has had twelve national elections. Likud has won eight times, and Labor just twice. In 1984, even after former Prime Minister Begin’s failed war with Lebanon and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s forced resignation, and with inflation at four hundred per cent, Likud still pulled out a tie. In all, Labor leaders have commanded Knesset majorities for just about six years out of thirty-eight. Meanwhile, Likud seemed to have assembled a near-permanent conservative majority. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a far-right law student, in 1995, liberals felt that they were witnessing an unfolding tragedy, in which time and rage were working against them. They struggled to compete with Likud’s self-reinforcing ideology: occupation produced violence, and violence strengthened Jewish xenophobia, which resonated with Likud’s hawkish rhetoric. Likud’s neo-Zionist orthodoxies gave rise to a rapidly expanding West Bank settler population, whose towns many began taking for granted. Likud also benefitted from inescapable identity politics, which ran in families, and largely reflected resentments against the once dominant Labor Zionist parties for the centralized way that they ran the state in the fifties and sixties. If (as I’ve written elsewhere) Israel were to be divided into five roughly equal demographic voting groups—pioneering Zionists from Europe, Arabs who became Israeli citizens, Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, national-orthodox and ultra-orthodox theocrats, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union—Likud has appeared to have a lock on the last three.

This election suggests that globalist liberals are now at least in contention. One important change has been the full emergence of the Israeli political center, once considered a passing political force, but now clearly the product of younger, more cosmopolitan voters who have come into their own—connecting with peers abroad through entrepreneurial ventures, cultural and scientific networks, and travel—and who have not remained altogether loyal to the party identities of their parents. These centrists tend to consider themselves socially progressive: distancing themselves from settlers and theocrats. They are economically liberal: positive about global markets but wary of both capitalist oligarchs and socialist tinkering. And they are diplomatically skeptical: open to the peace process, but indignant about terrorism and the criticism of the Israel Defense Forces by the world press. Yair Lapid, the former minister of finance, leads Yesh Atid, the first centrist party to draw large numbers of young voters; he will almost certainly support Herzog over Netanyahu. Moshe Kahlon, the former minister of communications under Netanyahu, who is largely credited with opening the cell-phone market to new competitors, reportedly resents Netanyahu for reneging on a pledge to make him the head of the Israel Land Authority, and he refuses to rule out joining Herzog. Together, Lapid and Kahlon are likely to win at least twenty seats, nearly as many as the two major parties. They are drawing votes especially from young people in Russian and Mizrahi families—votes the Likud was counting on.

Read on at The New Yorker