Israel – Netanyahu’s Laugher Becomes A Squeaker – And People Who Think They Know All About The Israelis May Not Be Laughing Much These Days Either – 28 January 2013

I’ve been meaning to say something about the Israeli election that took place nearly a week ago. Now that the dust is clearing, I feel a bit more confident in doing so, though we still do not have a coalition government formed and the story may yet evolve.

There are basically two things I think are notable about the election. The first comment I’d make is basically that those derided me as I hedged my bets about the American elections (despite Nate Silver’s, as it turned out, all-50-states-correct lollapalooza example of how polling is a science) can take the Israeli election as an example of what I thought _could_ happen, _actually_ happening. Every respectable pollster in Israel had Netanyahu laughing all the way to another term, and certainly not mucking about with a majority of only one Knesset seat. The reason Bibi ended up with such a small margin is that in the last few days of the campaign, people essentially said “Damn the pollsters, I need to stop this guy.” And they damn well nearly did stop him.

Though people mock the “Truman actually beats Dewey” optimism involved, it does still remain possible that last minute voter movement can shock the pollsters. We had an example of that in the Alberta provincial election not too far back, and I tried to bring that to your attentions at the time as well. The Radio-Canada television reporter Bernard Derome long delighted French-Canadian viewers with his signature catchphrase “Si la tendance se maintient”…which literally is “if the tendency maintains itself” and more loosely means “if the voting continues to follow this pattern”. It wasn’t that Derome was averse to calling elections for a particular candidate, any more than Nate Silver, if the evidence supported the call. But that was still a sign of a wonderful lack of hubris – he was conceding it was _possible_ for the tendency not to maintain itself.

The Israeli election, like the Alberta election, Truman beating Dewey, and at least a few other elections we might name, show that it is possible for an established “tendency” very much _not_ to maintain itself. Voters can wake up on Election Day, think to themselves “All I know is I don’t want to read about a Netanyahu landslide in Ha’aretz tomorrow” and decide to take action at the very last minute. A certain fear of Danielle Smith and Thomas Dewey played a similar role previously. That _does_ happen.

The other notable thing about the election is how it shows a certain empty regeneration of centrist ideas. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party that finished second in the balloting, appears to be largely channelling his late father Tommy. Yair’s party favours the free market, moderate peace initiatives and increased secularism including making the Orthodox serve in the army and work in the labour force instead of getting government money in order to devote themselves to religious studies. His father Tommy’s party Shinui made a splash in the 2003 elections by…um…favouring the free market, moderate peace initiatives and increased secularism including making the Orthodox serve in the army and work in the labour force instead of getting government money in order to devote themselves to religious studies. The more the centre changes, the more it stays the same, apparently. Ironically, the actual Shinui (as opposed to the reanimation of dead tissue party led by the younger Lapid) merged with the left-wing party Meretz, which doubled its representation in the Knesset, from 3 seats to 6.

Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon, plunged to defeat – most of its vote most assuredly going to Yesh Atid (Kadima lost 19 seats, Yesh Atid gained 19 seats). Some portion of the centrist vote also went to former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s new party HaTnuah, which has lured a couple former leaders of the Labour Party over to it (Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna). In this, of course, it is quite like…well…Kadima was when in lured over former Labour leader Shimon Peres. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why are people content to recycle their centrist ideas in Israel? The basic answer to that is that the reality of Palestinian extremism leaves little choice. Though Labour and Meretz both picked up seats (7 and 6, respectfully), these figures pale compared to the gain for Yesh Atid. There’s a reason Israeli voters are afraid to stick their necks out for the Left – after years when the Labour Party predominated in Israeli politics. That reason is the failure of Oslo to turn Palestinians into “partners for peace”.

The former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami describes the nature of the political rot this way: “The right’s narrative is simple. The Oslo Accords ushered in an era of bus explosions in Israel’s main cities. The Second Intifada, with its waves of suicide terrorist attacks that slaughtered hundreds of innocent civilians, followed the Israeli concessions offered at the 2000 Camp David Summit. And the withdrawal from Gaza ushered in a Hamas government that has overseen routine missile attacks on Israel. Little wonder that, once most Israelis accepted this narrative, the ‘peace process’ became a repulsive, discredited expression, and its advocates on the left came to be perceived at best as innocents detached from the real world.”

Basically, Israeli voters have been frightened, on the basis of past experience, into thinking concessions are for suckers. If daring to offer something in a negotiation is a left-wing thing, Israeli voters are still having none of that.

My point here is that those who spare no energy in enthusiastically backing the Palestinians no matter what they say or do should consider, for a moment, the impact they are having on the average Israeli voter. It may be comfortable to think that the average Israeli voter is hard-core right-wing and wants to skewer the peace process, of course.

But then, there were people who were quite comfortable in thinking Dewey would beat Truman. The world is full of surprises.

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