Israeli election: Personality is political

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Israeli election: Personality is political

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Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, has benefited from the personality politics that has characterised the election (photo: Mati Milstein/The Israel Project)

Israel votes today and polls indicate that the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be returned to power. Israeli electoral law forbids polling in the final four days of a campaign but the final analysis, released on Friday, suggested that he will win 32 seats, and through a series of alliances take that total to around 63, giving him control of the 120-seat Knesset.

What those polls cannot predict, however, is the make-up of the coalition government that Netanyahu would form. Will his joint Likud-Beitenu party gather together a group of political partners from the right, including parties representing ultra-orthodox Jews? Or will he look for newer partners and form a government with Naftali Bennett, the far-right leader of the Jewish Home party and the surprise star personality of the campaign?

But however new the composition of this government may be, it will not override the strong feeling that these elections are taking place is a muted, even gloomy atmosphere. There is a lack of enthusiasm among the electorate for the 32 parties on the ballot. Political analysts talk with some frustration about the growing anti-political feeling and of political fatigue.

A contributory factor to this sense of disinterest is the lack of substantial policy discussion. Instead of any real debate during the election, there has been a dispiriting upsurge of personality politics, as with Bennett, whose political style and background have drawn much attention (he is projected to win 14 seats). In consequence, much has gone unsaid.

Avishay Braverman, a former World Bank economist and member of the Knesset for the Labour party, is especially scathing about this lack of policy talk. According to Braverman, “The personal issues are becoming tiring to me. Every morning there is more gossip.” This point contains some of the bitterness felt on the left at its failure to mount an effective challenge to Netanyahu. Labour, which is expected today to win the second largest number of seats, considered a merger with the newly formed Hatnua party, led by Tzipi Livni, the former Likud and Kadima minister. But the chance was lost, appropriately perhaps, due to personality differences between party leaders.

One of the few discussion points that has arisen on the campaign trail has been “security.” A taxi driver in Jerusalem, when asked who he planned to vote for answered firmly, “Likud.” Why? “Because Netanhau is strong. We need strong.” Is he too strong perhaps, or does he get it right? “He is right.” The Likud campaign has played to this reputation for providing strength and security. Along the motorway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, huge billboard posters show Netanyahu standing at the dais, addressing the United Nations in a pose of great authority. The message is clear: with Netanyahu, Israel’s voice will be heard on the world stage.

It will also be heard closer to home. Uzi Landau is minister for energy and water resources in Netanyahu’s current government. When asked about the willingness to allow the construction of Israeli settlements on land claimed by Palestinians, such as at an area east of Jerusalem known as E-1, he says: “Building at E-1 or anywhere in Jerusalem is natural to us. I fail to see the problem.” When asked whether settlements in the West Bank, especially at E-1, could obstruct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authorities, his answer is: “Why?”

In regional terms, the security outlook is bleak, and Israelis feel that the country has a powerful claim to international support: “We are surrounded by 300m Arabs, and none of them are true democracies,” says Landau. This sense of encroaching danger is found at other points on the Israeli spectrum, not just on the right. The Israelis see threats from Lebanon in the north, from Jordan in the east, Egypt to the south and from Iran, with its nuclear programme. But ways to counter this list of potential threats have not been addressed at this election. On the part of Likud it is perhaps understandable: the polls suggest victory, so why make statements that risk altering that outcome?

And of all the political discussions that this election has failed to ignite, the issue of peace with the Palestinians is the most notable absence. “Netanyahu failed in the peace process because they discussed pre-conditions,” says Yoel Hasson, a member of the Knessett for Livni’s new Hatnua party, which has been notable for emphasising the need to restart peace negotiations. “This was a mistake. It destroyed any options for going forward with the peace process and now there is no real connection between us and the Palestinian Authority.”

In this closed-down political atmosphere, Israel will vote to return the current government. Braverman is eating soup at a Tel Aviv restaurant. He is no fan of Netanyahu. But his greatest disappointment is with the state of his country’s politics. Putting down his spoon, he thinks for a moment. “In the next election,” he says, “we need to talk about the country.”

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Jay Elwes
Jay Elwes is deputy editor of Prospect 

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