When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a snap parliamentary election just two years into his four-year mandate, he believed the results would give him a more stable governing coalition. Israelis seemed weary of him, but they seemed exhausted of politicians in general. Salaries were down, the cost of living was through the roof and they had just seen another major military operation, calling up reserves twice in three years. Israel had been in the grips of a leadership crisis for so long that people had become passively accustomed to the lack of options.
Then the election campaign began, and suddenly it seemed that Netanyahu might have made a serious mistake. The polling numbers for his Likud party kept sinking. His controversial March 3 speech to the United States Congress critical of President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran did not provide the bump in support he had anticipated. Instead, it elicited a backlash from voters who were angry with the prime minister for having damaged Israel’s relationship with its most important ally.
Meanwhile, news interviews with people on the street reinforced the perception that the average Israeli was far more worried about how to make ends meet than about Iran’s nuclear program. The cost of living had soared so high that a dual income professional couple with two children was struggling to pay rent. The center-left Zionist Union and smaller parties campaigned on the economy, while the media jeered at Netanyahu for focusing on Iran when the average Israeli could barely afford a weekly trip to the supermarket.
What was missing from the campaign agenda was the subject of Palestine. There was some populist talk about never dividing Jerusalem, but politicians put forth no suggestions for negotiating a withdrawal from the West Bank. And they spoke nothing about Gaza. The omission isn’t entirely surprising. For most Israelis, the occupation is irrelevant these days. Between the West Bank separation barrier, the Palestinian Authority’s policing on behalf of the Israeli army, and the settlement roads that circumvent the Arab towns and villages, the average Israeli is barely aware that he lives among Palestinians.
The economy shaped the election campaign, an issue that Netanyahu continued to ignore even as his popular support continued to drop. Just one day before Israelis were due to vote on March 17, polls suggested Netanyahu might not emerge as the victor. The Likud was polling at 20 seats and the Zionist Union at 24. But by the time the last ballots were counted late that night, Netanyahu had won 30 seats. Israeli media called it a landslide victory. As one Israeli journalist noted, if you take out the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli voters, results show that one voter out of every three cast a ballot for the Likud.
Why were the polls so wrong? And why did one in three non-Orthodox Jewish voters cast a ballot for the Likud, headed by a man who launched two major military offensives in three years and whose economic policies reduced the middle class to penury?
The answers are complex and unquantifiable, but they boil down to tribalism and fear. The Likud’s core voters are as loyal to the party as an Englishman is to his soccer team. They respond to populism. The Likud sent out thousands of urgent phone and text messages, calling upon party loyalists to vote in order to stave off a left wing government that would trade away Jerusalem and withdraw from the West Bank. On the day of the vote itself, Netanyahu uploaded a 30-second video clip to his Facebook page in which he warned that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” transported in buses paid for by “leftists.” His supporters listened.
The alliance that these “droves of Arabs”—Israeli citizens—were turning out to vote for is called the Joint List. In response to new legislation that raised the minimum threshold a party needed to sit in the 120-seat Knesset to 3.25 percent of the vote, or four seats, small parties representing Arab Israeli citizens united to form the bloc. The Joint List combines Islamists and feminists, secular Palestinian nationalists, Baathists and Jewish socialists, and is headed by Ayman Odeh, a charismatic 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa. Its members include at least one polygamist, and one open supporter of Hezbollah. But throughout the campaign, Odeh kept the party’s platform focused on democracy and civil rights. He succeeded in galvanizing the previously apathetic Arab vote and now heads the third largest party in the Knesset, with fourteen seats.
While Tuesday’s election results spell victory for Netanyahu, two factors foretell change that will create challenges for Netanyahu’s government. First, the prime minister has damaged relations with the Obama administration so badly that it is difficult to imagine how he and the U.S. president will work together over the next two years. Second, on the eve of the vote Netanyahu announced that he will never allow an independent Palestinian state, creating a storm of media attention in Israel.
The rise of the Joint List and the emergence of a unified political voice among the Arab Israeli citizenry will likely challenge Netanyahu’s Palestine policies. For the past two decades, since the last Yitzhak Rabin government was dissolved in 1995, liberal Zionist parties have abided by a tacit taboo on bringing Arab parties into a governing coalition. Netanyahu ignored the Joint List completely during his campaign, only mentioning Arab citizens in the framework of race-baiting on election day. As Arabs and as Israeli citizens, Joint List representatives could be well poised to influence Israel-Palestine negotiations. What remains to be seen is how effectively the alliance can exert political power in the Knesset through legislation and committee participation.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s hardline stance against a two-state solution has led to diplomatic and possibly economic consequences. According to a European Union document leaked to Haaretz in November, Europe, Israel’s biggest trading partner, is considering economic sanctions against the country if it willingly deters progress on a two-state solution. The Obama administration also said this week that it would consider backing a United Nations resolution that calls upon Israel to engage in talks aimed at withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. Already feeling the shifting winds, Netanyahu backtracked on his elective-eve pronouncement and reiterated support for a two-state solution. His critics remain unconvinced.
For the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli elections changed nothing. But for the Arab citizens of Israel, the recent political awakening may have strong implications for Israel’s government. Netanyahu has emerged as a victor this week, but there is no more clarity about where Israel is headed. Instead, the election raised more questions.
Lisa Goldman is a contributing editor at +972 Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation. On Twitter at: @lisang.