Yesterday’s Israeli elections clarified some matters, but left a great deal more uncertain. That, of course, is always the case in Israel, where Knesset elections serve as only the preliminary event to the real business of forming a governing coalition.
Of course, a few things are now clear. Ehud Olmert will be the next prime minister. And Binyamin Netanyahu’s chances of ever again being prime minister now look close to nil. Throughout the campaign Olmert and Netanyahu traded sharp and personal jabs, accusing the other of blind ambition and a lack of fixed principles. Both had a point.
With respect to the issues, the Israeli electorate marginalized the so-called hard Right. Yisrael Beiteinu (12), NRP/NU (9), and Likud (11), together garnered only 32 seats, or a little over one-quarter of the Knesset. And neither Likud nor Yisrael Beiteinu ruled out the possibility of further territorial withdrawals. The lessons of the Gaza withdrawal have been reinforced: the religious Right and settler communities no longer enjoy the sympathy and support of the Israeli population.
The electorate also repudiated Thatcherite, or free market economics, along with the man most closely identified with it, Binyamin Netanyahu. Even within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, there was much grumbling from party loyalists about the pinch of Netanyahu’s economic policies, despite the fact that they brought about rapid economic growth and job creation.
Those parties most likely to join the government coalition – Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners -- will all present Prime Minister Olmert with an expensive wish list. All three campaigned primarily on socio-economic issues.
Labor Chairman Amir Peretz will almost certainly demand the Finance Ministry portfolio. If he receives it, as also seems likely, expect the Israeli economy to enter the doldrums. Peretz understands nothing of economics, and what he thinks he understands is all wrong. His nostrum for the socio-economic divide – an increase in the minimum wage – would do little for the poor other than cost many of them their jobs. As leader of the Histadrut, Peretz wreaked havoc on the economy through many strikes, almost all of which were called to protect the perquisites of higher-paid government workers.
Where the money will come from to meet the demands of Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners is not immediately obvious. The cost of settling with the Pensioners, who entered the Knesset for the first time with a bang, winning seven seats, means that less money will be available to meet Shas’ demands for Torah education and the return of some of the cuts in child support allowances.
Though Olmert campaigned on an explicit platform of further unilateral territorial withdrawals, it is far from clear that the elections provided him with the mandate he sought. Polls show that most Israelis oppose further unilateral territorial withdrawals. Even some of Olmert’s closest security advisors within Kadima, such as former Shin Beit head Avi Dichter, oppose further unilateral withdrawals along the model of the Gaza withdrawal. In Dichter’s view, Israeli troops would have to remain behind even after dismantling settlements to prevent those areas from become launching pads for attacks on Israel’s populous central region.
Furthermore, it is far from clear where the money would come from to compensate 80,000 settlers (more than ten times the number in Gush Katif) and carry out the evacuation. Former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami said last night that he does not believe that any Israeli government has the forces to remove 80,000 highly ideological and determined settlers from their homes. He is not the first to reach that conclusion.
Whither the chareidi parties? Shas’s 13 seats make it a crucial element of any possible coalition, and it will almost certainly enter the government. A coalition composed of Kadima, Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners would give Olmert a coalition of 68. He could also add the four seats of the nearly defunct Meretz party. Those numbers mean that Olmert has no overwhelming need to bring United Torah Judaism into the government as well.
For its part, UTJ may be just as happy to have Shas carry the ball on negotiations over child allowances (though not over support for religious institutions), and to avoid the ideological conflicts sure to arise if Olmert pushes forward with his plans for civil marriage, expedited geirus for Russian immigrants, and a core educational curriculum.
One of the perennial rituals in the chareidi community is wondering why United Torah Judaism’s Knesset representation remains stagnant, despite the rapid growth of the chareidi community. This year will be no exception, despite the fact that UTJ increased its representation from five to six. The lowest ever turnout yesterday – 63% -- created a situation tailor-made for UTJ to pick up a seventh seat. In the past, chareidi neighborhoods have produced turnouts of 90% or above.
That was not the case yesterday. The chareidi turnout was only about 10% higher than the general figure. In part that was the result of a few large Chassidic groups deciding to sit out the elections, after their representatives were denied a realistic place on the UTJ list.
But a more general problem is that many in the chareidi community feel no personal identification with the components of UTJ – Agudath Israel and Degel HaTorah – or with their Knesset representatives, despite the very high calibre of those representatives as individuals. Voting is something chareidim do because the gedolim tell them to do. But for some, it seems, that is no longer enough.
Agudath Israel in Israel is not a grassroots movement, as it is in America. There are no conventions or dinners or even members. The party consists almost entirely of paid workers, each connected to an internal faction within the party. Many chareidim feel left out.
A British neighbor told me in shul a few weeks ago that he was not going to vote and he knew many other English-speakers who said the same thing. This fellow has lived in Israel for decades, sends his sons to yeshivos, davens in a Chassidishe shtiebel, and looks for son-in-laws who will stay in learning for a period of years. But he feels that he is viewed as a second-class citizen by the Israeli chareidi community because he works and speaks English. As he put it, the only time anyone notices him is at election times when they want his vote.
I don’t know how many there are like my neighbor, but he raises an issue that deserves further attention.