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by Ralph Seliger
NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME, Israeli pollsters utterly failed to predict the result. Even the exit polls, with voters surveyed after voting, got it wrong this year — reminiscent of Binyamin Netanyahu’s first electoral triumph in 1996, when exit polls predicted a narrow victory for Shimon Peres.
I attended an illuminating discourse with Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, in New York — jointly sponsored by the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Partners for Progressive Israel — with all of us believing the exit polls that the election had ended essentially in a tie between Likud and the Labor-Livni slate.
What seemed to be a growing lead for the so-called Zionist Camp as of Friday, March 13, was apparently reversed by aggressive rightwing messaging by Netanyahu and his party in the final days, and literally in the final hours: First, in explicitly reversing his nominal endorsement of a two-state solution in 2009, and then, on election day, in rallying the right to Likud with fearmongering about “leftists” and “Arabs” going to the polls in huge numbers. This accomplished two things: drawing votes from parties to his right, mainly the parties led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman (and wiping out a far-right split-off from Shas), while also persuading alienated Likud supporters to actually vote.
Voter participation was up at least four percent from 2013. Part of this was reflected in a modest rise in voting by Arab citizens, motivated by the new united Arab list.
BUT THE MATHEMATICS of coalition-building requires the support of Moshe Kohlon’s new centrist Kulanu party, because the rightwing and ultra-Orthodox parties will not add up to a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. With ten seats, Kohlon may have decisive influence, if he chooses to force Netanyahu to accept the Zionist Camp in a national unity government — especially since President Rivlin has expressed a preference for a government of national unity. Such a government is hardly likely to move forward to peace with the Palestinians, but it may save Israel from a hard-right lunge of anti-democratic legislation and growing international isolation, especially if Bennett and Lieberman’s parties are excluded.
The new Arab list, which seems to have 14 seats, added a fascinating dimension to this year’s election. Its head, Ayman Odeh, a previously little-known Haifa city councilman who leads Hadash (a party with Communist roots), won high marks for his dignity and moderation. For example, he explicitly endorsed the Jewish right to national self-determination within Israel. But the Arab list is weighted down by the ultra-nationalist Balad party and very conservative Islamist politicians. Balad vetoed an excess-votes sharing agreement with Meretz, because they refused to cooperate with “Zionists.”
As for Meretz, it had a near-death experience, just making it past the 3.25 percent threshold with 99 percent of the returns counted; happily, that last one percent (mostly from soldiers in outlying bases) earned it a fifth mandate, but still down from its previous six. Meretz is now tied with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu as the smallest independent factions in the Knesset. This is a far cry from its high-point in 1992 (its inaugural run), when it won 12 seats and served as Yitzhak Rabin’s main coalition partner.
Should it attempt to coalesce with Labor in some way? Would it even be accepted by the latter, given the Meretz party’s image and proud self-identification as “leftwing,” a label that is mistrusted, if not reviled, in today’s Israel?
To be fair, Meretz is more of a modern left-liberal party than “leftist.” It is anti-authoritarian, firmly for civil liberties and civil rights. Can this heir of the historic Hashomer Hatzair and Shulamit Aloni’s Ratz lineages of left-Zionism possibly align with the majority-Arab Hadash party? Can it survive on its own? Stay tuned.
Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, and a contributor to Jewish Currents since 1995. He is administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel blog and an online columnist for The Jewish Week.