Last week’s Israeli election was that rarest of things: a real surprise. We had been assured for weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition would make gains. But the big winner was the political centre.
Why were we so surprised? Perhaps one of the reasons is that we have become accustomed to seeing Israeli politics in terms of security. The questions of what to do about Iran, and whether Israel can make a deal with the Palestinians which will assure its security, are all we hear about.
But there is another side to politics in Israel: the day-to-day realities of making ends meet for millions of Israelis are getting much harder. The past few years have featured significant social protests over issues such as the cost of housing.
Of course because this is Israel, the cost of living and religious/political questions can never be entirely disentangled. For example, the cost of housing is related to the subsidies given to religious and other settlers in the Occupied Territories – more money for settlements means less for subsidised housing in Israel proper. Many young Israelis resent the fact that the Orthodox are exempt from the military service that dominates their lives for many years. The Orthodox are also exempt from many of Israel’s high taxes, while drawing generous state subsidies for a lifestyle that is essentially unproductive (in economic terms at least).
So the social and economic cleavages that were on display in the election result have their relationship to some of the more traditional issues. But they expressed themselves in a way which had not been expected. In the weeks before the vote, we were told that Mr. Netanyahu and other parties of the right would increase and consolidate their hold on power; they slipped badly. We were told that the new centre party, led by media personality Yair Lapid, would get a sliver of the vote; it came second, with 19 seats. We were told that the centre-left Labour Party was on life support; it came third. Both of these parties made gains at the expense of Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud/Beitenu faction, which lost 11 seats. We were also told that the new hard-right party of Naftali Bennett was going to hold the balance of power, and was evidence of a rising right-wing tide in Israel; it came a disappointing fourth.
Mr. Netanyahu seems to have read the message correctly. While there is enough on the right to permit him to try to form a government composed of right-wing and religious parties only, it would be risky, and the resulting government would be both unstable and likely to isolate Israel further internationally. Mr. Netanyahu has therefore reached out to the centre in hopes of forming a coalition. Mr.Lapid seems to be receptive, if his own public messaging is any indication. The resulting coalition between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lapid (plus a few other centre parties) would be a curious beast, but could also be workable.
We should not, however, expect that such a government would place the peace process at the centre of its mandate. The election was not about the peace process; it was about the cost of living.
However, reining in the subsidies and benefits given to the religious minority and the settlers, as part of the process of addressing the inequalities of Israeli life, would inevitably weaken those constituencies. They are two of the primary groups opposed to the concessions required to make peace with the Palestinians.
This impact could be important in laying the foundation for renewed peace efforts. Polling (yes, the same polling that got the election results wrong) has consistently shown that the majority of Israelis are not so much opposed to the two-state solution as increasingly convinced of its impossibility. But it is the provocations of the settler and religious movements that have added to reasons why peace has become so difficult to envisage (along with, of course, the activities of those Palestinian movements who reject compromise with Israel).
If the parties most opposed to peace are politically hobbled in Israel, the dynamic may change. In these circumstances, a renewed push by U.S. President Barack Obama to get Israeli-Palestinian talks going again may find some purchase. All of this is some months away, until after a new Israeli government emerges from the coalition-building process and gets settled in.
But the Israeli election re-arranged the pieces of the puzzle in interesting ways. We had expected that the rather hopeless dynamic of the past few years would continue and be intensified. Instead, the stage has been set for a real change - maybe.
Peter Jones is associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and Internation Affairs, University of Ottawa. A version of this article appears on the blog of the Centre for International Policy Studies