Israel's 2006 Elections: With a Whimper, Not a Bang

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The breathtaking events of late 2005 and early 2006 promised an extraordinary shakeup in Israeli politics. 

In November 2005, Amir Peretz's surprise win over Shimon Peres in the Labor party primary, and his decision to pull Labor out of the government, precipitated a series of dramatic changes. Until then, two bottlenecks were stopping up the system: Ariel Sharon was stuck in a party, Likud, that he had founded but had long since outgrown, while across the aisle, Peres' stubborn refusal to yield his personal ambition paralyzed Labor. So determined was Peres to make his way back into the Cabinet Room--maybe even the Prime Minister's Office-- that he had crippled one generation of successors and threatened to do the same to another.

A New Party is Born

The eclipse of Peres set in motion a stunning realignment. Sharon defected from Likud and, with centrist defectors from Labor, created a new party: Kadima. With Kadima, Sharon could pursue the policy trajectory he had already introduced and, in what long-time Labor MK Haim Ramon termed "the Big Bang," resurrect a broad ruling center resembling the historic MAPAI of Ben-Gurion, through whose ranks he and Peres had risen.

Sharon's stroke in January 2006 seemed to put Kadima in danger (though it also helped it by removing Sharon's corruption scandals from the public agenda). But Kadima, now led by Sharon's designated successor, Ehud Olmert, survived, pointing to the underlying suasion of that broad consensus. It finally seemed as though the Knesset would assume the rough shape of the body politic it purported to represent. It would leave most of the territories while retaining the major blocs, not out of love for the Palestinians, but to distance Israel from them; and it would accept free markets sans Bibinomics--the aggressive capitalism of Benjamin Netanyahu. At long last, the endless horse-trading and thin coalitions that had bedeviled Israeli politics for so long would be behind us.

The truth turned out to be more complicated.

Landslide Predicted

From the moment of its birth the media and the chattering classes threw their weight behind Kadima. Poll after poll, article after article claimed its invincibility, and the vast majority of journalists and pundits (this writer included) assumed that it would indeed win big. After all, wasn't a realist pullout from the territories and an embrace of free markets what everybody wanted?

In the run-up to the Gaza disengagement, a leading journalist freely confessed that the media was giving Sharon a pass on his many corruption scandals for the sake of disengagement, comparing Sharon to the communal etrog which must be preserved at all costs. Kadima assumed that role, and this time the etrog blew up in the media's face when it turned out that Kadima's support was broad, but thinner than expected.

The chattering classes--overwhelmingly secular, urban, native-born, and Ashkenazi--consistently underreported and underestimated the strength of the Sephardic religious party Shas and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. In the end, Kadima garnered 29 Knesset seats, far fewer than originally predicted, but enough to gain Olmert the premiership. Indeed, having been told over and over that the election was a done deal, many voters simply stayed home.

Social and Economic Issues

As for Labor, its top dozen or so candidates did indeed promise change, and as a group seemed more impressive than Amir Peretz himself; yet none of them could provide the elbows that Peretz did to eject Peres and finally make Labor at least seem like a Social-Democratic alternative to Bibinomics. Though the 19 Knesset seats garnered by Labor were the same number gained in the previous election, it was the first time in years that Labor didn't actually lose seats, and, aided by the stunning collapse of Likud, Labor re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Peretz proved to be nobody's fool and a formidable political force. Whether his self-proclaimed role as tribune of the masses had any grounding in economic reality would eventually be put to the test.

Early commentary on the election suggested that economic justice, or as it's known in Israel, "social issues," were a deciding factor, accounting for the strong showings of Labor, Shas (12 Knesset seats), and the Pensioners (7 seats), each of whom made it a feature of their campaigns. That, however, seemed something of a misreading. Peretz, during his time as head of the Histadrut, the national labor federation, never seriously engaged the genuine and well-documented shortcomings of socialism and the challenges of globalization. His strikes and work actions failed to yield even cost-of-living allowances.

Shas forcefully called attention to the economic travails afflicting much of Israeli society, yet it offered no concrete program for macroeconomic growth. To the contrary, it was hard not to see its call for economic justice as ancillary to, if not a fig leaf for, its religious agenda. Still, Shas could justly revel in the utter evaporation of its former nemesis, Shinui, which went from fifteen seats to zero, perhaps a proper reward for its rabid (possibly even racist) anticlericalism.

And then there was the biggest surprise--the seven seats won by the Pensioners Party. This was in essence the protest vote of generally better-off middle class voters and of young people put off by what they saw as the hopeless torpor of the established parties. That the head of the Pensioners' Party, Rafi Eitan, was a hard-as-nails Mossad operative responsible for the Pollard debacle who became a wealthy man, in part through lucrative deals with Fidel Castro, and that nobody had the slightest idea what he or the other new MKs on his list thought about any public issue other than pension, seemed not to have crossed voters' minds.

Most everybody voted against Bibinomics (Likud garnered only 12 Knesset seats). Yet there was still little intelligent debate about appropriate economic policies for a country like Israel, a world leader in hi-tech whose breathtaking disparities in wealth run directly counter to the strong social solidarity of traditional Zionist ideology.

The Territories

One major policy debate, however, was settled. A solid consensus emerged among Israel's Jewish polity for leaving the territories, in whole or in part, sooner rather than later. This view spread along a spectrum from, on the left, Meretz, which advocated a full return to the pre-1967 borders and was willing to negotiate on the Right of Return, all the way rightward to Yisrael Beitenu, which advocated not only leaving much of the territories but many of Israel's Arab citizens, as well. In between were Labor and Kadima, who differed on whether to leave the territories unilaterally or as part of a negotiation (an option made less likely by the ascendancy of Hamas).

The Arab parties (9 seats), for better or worse, would not be part of this national conversation. The Likud and the merged National Religious Party-National Union failed to present a scenario whereby Israel could hold on to the territories and still maintain its Jewish and democratic character.

The ultra-Orthodox parties, as always, would accommodate everyone else's chief priority (defense and security) in exchange for consideration of their's: funding for their growing networks of institutions and a rolling-back of Netanyahu's welfare cuts.

Kadima would not be the magic bullet that would, at a stroke, redraw Israel's borders and ensure the country's future for the foreseeable future, but real change seemed to be on the horizon. For years there had been a silent consensus in favor of leaving most, if not all, of Judea and Samaria, but it never found expression as an electoral mandate. Now it had. Not in dewy-eyed hopes for a New Middle East, but as a necessary excision that would enable Israel to meet the multiple and unending challenges--military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural--that lay ahead.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.