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

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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).

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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.