Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Israeli Electoral Endowment

My Israeli electoral quick reactions are already somewhat obsolete, as they were based on exit polling which turned out to underestimate Likud's performance dramatically. Nonetheless, some of the observations still hold, and I think there is an interesting psychological effect going on here in which perceptions about how the election will go (days or hours before the polls close) are affecting perceptions about how the election did go.

Let's be clear -- I'm not happy about the outcome of this election. The parties I support didn't do as well as I would have liked, by a considerable stretch. And it looks almost assured that Bibi will remain Prime Minister, which is a burgeoning disaster for Israel's international image, its relationship with America, and its long-term viability as a Jewish, democratic state. It feels like the right-wing won big last night.

But if one looks at the actual results, something odd emerges that conflicts with the narrative of a "crushing conservative victory." Let's divide the Knesset into five blocs: conservative, centrist, liberal, Arab, and religious. The conservative bloc in the last Knesset had 43 seats (20 for Likud, 12 for Jewish Home, and 11 for Yisrael Beitanu). The conservative bloc in the next Knesset will have ... 44 seats. 30 will be for Likud, 8 for Jewish Home, and 6 for Yisrael Beiteinu. Even from a progressive standpoint, it is more than a bit weird to think that an election where the right basically tread water, but individual seats shift from the far-right parties to the (relatively) mainstream right is a bad thing.

So if the right didn't increase its seat count, who did? The centrist bloc (Yesh Atid and Kadima) entered with 21 seats. It emerged the exact same -- 21 seats split between the newcomer Kulanu and Yesh Atid. The religious parties (Shas and UTJ) dropped from a combined 18 to a combined 13 -- a five seat dip. The liberal camp -- the seeming clear losers -- entered with 27 seats and left with 28; ZU gaining 3 seats while Meretz lost 2 (so a shift from the left to the center-left). The real winner was the Arab bloc, which pulled in 14 MKs (a gain of 3) to become the third largest party in the Knesset.

So basically, the election left us in a similar position to where we started, except that the Arab political parties gained at the expense of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties. Why all the long faces?

One answer is that staying in a "similar position" is not exactly good news for people who think Israel's current position is all too precarious. To the extent this was an opportunity to reverse Israel's eroding global standing, it is a dramatic missed opportunity. Abba Eban would be rolling in his grave. Another possibility is that others don't view Kulanu the way that I do, basically viewing it as part of the right-wing camp. If one takes that perspective, then this was a landslide conservative victory. As noted, I don't take that position -- but the proof will soon be in the pudding.

But I think the bigger issue is that many people really believed that this election would be different -- not just based on idle hopes, but based on polling data. The last few days of polling all pointed to a big Zionist Union victory, and so that became the baseline of what "success" was. When the exit polls came out and showed a neck and neck race, that was a big comedown even though a few weeks prior "neck and neck" was the watchword of the entire race. And when the actual results started to come in and demonstrated that the right had done even better than the exit polls predicted, it felt like a calamity -- not because it objectively was one, but because we had sufficiently altered our expectations and then seen them dashed.

Maybe this is putting on a brave face. Not too brave -- I'm very pessimistic about the next few years for Israel -- but "brave" in the sense that I'm resisting a narrative of a right-wing groundswell emerging out of this election. But I honestly, truly don't believe its accurate. More than half of Israelis, now-represented by 62 MKs, voted for parties that reject both right-wing nationalism and ultra-Orthodox religious conservatism. This is not the worst thing. This is not a catastrophe.

It's just the regular type of bad.

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