‘If there’s one thing to remember about Israeli elections,’ noted my mother-in-law last November, ‘it’s that anything can happen.’ And whilst this makes for a lot of fun, it also attests to the bitter fact that there was nothing inevitable about the Likud-Beiteinu victory.
In the run up to the submission of the party lists, everything is in free play. In refreshing contrast to the plodding dullness of the UK’s two party system, politicians spent most of December jostling around, switching parties, forging alliances and betraying one another whilst the press constantly ran stories of ever more outlandish candidacies. Haaretz angrily described this period as plumbing new ‘depths of moral and ideological bankruptcy’ as politicians swapped allegiances and ditched ideologies in favour of the promise of power and influence after the elections.
At moments political arena resembled a WWE wrestling ring; Likud and Israel Beiteinu joined together to form a formidable tag-team, projected to grab 45 seats in the next Knesset. Previous big names were touted as being ready to come out of retirement: Olmert looked poised to return as the heroic saviour of the peace-process and there was (wild?) speculation that the much loved Godfather of Israeli politics, Peres (89), could sweep down from the Presidency and take power as the head of a grand coalition of the left. Livni, as expected, did burst back into the ring with a new party whilst Barak announced his retirement although no one believed that he wouldn’t return later wearing a different coloured cape, just in time to bomb Iran.
Politics here is a much more open affair than in Britain. As long as people know your name, you’re a potential politician. Candidates included leaders of Tel Aviv’s recent social protests, the father of captured soldier Gilad Shalit as well as the many journalists who regularly try their luck. In Britain a criminal record is generally a political no no, but here felonies need be no hindrance. Olmert could have run despite his recent conviction, Lieberman prevails despite facing corruption charges that could see him banned from politics for 10 years, and Deri, now out of prison, returned directly to his prior position as head of Shas.
But everything was cleared up once the submissions were closed. The Israeli people were given a fine list of 32 parties to choose from including the Pirate Party and the secular man from Kibbutz Afikim who was instructed to run for election by God. (Amazingly, there were still people complaining that they had no one to vote for. Try voting in Britain, I told them.) The right had cleverly combined the list of Likud and Israel Beiteinu while the centre left remained predictably fractured. It looked like another four years of King Bibi, war with Iran, the formal end to Oslo, the annexing of area C, a third Intifada, the heralding of an era of international pariahdom, the continued polarisation of wealth among Israel’s citizens, more erosion of public services and expensive cottage cheese. The opinion polls showed an alarming lurch to the right and it became impossible to turn on the television without encountering Naftali Bennett’s unpleasant rictus.
In the end it was an election of two stories: Bibi’s disappointing show and Lapid’s entirely unpredicted success. Bibi, usually the master tactician, screwed the campaign up. Pushed hard by the extreme right, he managed to alienate his voters by joining with Lieberman, pretending to be religious with almost daily visits to the Kotel and by attacking Bennett, who most Likudniks secretly want to be. In the end, with really very little to say, his campaign slogan urged people to vote for him so that there would be a strong government, an argument which amounts to ‘vote for me so that I get lots of votes.’ Most astonishingly, he had so little to say, or so much arrogant disregard for his voters that he didn’t even trouble himself with a manifesto.
Lapid’s success seems to have been based largely on his handsome good looks, suave leather jacket and the ability to be so vague that voters from all sides fantasised that he best represented their interests. It was only a few hours before the polling stations closed that anyone realised just how well he would do. Only then did we understand how misleading the opinion polls were. In the end, the Knesset would lean, but only just, to the right: 61 to 59, leaving many people regretting how tantalisingly close we were to being rid of Bibi. If only fewer votes had been wasted on parties that failed to get a seat, if only more Arab citizens had voted, if only, indeed, more Jewish citizens had voted. A few more centre left seats and it could have been so different. So, Israeli politics; anything can happen, and it sort of almost did. Next time.