Why Israel's Netanyahu can win without a party platform

Today's Israeli election has seen surprisingly little debate on key issues like security and peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ticket never even bothered to publish a party platform.

Uriel Sinai/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem, Tuesday. Israelis headed to polling stations Tuesday to cast votes in a parliamentary election expected to return Netanyahu to office despite years of stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and mounting economic troubles.

In a country where people often joke that you can put two Jews in a room and end up with three opinions, the Israeli election has seen surprisingly little debate on key issues.

The millions of Palestinians living next door, who fired rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time this fall and stepped up terror activity in the West Bank by 400 percent since the summer? Hardly a word. The “existential” threat posed by Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vows to launch a unilateral strike if necessary – a promise that stirred extraordinary controversy in Israel last year? The candidates were mysteriously quiet. 

And even on socioeconomic issues, like the 35 percent spike in the cost of housing after Mr. Netanyahu took office, many candidates didn’t outline comprehensive plans. Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu ticket never even bothered to publish a party platform – and yet the bloc is poised to win the most Knesset seats in today’s election.

But this doesn’t mean that voters are apathetic. Instead, it is a reflection of how Israeli elections have become much more focused on personalities rather than ideology, observers say, with candidates and voters making abrupt changes in allegiance.

“In the early days of the country, everything was ideological,” recalls Yehuda Ben-Meir, a former politician now at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, noting that up until 1992 only party names appeared on the ballot. “Elections have become very, very personal in Israel."

The inability to unite around key issues was particularly evident among center-left parties, who have been unable to mount a serious threat to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. Instead, they splintered into three main factions, with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni starting her own Hatnua party in November and wooing Amir Peretz to join her in what many saw as a power play rather than a real union of interests.

“They [center-left politicians] have broken into so many little groups that they’re going to give [Netanyahu] back the chair wrapped as a gift because they’re so moved by ego and not by ideology,” said Tamar Asraf, spokeswoman for the West Bank settlement of Eli, several weeks after Hatnua was established.

Indeed, Netanyahu looks poised to secure a third term as prime minister, provided he can put together a government coalition that comprises a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

‘Strong Israel’

Netanyahu’s face has been plastered all over bridges, buildings, and even gas stations with the slogan “Strong Prime Minister, Strong Israel.”

No other party in the election even tried to challenge the prime minister’s self-proclaimed status as the only leader who could keep Israel safe from Iranian bombs and Palestinian terrorism.

“Netanyahu was quite happy to have the election be as quiet as possible, [centering] around him as the strong leader with the implication being that Iran is the major reason why he’s the strong leader and dealing with Palestinians but not making either of the two issues big issues,” says Leslie Susser, diplomatic editor for the Jerusalem Report.

Center-left leaders, who largely lack the diplomatic experience and security credentials of Netanyahu, chose to focus mainly on socioeconomic issues – pigeonholing themselves as lesser leaders who wouldn’t presume to become prime minister. That was particularly true in the case of Shelly Yacimovich, head of the Labor party, who scarcely mentioned Palestinians in her campaign despite Labor’s long tradition of championing the two-state solution.

“Shelly Yacimovich played the socio-economic card almost exclusively … without any pretense of having something to say about the bigger issue,” says Mr. Susser. “It says a lot about her vision of herself as a leader.”

Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor, got some traction by advocating for a better life for the middle class but also steered clear of the Palestinian issue.

“Once Shelly Yacimovich and Lapid ignored it, it was very convenient for others to ignore it,” says Alon Liel, a former diplomat.  

The exception was Ms. Livni, who together with Mr. Peretz – a former defense minister – arguably had the strongest diplomatic and security credentials apart from Netanyahu.

She warned that the prime minister was leading Israel in a dangerous direction, endangering strategic relations with the United States and isolating Israel internationally. But in recent weeks she and her Hatnua party have slipped in the polls.

One reason may be that the lack of suicide attacks in Israel in recent years – after the government built a wall along much of the border with the West Bank. This has caused a certain degree of “out of sight, out of mind” vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

“Israel was able to … extend settlements, live in peace, but without symbolically seeing what’s happening to Palestinians on the other side of the wall,” says Honaida Ghanim, an Israeli citizen and director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies in Ramallah, West Bank.

‘In one ear’

But maybe the fact that there has been less focus on external threats and more on things like the cost of food and rent is a good thing, says a voter in Jerusalem who gave her name only as Judy because she’s a journalist.

“Usually it's been about the peace process,” she says, as she heads to the polls to cast a vote for Netanyahu. “Maybe it shows Israel's becoming a more normal country."

Etka Liebowitz, who has lived in Israel for 30 years, would like to see even more focus on domestic issues. 

"To me, issues like healthcare, education, freedom from religious coercion are the most important,” Ms. Liebowitz says. “If the country is strong internally we will be strong on security." 

* Chelsea B. Sheasley contributed reporting.

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