The Israeli elections look confusing and almost indescribably complicated to most Americans but conservatives eager to put an end to the Obama era can still learn some important lessons from the results.
First, those results from Israel will remain opaque and indecisive for days, even for weeks, after the ballots are actually counted on Tuesday. With at least ten parties likely to win seats in Israel’s 120 seat parliament, and with no party given a real chance to win more than 26 seats in Knesset, the question isn’t which candidate for prime minister “wins” but which one is most likely to put together a viable coalition.
As Republicans look at the situation in Jerusalem, it seems hard to explain why Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t coasting to his fourth term, as he clearly expected he would when he called these “snap” elections in December. After all, the final polls all showed that on crucial national security issues the electorate shares the center-right outlook of Bibi and his allies far more than it does the center-left, “share the land” approach of his chief competitor. What’s more, two of the leading public opinion surveys asked a question of voters that they don’t get to answer on their ballots: aside from the party you prefer, which candidate would you choose as prime minister? In both polls, Netanyahu showed a decisive lead of ten points – leaving many outside observers seriously perplexed about the simultaneous lead for the Zionist Alliance party of Bibi’s chief rival, Itzhak (“Bougie”) Hertzog.
If Israelis agree with Netanyahu’s right wing stands, and clear pluralities would prefer him as Prime Minister, how did the party of the center left standard bearer, Bougie, manage to move into the apparent lead in terms of the number of parliamentary seats it’s likely to win?
The most direct answer to that complicated question is that compared to the internal squabbling of Israel’s right, the Left-Center did a much better job in unifying its interests and subordinating egos and ambitions to the good of the movement. The “Zionist Alliance” is actually a tenuous combination of Israel’s traditionally Socialist Labour Party and the Hatnua faction associated with Tzippi Livni, whose family has been prominent in right wing Likud circles for more than a half century.
By contrast, the right has indulged in a near Hobbesian internal war of personalities and policies that currently shows as many as seven different parties crossing the electoral threshold to win seats in Knesset. Some of these right-leaning parties are led by close associates and former Cabinet ministers previously linked to Netanyahu.
Conventional wisdom suggests that with these various right wing parties likely to enjoy a combined advantage when the Knesset finally takes shape they will eventually manage to get together, form what the Prime Minister calls a “natural coalition” and return Bibi to lead the government. But it’s worth noting that in an election that shouldn’t even be close, there’s still a widespread expectation that the leading party of the left-center will draw more overall seats in parliament than the leading party of the right center.
Why? In part, because many Israelis, like most Americans, may actually long for a less divided, less partisan, more cooperative approach to governance. When Hertzog and Livni assembled their “Zionist Alliance” they promised to share the four year term as Prime Minister – each taking two years. On election eve, Livni went further and indicated that she would personally step aside from her two year claim if it would help her side negotiate a successful coalition. In other words, those voters who long for less polarization and bitterness might well look at the badly divided right, and compare it to the newly united (and perhaps temporarily united) center-left, and lean temperamentally toward the more soft-spoken (Yitzhak Herzog is notorious for his reedy, high-pitched voice) and compromising team.
The message to American conservatives ought to be obvious. Every major poll in the USA shows a strong desire from every segment of the electorate for more cooperation and less confrontation in Washington. The bitter and seemingly perpetual polarization between the resurgent GOP and an arrogantly isolated president has brought public disillusionment with both sides.
With Republicans facing a much greater chance of a fiercely contested and seemingly interminable struggle for the presidential nomination than their Hillary-besotted Democratic counterparts, the GOP stands a good chance of cementing its image as the party of squabbling, division, and out-of-control egos.
That vision won’t help the American right in 2016. And there’s good reason to believe that it’s done some serious damage to the Israeli right in 2015—as developments of the next few days will surely make clear.