May 24, 2019

Israelis Voted Center (Yes, They Did)

Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

We don’t expect our politicians to be completely truthful on a good day. When coalitions are formed, their members do nothing but lie. So as you observe Israel from afar in the next six or seven weeks, remain skeptical. Don’t believe the rumors about certain parties having their way; don’t believe the gossip about this or that person getting this or that position; don’t buy the reports about future government policies. Remember: They all spin, maneuver, mislead, pretend. It’s all part of coalition negotiation. It’s all a part of politicians having to look like winners at the end of a process whose main essence is compromise. 

The eventual outcome is pretty much set: A government of right-religious parties with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. If you disliked the outgoing government, you are not going to like the new government. If you feel that the exiting government was reasonable, you are likely to have the same feeling about the incoming government. All in all, Israel went through a tough campaign to find itself in about the same place. If you read this column in the past couple of months, this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

This is who we are: right wing and traditional. But don’t be fooled by images — we aren’t extremists. In the last election, a majority of Israeli Jews voted for two centrist parties, Likud and Blue and White. One of them will form a coalition, and thus must give more radical elements the power to dictate their terms. And yet, the majority of centrists marks a certain boundary that the radicals cannot cross, so as not to put their majority status at risk. 

Where do we see this boundary? We see it everywhere. Example: The ultra-Orthodox parties never seriously attempted to ban soccer games on Shabbat. They didn’t attempt such a thing even though they oppose all commercial activity on Saturdays. They didn’t attempt such a thing even when their political power was at its peak. They didn’t attempt such a thing because of the transparent boundary of centrism. The Israeli center is ready to have a debate about many things, but it’s not ready to even begin a conversation about soccer games. 

“So as concerned people follow the formation of a new coalition, my first advice is to be suspicious, and my second is to be calm. Israel’s policies will remain close to the centrist majority.” 

Another example: No government thus far has proposed to annex the West Bank and naturalize its Palestinian population. I don’t expect any future government to suggest such a thing. Why? Because of centrist Israelis who want Israel to retain its clear Jewish majority. Not even the radicals of the right can persuade an Israeli government to adopt such a policy. Not even if these radicals have the power to make or break a government.

So as concerned people follow the formation of a new coalition, my first advice is to be suspicious, and my second is to be calm. Israel’s policies will remain close to the centrist majority. Israel’s policies will remain close to the policies of previous governments. No, Israel isn’t going to retake Gaza — not unless the situation, security- wise, becomes unbearable. No, Israel isn’t going to eliminate the supreme court. It might tweak its wingspan of authority, but that’s not the same thing. No, Israel isn’t going to force religiosity on its elementary school students, not even if the somewhat radical leader of the Tkumah party becomes education minister. By the way, one of the great secrets of the Education Ministry is that officials there have very little room to maneuver. They can make changes, they cannot revolutionize. Certainly not in one term. 

Remember that fact if you are an outsider who tends to worry a lot about Israel’s future. Remember that you were probably as worried, if not more, after the 2015 election. Four years later, Israel is not in ruin. Four years later, few things changed, some for the better (the number of students excelling in math), some for worse (traffic congestion). Some remained about the same. 

Remember that fact if you are an outsider who expects a new government to make all your dreams come true. That isn’t going to happen. The next Netanyahu government will have a narrow majority of a few seats, and will be able to implement only the policies that all members of the coalition accept. The rightists will have to take into account the center-right members. The untrained-Orthodox will have to be considerate of the secular members. And all parties will have to take into account the voters, most of whom aren’t radicals.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.