Has Israel shifted further to the right?

The latest election results analysed.

Billed as Israel’s decisive shift to the right, the election to the nineteenth Knesset merely represents treading-water. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises the same as before on security, the peace process and economy. But the shifting sands of Israeli electoral politics always throw up interesting, maybe significant, trends.

On the traditional right Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisreal Beiteinu ran a joint list seeking to capitalise on their close co-operation in government. However, as is often the case in electoral politics, the union proved to less than the sum of its two parts, loosing eleven seats overall to fall to 31 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset.

Part of Likud-Beiteinu’s problem may have been getting outflanked in their rhetoric by ultra-nationalist Jewish Home. Originally the most pragmatic of the religious parties, the National Religious Party, since becoming Jewish Home they have taken more strident positions, being part of the extreme-right National Union list in the 2006 election and for 2013 reversing this by incorporating most of the National Union. However, even with charismatic leader Naftali Bennett their campaign only brought three more seats, twelve in total, than their previous alliance did in 2006. Absent from Jewish Home was (now former) MK Michael Ben-Arfi, who was elected third on the National Union list in 2009 and was previously a member of the banned Kach party – a group originally founded by the racist Meir Kahane. Ben-Arfi stood with a new party, Otzma Le Yisrael, only just falling short of the two per cent threshold for entering parliament.

It was in the centre where arguably more happened. The now crowded centre-ground will see three parties represented. Most sensational is TV presenter Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or There is a Future Party. It seems that Netanyahu will need Yesh Atid’s support, but on what terms? Coming second with 19 seats Lapid’s party forcefully represents the interests and economic concerns of Israel’s secular middle-class. After widespread support for the social justice protests in 2011 this is an important constituency but is Yesh Atid a one-man band? Lapid notably eschewed joining Labour and existing centrist party Kadima, which had been founded by the still comatose Ariel Sharon as almost his final act in 2005. Or is Yesh Atid a one-hit wonder? Centrist parties such as Dash in 1977 and Shinui in 2003 have stormed into the Knesset in large-ish numbers only to disappear at the next election. Shinui even included Lapid’s father Tommy.

The fate of Kadima could also be illustrative, combining pragmatists from Likud and Labour they were the largest party in the 2006 and 2009 elections but split after failing to form a government in 2009. Former leader Tzipi Livni formed another new party Hatnuah, which gained six seats and the rump Kadima crashed down to two at this election. The centre is vibrant and has specific demands, notably on the economy and secularism, but how this will be represented in future is probably still up for grabs.

Labour were third with 15 seats, up two from 2009 – or up seven from 2011 when Ehud Barak and his supporters left the party to continue his support of Netanyahu’s government. For the party that for many encapsulates the foundation of Israel as a functioning democracy in the Middle East (note to Egypt you need to show you can protect civic and press freedoms and hold subsequent elections become you can call yourself a functioning democracy) it has been a long fall. Never below 40 seats throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they last had a plurality of seats in 1999 and last achieved over 40 in 1992. It remains to be seen whether leader and former political journalist Shelly Yachimovich can further rebuild the party. Indeed fellow social democrats Meretz arguably benefitted more from the 2011 social justice protests doubling their seats from three to six.

For the Ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism it was largely as you were, 18 seats between them, up from 16. It remains to be seen if Netanyahu can cobble together parliamentary support from both the Ultra-Orthodox and the secular centre. Similarly the Arab parties were largely unchanged – left-leaning Balad remained on three and the more Islamist United Arab List-Ta’al gained one seat to win four. And the Communists keep a toe-hold in parliament through Hadash a cross-community grouping whose unchanged representation consists of three Israeli-Arabs and one secular Jewish-Israeli.

Far from its pre-election billing, the tectonic shift to the right was actually in 1977, the first election when Likud took more seats than Labour, in 2013 it is too soon to tell whether there was a shift further right, to the centre or even the start of a rebirth on the left.

Benjamin Netanyahu heads the first weekly Cabinet meeting since the election. Photograph: Getty Images
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit