Israeli election results reflect deep divisions in that society, say Stanford scholars

Stanford faculty experts say that security concerns were the dominant factor in the outcome of Israel's election this week. Political and religious fault lines in Israeli society contributed to the tone and results of the campaign.

AP Photo/Oded Balilty Israeli man with his daughter voting in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015

An Israeli man with his daughter prepares to vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2015.

Israel's next chapter awaits the fallout from a contentious election unrivaled in that country's history, say Stanford faculty experts.

Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud party won a narrow victory this week over its principal rival, the center-left Zionist Union. The next step is for Netanyahu to form a coalition government after an election characterized by heated rhetoric and issues of existential importance to Israel.

Russell Berman, a Stanford professor of German studies and of comparative literature, said that Netanyahu's nearly single-minded focus on security issues won him votes that would have otherwise gone to smaller right-wing parties.

"The conservative political spectrum, in total, fared less well than it did in the previous election, although Likud now emerges as the uncontested leader of that camp," said Berman.

He said the center-left spectrum suffered from candidates without charisma as well as a split among its multiple parties: "Beyond this partisan political arithmetic, it is clear that security concerns were the key to the election and Netanyahu articulated them more effectively than his competition."

As for Israel's stance against Iran's nuclear program, Berman said that the real issue is not Israel's stance but America's strategy in the Middle East.

"The consistent U.S. policy of reducing its footprint throughout the region has caused regional actors to begin to behave differently with greater attention to their own security. The real question is whether giving up on Pax Americana will also mean giving up on Pax," said Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

He explained that during the Cold War, some Europeans doubted the credibility of the American nuclear shield, asking whether the United States would risk nuclear war with Russia in order to defend West Germany. Recent events in Ukraine have revived these concerns in the Baltic states and Poland, he added.

"This lesson is not lost in Israel, as Iran acquires enrichment capacity, all the while expanding its ballistic missile capacity," he said.

Berman believes the Israeli elections have had no impact on the possible reality of a nuclear Iran. "If Isaac Herzog [from the Zionist Union] had won, the Iranian nuclear enrichment would not have disappeared."

Political, religious, social divisions

This was arguably the most contentious election in Israel's history, said Reut Itzkovitch-Malka, a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. A researcher from the Israel Institute, she studies political representation, gender and politics, political parties and elections.

"It means more of the same," said Itzkovitch-Malka, referring to the Netanyahu victory. "He has no reason and no incentive to change his policy, especially in regard to Iran. This is an issue he feels very strongly about, as well as one which, most likely, bought him some of the electoral revenues he got."

Depending on how the nuclear talks with Iran progress, she said, this could become a substantial problem for Israel, one with serious implications for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The election exposed serious fault lines in Israeli society between the religious and the secular, and the right and the left, said Itzkovitch-Malka. She said Israel is composed of different social groups with distinct national, communal and religious elements.

"Group identities that are prominent in national politics reflect the rifts between Jewish and Arab citizens, between religious [Orthodox] and non-religious Jews; and between Ashkenazi Jews [whose origins are in Europe] and Mizrahi Jews [whose origins are in North Africa and Asia]," she said.

In the last two decades, Israeli society has become more fragmented than ever, said Itzkovitch-Malka. Some of the recent campaign rhetoric reflected an "us or them" mentality, portraying the other side as demonic and destructive for Israeli society, she said. Racism against Arabs was also used in the politicking, she said.

And so, domestic and economic issues have almost taken a backseat to the focus on security and group-minded politics, said Itzkovitch-Malka.

"To some extent, it is hard or even impossible to talk about a common feeling or common mood, given the deep divisions in Israeli society," she said. The country's pressing concerns are the Palestinian issue, the growing cost of living, the deepening social cleavages and racism, she noted.

Two-state solution?

Stephen Krasner, Stanford's Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said that Netanyahu's apparent rejection of a two-state solution for now is a tactical mistake.

"Even if a two-state agreement is not likely, there is nothing else on offer for now, and Israel loses nothing by keeping it on the table but risks alienating international support if it takes it off the table," he said.

Krasner said the outlines of a two-state solution have been on the table at least since the Camp David meetings at the end of the Clinton administration.

"The fundamental impediment to reaching this settlement has been spoilers, especially but not exclusively on the Palestinian side, and the involvement of external actors," he said.

Krasner said he believes it would not be hard for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to an agreement if "somehow the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea could be isolated from the rest of the world."

As it stands now, it is much harder to reach a two-state solution agreement since neither side is able to assess its relative power, he noted.

In regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, Krasner described it as a threat to the stability of the Middle East and the world: "The only durable solution is regime change in Iran but this can only come from within Iran. It may or may not happen."

Russell Berman, German Studies and Comparative Literature: (650) 723-1069, berman@stanford.edu

Reut Itzkovitch-Malka, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law: (408) 644-0749, reut@stanford.edu

Stephen Krasner, Political Science: (650) 723-0676, skrasner@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu