Netanyahu's Challengers Must Reach Out to All the Tribes of Israel

In Anshel Pfeffer's new blog on the Israeli elections, he surmises that Israel is a tribal society and Netanyahu is the only multi-tribal politician.

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American voters discovered last week that democracy is a wonderful thing. Once in four years they hold a bitter, divisive and interminable election that costs around $6 billion and as the dust settles it turns out that nothing has changed. The same man in the White House, the same parties controlling both houses of Congress and the same people needing to get back to dealing with the same old problems.

Now that the Americans have had their fun, it's time for Israelis to take the medicine, as well.

Click here for Anshel Pfeffer's 2013 election blog

Here the polls are unanimous about the main result. The fortunes of the various parties may fluctuate over the next 70 days but the blocs remain solid. The right-wing and religious parties continue to hold around 55 percent of the electorate, ensuring a third term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of a coalition similar to the one he currently governs. There are no signs of any defection from that bloc toward the center-left parties, certainly not on a scale that could jeopardize the Netanyahu coalition.

What are the chances of Netanyahu forming a different, more moderate coalition?

With at least four parties jostling in the middle ground for centrist votes, none of them will be large enough to allow him to forsake his old partners. And besides, his own Likud party will almost certainly be more right wing in the next Knesset and will not be prepared for the compromises necessary for such a coalition. There probably will be a centrist party in the next government but they will be like Labor under Ehud Barak in the first two years of this one: devoid of any real influence over policies.

So is this campaign simply a waste of our time? Would it be better just to go on vacation for three months since nothing will have changed when we return? Of course not. The election process is essential even if the results are foregone and simply preserve the status quo. Not only do they serve their basic democratic purpose of renewing a government's mandate, but they also allow the various groups and communities that comprise society to form their agendas and to coalesce into wider groupings with shared interests, ideals and values. They highlight divisions and core arguments between groups and force representatives to stake out their positions. The polls may provide only a snapshot of the public's preferences at an arbitrary date but the way each of the political players tries to jostle into the frame for the split-second of the shutter's opening tells us a lot of what we need to know.

The 2012 U.S. elections may have ended with an almost identical result to those of 2008 but they proved that the coalition Barack Obama had built of seemingly diverse sections of American society was not a one-off temporary achievement. He has succeeded in bringing together a majority with minorities, newcomers and old-timers.

For all the talk of his success among the black community and with the Latino vote, pundits seem to have forgotten that the majority of his votes still came from white voters. He couldn't have won without them and these elections underlined the fact, for whomever it was still unclear, that no candidate can hope to win the presidency if he (or she) is incapable of bridging this divide.

In Israel, with its proportional-representation parliamentary elections, the separate role played by the different tribes is much more pronounced. And no one on the political scene today has shown anything near the capability of Netanyahu to connect to a wide enough range of tribes to gain a majority. He speaks to them in their own language, plays to their fears and makes different, often conflicting promises. Netanyahu is very much like Obama – and not only does he convince a diverse array of voters, but he also creates a feeling of partnership with the leaders of other parties, whose constituents didn't vote for him but are happy for their representatives to sit in his coalition.

Israel is a tribal society and Netanyahu is the only multi-tribal politician. The challenge for his rivals, those who want to be powerful members of his coalition and those who would replace him and his coalition, is to learn how to reach out beyond their own tribe. So far none of them have proved capable of doing this. Like Mitt Romney, they are all wedded to their base without the necessary personal and political flexibility. They have 10 weeks to learn how to do this if they are to have any hope of challenging Netanyahu.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, casts his vote, followed by his wife Sara, during the Likud party primary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012Credit: AP