02/22/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Continuously Occupied Since 2011: On Israel's Elections and the Social Protests

The dust settles slowly after elections in Israel. Although elections were held a month ago, as I write, the nature of the nation's next ruling coalition remains unknown and unknowable. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister; there is no doubt about that. Tzipi Livni, the head of the new Hatnuah (The Movement) party has agreed to join the coalition and serve as Minister of Justice and a member of the team negotiating with the Palestinians. But what the rest of the coalition will look like remains an open question. Even with Livni as a partner, Netanyahu can still form a right-wing government (made up of settlers, ultra-Orthodox, and the nationalist Likud Beiteinu list), a moderate-right government (made up of settlers, Likud Beiteinu, the centrist "Yesh Atid" party, a new entry into politics that is now the country's second largest party, and Kadima, the elections' biggest loser, going from 28 seats to 2, a loss of 93 percent of its Knesset clout), or a broad "national unity" government (made up of all of the above, and perhaps the center-left Labor party). The differences between these options are consequential. The first diminishes to near-vanishing the prospects for entering productive negotiations with the Palestinians. The second option increases the chances that ultra-orthodox Jews will be pressed into military service (from which they presently are exempt), and then into the work force. The third maintains the dreary status quo. It is this option that Netanyahu prefers, because it allows him to play off one another the parties to the left and the right of the Likud, saying to each, "support me, or government policy swings away from all you hold dear," and thereby granting his government a sort of sandlot stability. Whether Netanyahu will manage to persuade, cajole and bribe parties left and right to join a coalition that crosses the aisle is anyone's guess.

But although it remains too early to predict what last month's elections mean for Israel's near future, it is not too early to say what it means about Israel's recent past: that the 2011 "social protests" had a bigger and faster impact on the country's electoral politics than anyone foresaw. Unlike "Occupy", which (for reasons still debated with heart and spleen in dorm rooms and coffee shops) failed to affect the outcomes of recent elections or even to influence the rhetoric of the campaigns that preceded them, Israel's social protests altered political discourse, shaped the election campaign, and affected its outcomes. Fifteen months after the last of the demonstrations brought almost half a million Israelis into the streets, and thirteen months after the last tent encampment was dismantled, the Knesset elections provided the first empirical measure of the enduring impact of the protests.

First among these was the atrophy of the Likud. It is easy to forget that the social protests were protests against Netanyahu and economic policies he has pursued for most of twenty years, as finance minister and prime minister. The recent elections were, above all, a repudiation of Netanyahu. By entering an alliance before the elections with the right-wing Russian Yisrael Beiteinu party, Netanyahu continued to preside over what is by far the largest Knesset list, thereby remaining the sole legitimate candidate for Prime Minister. If the alliance were apart, the Likud would have 20 seats, only one more than Yesh Atid. The Likud lost a third of its power in this election, a remarkable result for a governing party in a relatively prosperous country, at a relatively peaceful time. There are doubtless many reasons for this failure; surely one is that this election was an aftershock of the social protest, a ballot-box resonance of last summer's thunderous city square.

Yesh Atid can be said to be the epicenter of the impact of the protests. The party's founder and sole proprietor -- a charismatic journalist named Yair Lapid whose father, a charismatic journalist named Tommy Lapid, had pulled off a similar feat when his party took fifteen seats in the 2003 Knesset elections -- entered politics just after the protests ended, promising to investigate, doggedly, "Where is the money?" This question had been asked ceaselessly during the protests, by the organizers of a successful cottage-cheese boycott, parents demanding free daycare, underpaid medical residents working 80-hour weeks in government hospitals, and young married couples unable to afford apartments on middle-class salaries. Placards at demonstrations displayed this equation:

"Capital(ists) + Government = The Underworld"

expressing the suspicion that the rich were buying-off politicians to waylay money that belongs, by all rights, to the rest of us. If the social protests were a roughly churning river, middle-class folks juggling bills comprised one of its vigorous tributaries. Lapid -- a latte-drinking, weight-pressing, handsome talk show host -- embodies the middle class, at least in an aspirational fashion. He did not make bombastic promises about feeding the poor, housing the indigent or healing the sick. He spoke instead to and for the I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore white-collars, who supported the protests in droves.

Something similar is true of Naftali Bennett, whose "Jewish Home" party provided the second big surprise of the elections, doubling its power by earning 12 Knesset seats. Bennett's party is a new incarnation of the National Religious Party, the constituents of which have for some time come mostly from West Bank settlements. Although he himself lives within the pre-1967 borders of Israel (the "Green Line", as it is known here), Bennett served for a time as the leader of the Judea and Samaria Council, a lobbying group for settlers and settlements. But, like Lapid, Bennett's emphasis was on economy more than geopolitics. He promised to use his influence to improve schools and, by increasing academic achievement, to further build Israel's high-tech sector. The social protests had been met with suspicion by settlers, wary that their young, secular and mostly left-leaning leaders would demand that Netanyahu reallocate cash from building ever more housing units in the settlements to building instead within the Green Line. Bennett made a pilgrimage to the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where the protests started, to praise in person the leaders and what they had brought about, with enraptured sincerity. Doing so alienated traditional supporters, but it brought new ones in greater numbers in their place.

A second tributary swelling the protests buoyed the more radical demand to change the very nature of Israel's economy, rolling back a generation of Reagan-Thatcher style reforms, re-nationalizing privatized industries, and tightening the mesh of the social safety net into an impermeable weave. "Who's that coming?" went a call-and-answer cheer popular at demonstrations. "The welfare state!" was the reply. The Labor party, which won 15 Knesset seats, took up this banner, with its leader Shelly Yachimovich insisting that after a generation of "piggish capitalism," it was time for the country once again to be run by socialists. With two of the three leaders of the social protests among its candidates, Labor embraced the ideals of the protests with converts' zeal.

To a remarkable degree, these ideals framed the issues of the election campaign over all, in a positive and, especially, a negative sense. Positively, the concerns that sparked the protests -- cost of living and housing prices -- remained the issues most discussed in the lead-up to elections. Negatively, two issues that have for the past forty years decided almost every election -- security and the conflict with the Palestinians -- were bizarrely avoided through most of the campaign. After two years of haranguing us, and world leaders, about how Iran was a tick away from attaining genocidal nuclear capabilities that might turn Tel Aviv into Treblinka, Netanyahu went silent about Ahmadinejad, and so did everyone else. And just weeks after a war in Gaza, that brought rockets into dozens of Israeli towns, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the conflict with the Palestinians was rarely even mentioned. It was mortgages, not mortars, that were on everyone's minds. Given the existential drama of the overlooked issues -- Nuclear incineration! Babies in bomb shelters! -- it may be that in Israel's 65-year history, never had a dog not barked louder.

Significantly, the issues most discussed during the campaigns are also the issues now being most discussed during coalition negotiations. In part to persuade Lapid to join his government, Netanyahu has promised reforms that would, by his lights, lower housing prices. Lapid demands that the government cease granting army exemptions and study stipends to the ultra-orthodox, forcing them off welfare and into work, using the money saved to reduce middle class taxes. Bennett, too, has demanded tax cuts for the working stiff, offset by entitlement cuts to the ultra-orthodox. While Netanyahu is widely considered a master of the Machiavellian art of luring politicians into alliances with promises that languish unfulfilled, it is likely that the official agenda of whatever coalition arises will refract, in muted fashion, the agenda of the social protests. And as Lapid and Bennett well know, voters will judge their success or failure against this agenda as well, providing motivation to ensure its implementation as much as possible. Both men are new to politics, and Netanyahu may outmaneuver them. But both are men of profound understanding, and so Netanyahu may fail, or succeed only in part.

Lapid's inexperience, and Bennett's, may itself be a further legacy of the social protests. Of the 120 members of the incoming Knesset, 53 did not serve in the outgoing one. Almost half of Israel's legislators are new, a fact that reflects the fire-the-bastards frustration with politicians that fueled the social protests, and at the same time perhaps opens up new possibilities for a sort of new politics of the sort envisioned by the leaders of the protests. To be sure, the ills that demonstrators protested are, in the minds of most, a result of poor policy and structural problems in Israel's economy and governance. But replacing half the legislature at once is an act so radical that it has few precedents that do not involve heads on pikes. While it may mean nothing, surely a change of so many politicians must increase the likelihood of a change in policy and a change in politics.

Weeks before the election, I wrote in Foreign Policy, that "the lesson many will learn from this election is that nothing changes in Israeli politics, which will slouch and shuffle on much as it is for years to come. This lesson is wrong, though it will take time until this is obvious to all."

At the time, alert to the many political analysts who then insisted -- some heavy with regret, some light with Schadenfreude -- that the social protests evaporated without residue, I flattered myself that I was bold. As it turns out, I was timid. The coalition Netanyahu forms may pursue new policies, or may settle into stasis. But either way, Israeli politics have already changed in obvious ways. These changes may be reflected in the coalition Netanyahu forms in the next weeks, or they may not. But these changes are already making themselves felt with insistence, and sooner than any of us thought.