With most of the vote in, the Israeli elections appear to have confirmed the much-expected mandate for Ariel Sharon’s creation, the Kadima Party, to lead the next government, though with fewer Knesset seats than expected. The real shocker, however, was the collapse of Likud under Bibi Netanyahu, who wrested control of the party from Sharon: it will apparently be the fifth-ranking party in the next Knesset, behind Kadima, Labor, the Sephardic party Shas, and the Russian-immigrant dominated Yisreal Beiteinu. Indeed, Likud, the dominant right-wing party in Israel for decades, barely finished ahead of the Pensioner’s Party, a purely domestic- oriented political group that surprised everybody with its straightforward representation of the interests of the elderly.The scattered partisan results, and the remaining uncertainty regarding the imminent negotiations over the shape and size of a Kadima-led governing coalition, make all sorts of interpretations of the election possible, as evidenced by insta-reactions in the Israeli press and the blogosphere. Some will emphasize Kadima’s emergence, and note the vindication of Ariel Sharon, who, as Haaretz’s Robert Rosenberg noted, spent his last night as Prime Minister of Israel in a coma. Others will focus on Labor’s relatively strong showing under its new leader Amir Peretz, an Algerian-born union leader who represents a break with his party’s long identification with an Ashkenazi, kibbutz-centered elite. Still others will send up alarms about the rise of Yisreal Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who could wind up being the leader of the official opposition. And the Pensioner’s Party, whose performance was so unexpected in a country long obsessed with security issues, will get attention as well.But the most compelling analysis I’ve read was actually written yesterday, by The New Republic’s Yossi Klein Halevi, which predicted low turnout and an inconclusive result, and suggested it was “Israel’s saddest election,” based on widespread despair. The “Greater Israel” ideology that once enlivened Likud and other right-wing parties is dead, said Halevi; it’s really an academic question as to whether Sharon was a lot or just slightly ahead of the curve in recognizing that and adjusting his policies accordingly. And just as importantly, the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections confirmed the experience of the Second Intifada in largely extinguishing the “peace party” in Labor and on the Israeli left generally. Nearly all Israelis, said Halevi, have endorsed Sharon’s “separation strategy,” with the arguments being over time, place and manner of that separation. Even Lieberman’s right-wing party has distinguished itself by arguing for a strictly ethnic-based “separation” in which Jewish settlements would remain in Israel while Israeli Arab enclaves would be ceded to the proto-Palestinian state. Invidious as that idea is, it’s a far cry from “Greater Israel” and a permanent occupation of Palestine as a whole.Halevi’s hypothesis helps explain the historically low turnout in today’s elections (63 percent, which is robust by American standards, but is well below the traditional Israeli benchmark of 80 percent), and also the emergence of domestic-policy-only focused parties like the Pensioners. But he’s right: it’s very sad. Israelis are largely united on a “separation strategy” that every major faction in Palestinian politics rejects, most notably the hyper-rejectionist Hamas, which can’t bring itself to even accept the legitimacy of Israel according to any configuration. Perhaps the most important question about today’s Israeli elections is whether anyone on the Palestinian side recognizes and acts upon the challenge and the opportunity of the new Israeli consensus for a two-state solution, which is becoming a reality beyond all the past rhetoric on both sides.
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.