Israel’s Election: What Happened to All the Excitement?

Monumental issues still face Israel but none seemed to be in play or of interest in a campaign that is more than likely to return Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister's office

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Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

A woman looks at the information posted on a wall as Israeli Arabs cast their votes during the Israeli general election in Abu Ghosh, Israel, on Jan. 22, 2013

Israelis went to the polls today, drawing to a close an election campaign defined more by lassitude and a vague unease than any central issue. Current events featured not much at all in the 100 days leading up to Tuesday’s balloting, a national holiday in Israel, where polls are open till 10 p.m. “You almost get the feeling that a lot of the existential issues, it’s almost as if these issues are too big for Israel to deal with,” says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank closely tied to Israel. “We’re not talking about Iran, we’re not talking about the Arab Spring implications, how we’re heading to a de facto binational state. I’m tempted to almost call this a Seinfeld election that doesn’t seem to be about monumental issues.”

Part of the problem is the outcome has been virtually assured from the start: Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly be returned to the Prime Minister’s office, an outcome all but mathematically guaranteed the moment he married his Likud party to another right-wing party with a reliable following, the Yisrael Beiteinu of Avigdor Lieberman, for the purposes of balloting. The foregone conclusion produced a campaign largely devoid of energy, and in the horse latitudes of November and December polls showed support steadily falling away from the presumptive winner.

The erosion was not enough to cost the election: the 32 to 35 Knesset seats the final polls (in Excel here) showed for Likud-Beiteinu was way down from the 42 they had in the last parliament, where 61 seats are needed to govern; the balance comes from parties that join the governing coalition. But it was still about twice as many as any other party. The attrition was not a disaster, or even a drama. It was, like the campaign, more of a meh. The Likud, the party that empowered Israel’s long marginalized Mizrachi Jews (émigrés mostly from the Diaspora of Morocco and Yemen), has long been renowned for its grassroots organization. Not this time. To generate energy at its official launch, Netanayahu’s campaign paid a singer $20,000 to serenade him as “the bomb,” and it was downhill from there. For weeks the Hebrew press was peppered with anonymous Likud activists complaining they’d been given nothing to do, or no money to do it with. On election eve, the competition was for the most vivid way to describe the sleepiness of it all — “A great campaign it was, if you’re an insomniac,” said Haaretz. Some suggested the wooziness was fitting for a Likud headed for the retirement home.

“The Likud has melted,” Sever Plocker said in Yedioth Ahronoth, a leading daily consistently critical of Netanyahu. “It has evaporated and is now distant from the bubbling lava of the new Israel. It wasn’t there. Young people for whom this is their first or second time voting aren’t even considering voting for the Likud. Many of them are deliberating between Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home. What would attract them to the uncharismatic and self-important windbag, Netanyahu?”

Theoretically, excitement remained possible. Two weeks before Tuesday’s balloting nearly half of voters said they were either undecided or open to changing their minds. Analysts said the likeliest recipients of any late surge would be the parties Plocker mentioned — the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party of the former anchorman Yair Lapid and the right-wing Jewish Home party that, with newcomer Naftali Bennett, generated what excitement there was in the campaign. Bennett, a former commando and hi-tech entrepreneur, brought a directness and emphasis on Jewish nationalism to the campaign that attracted Israeli youth, whom polls show are more right-wing than even their parents.

“I had reserve duty last week,” Hili Tropper, a youth activist and candidate with the rival Labor Party, tells TIME. “Most of my soldiers are not religious. They said, ‘We are voting for Bennett. He’s young. He talks in the same way we talk to each other. We like him.’”

Bennett ran a Facebook campaign that in some ways recalled the Obama social-network juggernaut — urging supporters to reach out to five friends. His online video urging Israel to annex the West Bank went viral — one indicator of how little support remains in the Israeli public for a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, who remain divided between Gaza and the West Bank, and Fatah and Hamas. Only former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who created the Hatnua (Movement) party, campaigned for talks. Labor, the party that championed the two-state solution, made it a point not to talk about “peace,” arguing for economic justice instead.

“These elections are strange because for the first time, they’re not about the peace process,” wrote Nadav Eyal in Ma’ariv. “The historians will look back on these elections for years to come. Perhaps they’ll say: Each time there was an election, the Israelis mumbled to themselves that the elections were fateful, but when 2013 came, they decided to stop. Overnight, they went from one extreme to the other, from the pomposity of a feeling of momentous destiny to the decadence of an amusing escape.”

Nor did Israel’s relations with the U.S. appear to factor in. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s Jan. 14 column, which said President Obama seems to view Netanyahu as a “political coward” for not engaging the Palestinians, dominated the news for a day. “Israel doesn’t know what its best interests are,” Obama reportedly said, more than once. But the controversy lasted only as long as it took Netanyahu to respond: “I think everyone knows that the citizens of Israel are the only ones who can decide who will faithfully represent the vital interests of the state,” he said.

Elections in Israel usually hinge on security issues. But with no crisis at hand — Iran truly did disappear as a topic — the economic concerns that brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens into the streets in July 2011 remained prominent. Netanyahu is regarded as vulnerable on that front, and appeared to be scrambling when, on Sunday, two days before the election, he called a news conference to say he was putting in charge of housing — a major problem for the middle class — the man celebrated for reducing the cost of Israeli cell phones.

Still, the following morning, Gadi Hadida said his years as a Likudnik were over. “No one is voting for Likud,” he says. “We’re disappointed.” With what? “The cost of living!” He drives a taxi in the northern town of Kiryat Motzkin, where gas is $8 a gallon. His vote was going to either Bennett’s Jewish Home or to Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party that casts itself as a protector of the Mizrachi.

“Why?” Hadida says. “To punish Bibi.”