In light of what has been described as a tie between the large political blocs, it would be worthwhile to pay close attention to two other ties that are likely to become critical factors in domestic politics, the most important being the state's Jewish identity. There are an equal number of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist members of Knesset. Within the religious Zionist camp, there are equal numbers who champion the "party-as-mother ship" approach and the attitude that favors integrating skullcap wearers in various political entities.
The supposedly grand deadlock between the blocs is a close reflection of public opinion polls that have been conducted in recent years. Half the public identifies itself as more or less right-wing in its positions on diplomatic issues. Less than half views itself as centrist, while a tiny minority places itself squarely on the Left.
In this last election, the public made a very explicit statement. In the battle for votes waged by centrist and left-wing parties, the Israeli body politic has voted no-confidence on the chances of reaching a political settlement with the Palestinians.
Yesh Atid, the party that took the most pains to distance itself from any discussion over diplomatic issues while making tremendous efforts to brand itself as a centrist list, won big, in the process defying the early predictions. Party chief Yair Lapid was the only one who rightfully refused to rule out joining a Netanyahu coalition. In hindsight, this move proved to be wise. Labor, which unsuccessfully sought to depict itself as centrist on diplomatic matters, came in second place in the centrist-left bloc.
Hatnuah, which placed special emphasis on pursuing a diplomatic arrangement, was left far behind. This served as proof that just a small portion of the public believes that it is possible to strike a peace agreement. Even if we assume that a greater percentage of the public is in favor of an agreement, apparently they do not think that Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni is the fittest person to reach this end.
Before delving into the battle among the religious, it is important to keep in mind that the composition of this Knesset will be the most devout in history. Indeed, every third member of parliament will either be an ultra-Orthodox Jew or a religious Zionist.
After the results of the 1999 elections were announced, supporters of then-Labor chief Ehud Barak chanted, "Anyone but Shas." Voters were apprehensive about the makeup of Barak's coalition, particularly given the impressive showing by the ultra-Orthodox parties who managed to garner over 20 Knesset seats. At the time, the number of religious MKs reached 30, which was considered high. Now, a whopping 40 lawmakers — half of them ultra-Orthodox, the others religious Zionists — are overtly observant Jews.
Ever since the collapse of the National Religious Party in 1981 and the ascent of Shas in the 1990s, the ultra-Orthodox have claimed a numerical advantage over the religious Zionists. Now, both sides are in a dead heat that promises to yield riveting debates and confrontations over various issues.
Before reacting with alarm over the large number of religious legislators, one would be well advised to put their apprehensions aside. Even those who have a minimal familiarity with the machinations within the various religious camps know that those 40 lawmakers will have great difficulty reaching consensus on any significant issues. On the contrary, the larger religious representation and the differing approaches that they take on various matters are likely to set the stage for protracted infighting that will only serve to highlight and expose the gaps and disagreements.
The first major hurdle that will surely pit the two sides against each other is the upcoming elections for the Chief Rabbinate, which are slated to take place in a few weeks. On the other hand, it will be much easier for the religious MKs to find the necessary number of worshippers to form a minyan in the Knesset, even after subtracting the religious female MKs. As of this writing, it is unclear as to whether the number of religious female legislators will reach two or three.
The other impasse is the deadlock from within the religious Zionist camp, which is divided into two factions that offer competing views and approaches. For over a generation, there has been disagreement among religious Zionists over the manner in which they should be represented in the political system.
One approach favors one centralized party that would serve as the exclusive address for this sector of the population. The rival view envisages religious Zionists sprinkled across a number of political parties rather than uniting them under a singular umbrella. In certain respects, an interesting debate has been spawned by two political philosophies that champion rival approaches. There are nine religious Zionists who have been elected to the Knesset as representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnuah. On the other hand, 11 have been elected as deputies from Habayit Hayehudi.
It should be noted, though, that Habayit Hayehudi officials were careful to point out that they had no intention of maintaining the years-long position that their party was a home base for religious Zionists similar to that represented by its previous incarnation, the National Religious Party. The new approach could be described as a compromise, whereby the party would serve as the focal point of political life for the religious Zionist community while keeping its arms outstretched for anyone else who wishes to take part.
For the first time in the history of the National Religious Party-Habayit Hayehudi, a non-religious woman won a spot on the party list. In addition, the party made it a point to repeatedly appeal to nontraditional constituencies beyond the religious-Zionist camp during the election campaign. Nonetheless, numerous challenges await the party, chief among them preserving factional unity among disparate elements that have differing views on cultural, religious, and political issues.
Party supporters were unjustifiably disappointed with the election results, especially given the euphoria which accompanied the lofty polling numbers that the party recorded earlier in the campaign. These supporters would do well to keep in mind that in the spring of 2012, a poll conducted by Mina Zemach showed that both Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union failed to garner enough support to cross the minimum threshold for Knesset representation.
Habayit Hayehudi's showing in this week's election is the best result since 1977. When comparing the result to the number of Knesset seats won by the joint list of Habayit Hayehudi and Tekuma in the previous election, Naftali Bennett's slate of candidates captured at least twice the number of seats.
Although this was mentioned numerous times during the campaign, it would be worthwhile to once again remind right-wing supporters of what transpired during the 1992 campaign. At the time, a number of right-wing parties like Tehiya failed to win the minimum number of votes. This weakened the right-wing camp and allowed the Left to thwart the formation of a rightist coalition, this despite the Left not winning an outright majority.
The phenomenon of wasting votes was more evident this past week. Strong Israel, Am Shalem (Complete Nation), and Koach Lehashpiya (Power to Influence) attracted aggregate votes that are worth a few Knesset seats, but none of them managed to cross the minimum vote threshold that would have allowed them to enter parliament.
The rightist bloc will have to do some serious soul-searching if it hopes to address the troubling tendency of failing to overcome internal divisions. In certain instances, this weakness could create a situation whereby a clear majority of the public would find itself either with a slim majority in parliament that would preclude a rightist coalition from governing comfortably, or a minority.