Reviews | Israel’s endless campaign is over. Now the real political fight begins.
Netanyahu’s Likud party and its three expected coalition partners won 64 out of 120 seats in parliament. The temptation to exaggerate lies in the journalistic shorthand of portraying the electorate as one individual: “Israel ends indecision, chooses the right.”
What broke the deadlock, however, was not a major vote shift from opponents of Netanyahu to the pro-Netanyahu bloc. On the contrary, Netanyahu has played the electoral system smartly, and his opponents have played it carelessly.
Every democratic system has quirks that skew the outcome. The United States Electoral College is a glaring example. The peculiarity of multi-party proportional elections in Israel is the minimum threshold: a party needs 3.25% of the national vote to enter parliament. One vote too few, and he gets no representation.
The Post’s View: Israel takes a troubling turn toward illiberal democracy
As the election approached, two parties allied with Netanyahu were set to split: the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism list and Religious Zionism, an amalgamation of far-right movements. In either case, the resulting splinter parties may not cross the threshold. Netanyahu intervened personally, offering sweeteners and urging rival factions to come together and run together. He succeeded.
Meanwhile, Israel’s two historic leftist parties, Labor and Meretz, had seen most of their voters swing in recent years to outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party. Nevertheless, Labor leader Merav Michaeli refused to run alongside Meretz. Lapid’s effort to change Michaeli’s mind failed. And it wasn’t until the last minute that Lapid stopped trying to alienate voters from both parties to his left.
The same narcissism of small differences has plagued the Joint (Arab) List, an alliance of parties backed mostly by the country’s Arab minority. One of these Arab parties, the Democratic National Assembly (also known as Balad, from its Hebrew acronym) broke with its former Joint List partners and ran separately. Lapid kept his distance.
Meretz and Balad failed to reach the threshold – Meretz by just 3,800 votes. Disunity within the “change bloc,” as Netanyahu’s opponents are known, cost him six or more seats and won Netanyahu victory.
The significance, however, is not just the return to power of Netanyahu, a deeply divisive politician who is on trial on corruption charges linked to his efforts to control the media. Netanyahu’s gamble to help the party of Religious Zionism stay together has paid off more than he expected, maybe even more than he wanted.
Religious Zionism’s No.2 figure, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a follower of the late racist politician Meir Kahane – giving him notoriety that boosted media attention during the campaign. Ben-Gvir asked expel leftist politicians in Syria, demanded that the police fire live ammunition against the unrest in Arab East Jerusalem – and said he would demand the post of police chief in a Netanyahu government.
Slightly less vocal but perhaps more dangerous, religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich announced plans for judicial “reform” that would free the government and parliament from violating basic rights.
The mob uprising clearly appealed to right-wing voters. Religious Zionism won 15 seats in parliament. Unless surprise, he will be the biggest and most influential of the Likud coalition partners. Along with his ultra-nationalism come his reactionary social views, including a strong anti-LGBTQ stance and plan to delete domestic violence complaints. The new Netanyahu government seems ready to give the impression that former Netanyahu governments are downright tame.
I admit a temptation to despair. But I have two reasons not to: the first is that the election was, in fact, closer than the parliamentary results suggest. The second is that despair is immoral. When you say change is impossible, you release yourself from the responsibility of working on it.
Those who want a more democratic and equal Israel must begin to rebuild politically now. The blow to old left parties could create the opportunity for new movements and alliances. Jewish and Arab opponents of the new government must find ways to work together.
At the same time, they must overcome the long disconnect between Tel Aviv’s urban left and the outlying towns that have been left behind in Israel’s economic leap forward. Like the populist right, moreover, Netanyahu and his allies have appealed to grievance, to disaffection, without offering a better future. His opponents must do better.
The endless election campaign is over. Now the real political fight to save Israel begins.