Israel’s Merry-go-Round Elections: A Primer
BY DAVID M. WEINBERG
Take a deep breath, everybody, and put some cynical filters in your ears. Israel is stronger, more stable, and saner than it may look over the next 50 days of election campaigning.
It’s important to say this because politicians are running hysterical campaigns that portray Israel as a country in danger of going down the drain; that portray this race – Israel’s fifth election within three years – as a battle for Israel’s “soul”; as a sink or swim moment for the Jewish people.
This is nonsense. Israel does not stand at an apocalyptic tipping point. The contours of Israeli diplomatic, economic, and social policy are relatively constricted by the realities of the times – including uncertain global leadership, regional threats (mainly from Iran), the fecklessness of Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, and the structural limitations (some would say, the inertia and lethargy) of Israeli coalition politics.
Consequently, most Israelis realize there are no magical solutions to their big challenges; no fairy-tale diplomatic gambits worth taking; and no magicians who easily can fix all matters. Even Binyamin Netanyahu’s charms are wearing thin.
Israelis are not faced with a choice between good and evil. What they face is another muddy election in a convoluted Israeli political system where negative campaigning and personal animosities are at a peak.
Moreover, the core sociological-political divides in Israel remain quite constant. Likud and right-religious parties reflect middle-class and nationalist-centrist preferences and are sizably the majority force in Israel.
Left and centrist-left parties (which has included, in recent decades, Labor, Kadima, Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Blue-White, and now National Unity) represent the upper-income echelons of society and are a shrinking minority.
In any case, neither “side” of the political divide is likely to be succeed at forming a 61-seat majority coalition in Knesset without reliance on either Arab or Charedi parties – which represent the poorest segments of Israeli society and the two segments that identify least with mainstream Zionist loyalties.
This leaves Israel with politicians who mainly are selling fallacies instead of tackling real issues with concrete policy solutions. This is true of almost every party running for Knesset in November, as follows:
Likud: Netanyahu and his lieutenants are promising right-wing voters an “overhaul” of the justice system and legalization of all small/young settlements in Judea and Samaria. But none of Netanyahu’s governments over the past 12 years truly tackled these challenges. Netanyahu would bring Charedi parties back into government, rolling back whatever reforms in matters of religion and state were introduced by the outgoing Yamina-Yesh Atid coalition government.
Yesh Atid: Yair Lapid promises to “protect” the justice system from right-wing challenges and to maintain good relations with Israel’s democratic (and Democratic) partners abroad by preserving the two-state option for a future moment when the Palestinians might be willing to compromise with Israel. But Lapid has no clear defense policy regarding Iran or the Palestinians and any coalition government he might craft inevitably will be dependent on, and hampered by, Arab parties.
National Unity: Benny Gantz promises “clean government”, meaning a government without Netanyahu, while remaining mum on just about every other concrete issue. The fact that his party has flipped wildly in and out of government coalitions over the past five years, and that each of his previous senior partners have abandoned the party (remember his “Blue and White” platform with Bogie Yaalon, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Avi Nissenkorn…?), gives the party a reputational problem. It remains to be seen whether the move to this party of Likud and Yamina politicians like Gideon Saar, Zeev Elkin, and Matan Kahana, or the addition of former IDF chief of staff General Gadi Eisencott, will improve the party’s fortunes.
Religious Zionism: Betzalel Smotrich (National Union) and Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) are now joined by Avi Maoz (Noam) in a solidly right-wing and Religious Zionist coalition. Will their aggregate total be greater than the sum of their parts, and will their gains be sufficient to help Netanyahu form a government alongside Charedi parties?
Bayit Yehudi: After leapfrogging from party to party alongside her political partner Naftali Bennett (from Bayit Yehudi/Jewish Home to New Right, to Yamina, to Zionist Spirit), Ayelet Shaked has now reverted to Bayit Yehudi (alongside Yossi Brodny and Amitai Porat). This is a remnant of the longtime, mainstream NRP (National Religious Party), holder of the iconic “Bet” electoral symbol. Shaked now “regrets” serving in the outgoing Bennett-Lapid government and says that Bayit Yehudi would support only a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Yisrael Beiteinu: Avigdor Liberman’s fortunes seem to be fading as his old-time Russian immigrant voter base shrinks, and his fierce campaigns of the past decade against religious and Charedi Jews and “disloyal” Israeli Arabs are wearing thin.
Labor: Once the ruling party of Israel, Labor has shrunk to a bare minimum of Knesset seats and gone through more rapid leadership changes than any other party in politics. Its current leader, Merav Michaeli, refused to merge with the even farther left-wing Meretz party, which puts both at risk of failing to cross the 3.25% threshold for representation in Knesset.
Meretz: This equivocally Zionist party served in government this past year for the first time in its history, which actually angered its far-left electorate. Zehava Gal-On has returned to party leadership promising to end all state religious structures if Meretz gets another cabinet post.
United Torah Judaism: Once again, Degel HaTorah (“Lithuanian” Mitnagdim) and Agudat Yisrael (Chassidic factions) are running uncomfortably together on one Charedi umbrella list. They were brought together by a Netanyahu promise to fully fund all their school systems even if they refuse to teach the Ministry of Education’s “core curriculum” (i.e., basic math, science, and English).
Shas: With Sephardic spiritual icons Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shalom Cohen both deceased, Aryeh Deri’s Charedi-national political party is no longer growing but it is holding its own, and certainly will back Netanyahu as first preference for prime minister in the post-election coalition jockeying.
Arab-led parties: The Joint List coalition splintered last month, with the Balad faction breaking away from Hadash-Ta’al – throwing the future of all factions into doubt, as they will split votes from a fairly small pool of voting Israeli Arabs. This may deprive Yesh Atid of Knesset seats that are crucial to blocking a Netanyahu coalition. Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Arab Ra’am was the first-ever Arab party to serve in government (over the past year), a fact that some celebrated and others mourned. If Ra’am crosses the threshold, it could join either Netanyahu or Lapid in government again.
Given the repeat near-stalemate that is predicted by many pollsters, Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog says that he will work to establish a national unity government when the voting is done, and the polls show that many Israelis prefer this. But Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trials pose a problem for voters on the left and center-left, and Netanyahu says he will only form a “full right” government.
In the meantime, there are several pressing issues that require the full attention of a stable Israeli government, ranging from confronting Iran and Hezbollah to addressing the spiraling cost of living (especially housing), to halting Palestinian takeover of Area C in Judea and Samaria, and stopping Bedouin sprawl and crime in the Negev. Pray that Israel is blessed with a stable government for a full term, one way or another.
David M. Weinberg is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim). His op-ed articles appear weekly in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, and can be read at davidmweinberg.com.