The Israeli Elections

By now, everyone knows that Netanyahu, as predicted by polls, will take the reigns of power in the new Israeli government, even though Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party (B&W) or Kahol Lavan gained the same number of seats – 35 – as Netanyahu’s Likud, and even though B&W did significantly better than polls indicated. The reason is simple. To form a government in a Knesset of 120 seats, you need at least 60 seats. Each leading party had to get the support of minority parties controlling 25 seats. Netanyahu could count on about 30 of that 50 up for grabs while Gantz could only assemble 10 or so and, at best, 20, if he had the courage to include a Palestinian-Israeli party within the government – a highly iffy prospect. The Bibi-Benny show was just that – a show.

Further, Likud won more votes than B&W, 13,000 more. However, the story of the election was not what happened to the two leading parties, but the fate of the minor parties. This has always been true in Israeli elections where the government is dependent on forming a coalition. The threshold for qualification as a party in the Knesset remains low, even though since 2015 it has been raised to 3.25% of the actual vote. This morning, in an exciting photo-finish, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash party seemed to have passed the electoral threshold and a few hours later did not. Orly Levy Abekasis’ Gesher, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and Hayamin Hehadash did not rise above the electoral threshold.

Meretz almost held its own with 4, and possibly 5, seats, down from 6, while Labour was down to an embarrassing 6 seats from 19. The large number of seats that B&W won were drawn from Labour. At the same time, other possible allies evaporated – Hatnuah under Tzipi Livni and the Green Party under Yael Pran. Further, even the Arab parties altogether only won 10 seats, down from 13, largely due to a lower turnout. If Palestinian Israelis turned out in proportion to their 20% of the population, they would control 24 seats. The centre left lost because the Palestinian Israelis turned out in low numbers, assuming, of course, the far-fetched proposition that Gantz could have formed a government with a Palestinian-Israeli party included in his coalition.  

In the last forty years, the right in Israel has established itself as the natural ruling party of Israel with the centre as the major opposition incapable, with exceptions, of creating a constellation that could normally bring it to power. The left has been pushed to the margins. Why? Because Israeli politicians believe that if they formed a “natural” coalition on the centre and left, they would have to openly campaign on including Palestinian Israeli representatives in government. And that, they believe, would cost them centrist votes, perhaps more than enough to offset centrist gains.

The election seems to have proven that if the centre cannot win against a leader indicted, not simply accused, of corruption and obstruction of justice, they can never again win. As Tom Friedman put it so eloquently in The New York Times where he compared Bibi Netanyahu to Donald Trump: “They are both men utterly without shame, backed by parties utterly without spine, protected by big media outlets utterly without integrity. They are both funded by a Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. They are both making support for Israel a ‘Republican’ cause — no longer a bipartisan one. And they each could shoot an innocent man in broad daylight in the middle of Fifth Avenue and their supporters would say the victim had it coming.”

But that is too simple. Netanyahu is no Donald Trump. He is well read, clever, uses Putin and Trump as pawns to advance Israeli causes as well as his personal ones. Bibi has to be recognized as a brilliant Machiavellian political force. Trump is only a populist one and has largely been unable to legally advance any coherent agenda. While he rhetorically spouts off, he has to be increasingly regarded as a pawn of far more intelligent and deliberative international forces. In contrast, Bibi has a very coherent even if reactionary and ultimately defeatist strategy. Can a clever Machiavellian of the centre left emerge? Can Gantz aspire to such a role? He is a man of integrity. But can he emerge as a potential ruler of all the citizens of Israel and not just Jews and not just, as Bibi does, rely only on Jews that support a right agenda? 

The centre-left can never again win unless a much larger eruption takes place in the Israeli political firmament. Most Israelis can add. Most Israelis recognized that an upset was far-fetched; the best that the opposition could do was to attempt to unite to a degree behind a centrist party that could win the most seats in the Knesset and, therefore, could be asked by the President to form a coalition with the support of a majority in parliament. But the latter prospect was extremely unlikely.

Simply put, that earthquake would require a leading party to campaign openly with a promise to include one or more Palestinian-Israeli parties in government AND to retain control of the vast majority of centrist voters. Palestinians might then turn out to vote, not only in increased numbers, but with even a greater proportion than Jewish parties. If Palestinian-Israelis could control 24, and perhaps up to 30 seats, and if centre and left Jewish Israeli parties viewed them as allies, the reign of a right that, at heart, disrespects the rule of law, disrespects an independent judiciary, disrespects a free press and, combines this disrespect into a platform undermining political civility, would be over. Kowtowing to extremism would end. Dissing and demonizing minorities rather than ensuring their rights are protected would end. A politics of hope would replace a politics of fear, a politics of spectacle and a politics that might grant immunity to an individual indicted for a crime.

That is the story on the centre and the left with no real bottom-line surprise. The story of the right is somewhat different. Likud gained seats, up 5. Ultra-orthodox Jewish parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, also improved their standing to 15-16 seats together. Netanyahu needed the support of a party or parties that won at least 9 seats. The Orthodox Union of Right-Wing Parties won only 5 seats. Netanyahu had already promised the Education and Justice ministries to Rafi Peretz amd Bezalel Smotrich’s far right Rightist Union party. The far right now provided the winning hand of 5 additional seats. The party includes Jewish Power, an ultra-nationalist religious party advocating ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It is made up of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who would ban intermarriage between Jews and Arabs.

That is because Likud could count on the support of parties holding the remaining 9 seats. Avigdor Lieberman’s largely Russian immigration-based Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) with 5 seats (down from 6) and Moshe Kahlon’s centre-right Kulanu with 4 seats (after the party dropped from 10) would hold the balance of power. They were part of the last government. Would Gantz be willing to woo those two parties by offering them significant portfolios? Possible, but not likely, and, in any case, not enough to put them over the top into a majority without the support of Palestinian Israelis.

Given the party platforms and the actual campaigns, the prospect of a centre-left government was very dim indeed. The platform of Meretz would have to occupy centre stage and Palestinian Arabs would have to demonstrate a degree of enthusiasm for such a joint Palestinian-Jewish aggregation. The prospect of either let alone both was virtually nil. Why, then, the illusory hope among centrists and leftists? Simply put, because they had nowhere else to go.

B&W could join a broad coalition with a Likud Party, a real possibility if Netanyahu was no longer leader, but there is no incentive for Netanyahu whose long-range goal is to solidify and control the concentrated Jewish population areas in the West Bank. That is increasingly likely to become a short-term goal along with gaining legal protection from the indictments he faces. Why would any settler – and there are well over a half million – vote for a party that would not normalize and legalize where they live even if it meant supporting an alleged crook?

Could a centre-left party or cluster of such parties create a winning scenario given the shifts in demography and allegiances of the diverse population of Israel? Could a party at one and the same time argue for increased rights and benefits for Palestinian Israelis while advocating the incorporation of the Jewish-dominated areas of the West Bank? Could a party that is so strongly secular genuinely recognize the Jewish religion as an inherent and strengthening part of Zionism while also defending and protecting the Supreme Court, the rule of law and equality among all citizens, including the duty of both Haredi men and Palestinian Israelis to offer their services towards the security of the state though not necessarily in combat roles? Could a party genuinely protect the rights of asylum seekers from Africa, the rights of economic “guest workers” in Israel while continuing to prioritize Jewish immigration? Could a party both support greater investments in health care, education and infrastructure while, at the same time, enhancing a laissez-faire economy AND state interventions in support of nationalist collective goals, such as strengthening Jewish control in the areas with majorities of Jews and incorporating those areas into the land claimed to be part of the State of Israel?

Could an openly nationalist Jewish Israeli party also be the party that fought against racist platforms, policies and rhetoric that denigrate 20% of the population? Could such a centre-left party not only recognize the right and actuality of 10% of its citizens, many its most successful ones, living abroad while serving in the military and paying equal taxes as Israelis, and then offer the same possibility to Jews in the diaspora who learned Hebrew, served the security of the state and also paid equal taxes? Could such a party openly offer a right of return on the same terms to Palestinians to take up citizenship in their own state even though it was distinctly smaller than that envisioned by Oslo while Israel retained its security predominance in Palestine?

If the vision of either the right or the centre-left logically leads to a bi-national Jewish-Arab state, that would undermine both Jewish (Zionist) nationalism and Palestinian nationalism. A two-state solution must remain a prominent goal of such a party because 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 1.5 million in Gaza and another 1.5 million Palestinian Israelis should not live without both equal participation as citizens in a sovereign state and identification with a state that recognizes and refines Palestinian nationalism.

Just asking such questions indicates the contradictions any centre-left party has to overcome in order to become the government. Gantz never offered such a disruption. He allowed the peace camp to cling to Oslo that has been killed by a combination of Palestinian intransigence and Jewish rearguard powerful resistance as well as an exclusionist rather than inclusionist nationalism.  

With the help of Alex Zisman

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