top of page
  • Writer's pictureGian Maria Bordin

Power, Politics and Polarisation – An Analysis of post-election Israel



On November 1st, Israel elected its 25th Knesset. After previous elections in April and September 2019, March 2020 and March 2021, it was the fifth electoral round in just about four and a half years. Nevertheless, the stakes were as high as ever. It was clear that it would come down to a stand-off between the two current big blocks in Israeli politics (and society): one pro-, one anti-Benjamin Netanyahu. And the underlying numbers confirmed this prediction, with 49% of Israeli voters casting their vote for the pro-block and 49% of Israeli voters casting their vote for the anti-block. One month after the elections, not much is left of the felt pre-elections polarisation. Although Netanyahu only secured a slim majority, it feels like the opposition has all but imploded. In this article, I will show why the anti-block succeeded to secure a relatively comfortable majority, and what concessions Netanyahu had and still has to make to get there.


In Israeli elections, voters cast their ballots for parties (in contrast to personalized voting) and thus distribute the 120 seats of the Knesset proportionally. To effectively enter the Knesset, parties have to meet the 3.25% electoral threshold, which for these elections amounted to around 150'000 votes. If they do not meet said threshold, the assigned votes are discarded. However, parties are allowed to enter electoral alliances with each other to enhance their chances of meeting the threshold. Prior to the November 1st elections, several established parties and countless newer ones faced the possibility of not reaching 3.25%, including the Arab parties Hadash-Ta’al and Balad, the center-left Israeli labour party Avoda, the left-wing Meretz and the Orthodox-Zionist HaBeyit HaYehudi. That meant that potentially the full traditional Israeli left and two thirds of Arab Israeli parties could have lost their representation in the Israeli legislative body. And while this did not happen, Meretz, Balad, and HaBayit HaYehudi did actually fail to meet the threshold, and Avoda only did so by the slimmest of margins with 3.69%. Consequently, the 25th Knesset will be constituted of these parties (and their share in seats): Likud (32), Yesh Atid (24), Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit (14), National Unity (12), Shas (11), United Torah Judaism (7), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), the United Arab List (5), Hadash-Ta’al (5), and Avoda (4). Prime-Minister-to-be Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc (highlighted in bold letters) has gained a relatively slim majority of 64 seats and will make up the next governing majority.


While the results for the mid- to right spectrum parties showed little to no surprises, two aspects of the elections came as a surprise to many scholars and pundits alike: The near-complete wipe-out of the Israeli left and the steep rise of the far-right. What triggered them? A full analysis of Israeli politics and election dynamics cannot be offered in this framework, however I want to offer at least some explanations before opening the scope and daring a glimpse into the future of this coalition.


The Israeli left and it’s misinterpretation of the signs of the time

The Israeli left experienced its near-complete wipe-out in these elections. The Avoda - who has been interpreted by many experts as center-left for a long time - lost three seats, while Meretz, the only classic left-wing party in Israel today, lost six, and the progressive Arab Balad lost one seat. While Merav Michaeli, the leader of Avoda, blamed former PM and Yesh Atid-leader Yair Lapid for campaigning to hard and drawing to many votes from former left voters and thus helping Netanyahu gain a majority, these claims prove rather unsubstantial and seem of distractive character. Yesh Atid’s campaign was actually very soft – oftentimes only including a headshot and the party’s name – compared especially with Netanyahu’s scorched-earth campaign, blaming the former coalition between Yesh Atid and the National Unity party for everything wrong and continuously refusing to cooperate on any legislative project. Instead, the causes for the Israeli left’s downfall are not to be found in the opposition, but in their inability to read the signs of the time. These are, among others, the Israeli electorate’s shift to the right after eleven years of Likud government, and the demographic shift disenfranchising secular and progressive circles.


The day after the elections, Israeli journalist Amir Tibon wrote a tweet stating that this election was lost by the left on September 15th, weeks before the actual elections took place.[1] September 15th was the due-date to register electoral alliances, and both the left bloc with Avoda and Meretz as well as the former Joint Arab List between Balad and Hadash-Ta’al failed to do so. Especially the one between Avoda and Meretz appears politically nonsensical, as experts see the only difference between the parties in their stance on the occupation of Palestine - one portfolio cost the left roughly five seats, as their combined results would have accumulated to nine seats in the Knesset. This seems especially futile, as a majority of Avoda members actually welcomed a merger, but was overruled by their leader Michaeli. Ironically, it was former conservative PM Naftali Bennet who recently coined the term of the 70/70-rule, stating that 70% of Israelis agree on 70% of topics, and thus calling to cooperate on these 70% instead of falling out on the other 30%. It is time for the Israeli left to endorse this principle. Neri Zilber, political analyst and policy expert, recently called Michaeli a politician of the past, as she fails to understand or at least accept that the times are over, where the Labour in Israel was a force to be reckoned with and had the capability to skim off votes from the right.[2] In the past decade, the Israeli electorate has shifted towards the right - the future battles will be fought by the centrist Yesh Atid and the conservative Likud. Yesh Atid and National Unity might get votes from the right, Avoda won’t do that anymore.


If the Israeli left wants to have a future, two measures appear vital: First of all, Meretz and Avoda must merge, not just as an electoral coalition, but completely. They have to combine their resources and rebrand themselves. They aren't a ruling power anymore. However, they do have the potential to act as a coalition partner with the center in future elections - and then challenge the centrist narrative from the left, just as Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit did in these elections, as we will see later on. As valuable partners to such a coalition, they could gain portfolios and ministries with meaningful political influence. Second, the traditional left has a potential of about 15 seats in a good campaign today. However, they cannot expect to get these votes from the conservatives, the Zionists, or the religious - these groups today will never vote left, as opposite views on questions of national security and secularity divide the population. The left’s potential is with the Arab voters, where especially Meretz could potentially gain another 150’000 votes according to Zilber. And with that, we must closer analyse the dynamics facilitating the far-right’s rise.


The rise of the far-right and populism

The second unexpected dynamic of the November 1st elections was the steep rise of the Israeli far-right, most notably represented by the alliance of Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit. Having had 6 seats in the last Knesset, they were able to accumulate 14 in these elections, which makes them the third strongest faction in the Knesset. Religious Zionism is a far-right, ultra-nationalist, religious Zionist party. Otzma Yehudit split from Religious Zionism in 2013, deeming it too liberal. They’re frequently described as an anti-Arab and Jewish supremacist party.[3] It might not surprise then, that the translation of Otzma Yehudit is “Jewish Power”. Their ideological predecessor was the Kahanist Kach party, outlawed in 1994 and designated as Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the U.S. State Department.


Based on the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the concept of the Jews being the chosen people, Kahanism maintains the view that the Arabs living in Israel are genuine enemies to Jews and the Israeli state itself and believes that a halachic Jewish theocracy with no voting rights for non-Jews should be established. Furthermore, Kahane advocated for the creation of a Greater Israel spanning from Jamit in Sinai to the river Euphrat, for a 5-year prison sentence for intercourse between Jews and Non-Jews as well as the near-complete segregation between Jewish and non-Jewish people in daily life (schools, parks, offices, etc.)[4]. Especially Otzma Yehudit’s leader Ben-Gvir was able to gather a lot of attention by the media prior to the elections, for example by flashing a handgun during a quarrel between radical settlers and Palestinians in East Jerusalem or by calling for all Palestinian rioters throwing stones at IDF soldiers to be shot.[5] However, Ben-Gvir was a notorious figure in Israeli politics long before the rise of his faction, first attaining fame as an activist of the Kach party. Accordingly, Ben-Gvir was exempted from the military service due to his activities, which resulted in dozens of indictments and a conviction for incitement to racism in 2007. Nevertheless, during a TV-interview in 2020, he proudly presented a photograph of Baruch Goldstein, a terrorist and Kach activist himself who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the mosque atop Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. He only removed it when his elevation to the Knesset started to look like a real possibility.


So how did these parties succeed in gaining 8 seats in the official Israeli legislative body? First, Israel’s shift to the right is a reality. While center-left governments were a power to reckon during the 90s and 00s, Benjamin Netanyahu’s time in office as PM from 2009-2021, while being considered secular-conservative, shifted the narrative to the right, enabling positions like Religious Zionism’s and Otzma Yehudit’s. Uriel Abulof, Associate Professor at the universities of Tel Aviv and Princeton, highlights the importance of violence and perceived security in this process, especially in regard of the Second Intifada and the May 2021 intercommunal violence. He concludes, that even though Israelis are citizens of a strong state, they perceive personal and collective vulnerability.[6] Second, about five of the eight seats can be accounted for by the voters of Naftali Bennet’s party Yamina (formerly part of the now defunct HaBeyit HaYehudi) who collapsed after the last failed coalition. These voters slipped to the right instead of the center-right, even though reluctantly, because the center was unable to offer them a solution for their main concern, security, during the short term of their last governing coalition. And finally, Ben-Gvir’s populist campaign was able to attract a lot of first-time voters. Due to systemic reasons, a lot of people cast their first votes while completing their military service. Ben-Gvir and his pro-occupational party pledged to loosen the rules of engagement for soldiers in the occupied territories, which gathered a lot of support from said first-time voters.


Whatever lies ahead

Netanyahu now has until mid-December (plus an additional two weeks if needed) to form a government. While some hope he will fail to do so, for his own sake he must be successful at all costs, since he is currently facing a possible trial on charges of breach of trust, bribery, and fraud, after allegedly having accepted jewellery, champaign and positive media coverage in return for advantageous favours in several cases. It is now believed that Netanyahu will use his newly gained position of power to stop that trial, either by appointing a favourable attorney general, or by abolishing the offense of breach of trust entirely. The current coalition is the only one willing to support him in doing so, for the simple reason that the other involved parties want to push for judicial reforms to alter the relation between religion and state, basically creating a halachic state. Netanyahu is very conscious of the fact that he will not succeed a second time in creating such an alliance, and so are his partners. Especially Bezalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism’s leader, and Ben-Gvir have been trying to use this position of weakness by Netanyahu for their benefit. Smotrich started asking for the Ministry of Defense, Ben-Gvir for Interior Security, Shas’ leader Aryeh Deri wants finance and United Torah Judaism campaigned for the Ministry of Housing. National as well as international observers have voiced their concern on giving Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit the monopoly of violence with the control over the military and the police. While the formation has not yet been completed and things can still change, several outcomes already seem clear. So did Likud and Otzma Yehudit sign an agreement granting Ben-Gvir the newly-created National Security Ministry, including the regular as well as the border police, operating in certain parts of the West Bank. Shas did so as well, getting the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee, factually gaining control over new West Bank settlements. Finally, Smotrich seems to have settled for the Finance Ministry, while this has not been officially confirmed yet.


What does that mean? First, it means that a lot of inexperienced politicians will have control over huge, influential portfolios. Second, it might be the first step of this coalition's downfall. While I am confident that the government will form, I am neither sure that it will hold, nor that it has to. Netanyahu is an extremely delicate position where his personal weakness forced him to make huge concessions to the far-right. However, this might frustrate people in his own party, as lots of them expected to get bigger portfolios than they finally will. Additionally, the far-right’s power will manifest in future legislative decisions that might equally alienate some of the more secular-right Likud politicians (and voters). This might even be reinforced by Smotrich budging on the Ministry of Defense, as I am sure the day will come where, faced with a legislative decision he wants to pass, he will approach Netanyahu and remind him of the “sacrifice” he made for Netanyahu’s sake. Neri Zilber said it best, stating that “Unhappy Smotrich is bad for Netanyahu, but happy Smotrich is bad for Israel”[7]. Finally, the U.S. Midterm Elections also weakened Netanyahu before he even assumed office as PM, as a strong Biden might challenge him from one side while the Israeli far-right might challenge him from the other. But this could all be of secondary importance to Netanyahu as he seems to be more concerned about the outcomes of his trial than the future of Israel.


Gian Maria Bordin studied History and Middle Eastern Studies in Zurich, Strasbourg, Geneva and Tel Aviv. His current research focuses on space, democracy and authoritarian resilience. Gian is Ishtar MENA Analytics' chief editor for the MENARA Journal. He is blogging from Tel Aviv.


[1] Twitter.com, <https://twitter.com/amirtibon/status/1587674489957089280?t=AT444MNHEIe8Mi29iRI6ug&s=19> [2] Israel Policy Pod: Far-Right Government Looms in Israel, 16. November 2022. [3] Hanin Majadli: Jewish Supremacy Without the Masks, 03.11.2022, in: haaretz.com. [4] Adam Lucente: Explainer: Kahanism, far-right ideology linked to Netanyahu’s election win, 02.11.2022, in: al-monitor.com. [5] The Times of Israel: Extremist MK Ben Gvir pulls out gun during Sheikh Jarrah clash, 14.10.2022, in: timesofisrael.com. [6] Abulof, Uriel: “Have I Just Met the Jewish Hitler?”, in: washingtonmonthly.com. [7] Israel Policy Pod: Far-Right Government Looms in Israel, 16. November 2022.

120 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page