For quite some time the most extreme right-wing government coalition in Israel’s history appeared to be heading towards certain victory in the elections to the 21st Knesset on 9 April 2019. Now, however, it seems there will be some suspense after all. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure mainly from two sides: for one, the Attorney General of Israel decided to go ahead with indicting him on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu allegedly accepted gifts in the form of jewellery, cigars, and champagne worth about 250,000 euro, and exerted illicit influence over two mass media.
Secondly, former Chief of Staff Benjamin “Benny” Gantz formed the alliance “Kahol Lavan” (Blue-White, the colours of the Israeli flag) that successfully positioned itself as a centre-right alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud. According to opinion polls Kahol Lavan can expect to receive more than a quarter of the votes in the elections, which would turn it into the largest parliamentary group in the Knesset. As a result the right-wing camp is bound to lose its majority, currently at 67 of 120 seats.
Where Do You Stand on Bibi?
The question of “Bibi’s” (Netanyahu’s) political future is thus at the centre of the election campaign. According to opinion polls about half of the population still backs the prime minister. They dismiss the criminal suspicions as trivial or even denounce them as a media-driven or left-wing conspiracy.
Netanyahu is currently at the height of his power. Among other things he can point to economic success: macroeconomic data for the former newly industrialized country are splendid. Israel is a leading, globally acting high-tech nation that has successfully integrated into the global supply chains of high technologies. National debt only amounts to 60 percent of gross domestic product, inflation is below two percent, and the unemployment rate is just four percent. Israel has experienced continuous economic growth since the end of the Second Intifada in February 2005; the gross national product per capita is currently on a par with that of France. The shekel is now considered one of the world’s most stable currencies.
From the perspective of his supporters Netanyahu can also point to successes in foreign affairs: partly due to other trouble spots like Syria, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict increasingly plays a subordinate role and Netanyahu has managed to delink Israel’s international standing from the conflict to a considerable extent. Thus the conflict is hardly an issue, for example when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Israel to discuss military and economic cooperation, although India once led the Non-Aligned Movement for which the liberation of Palestine was a central concern. The same goes for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf that set aside the Palestinian right to self-determination in favour of a common front with Israel against Iran.
Moreover, Netanyahu has formed alliances with such right-wing populists as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He risks alienating liberal allies in the European Union or the Democratic Party and liberal and left-wing Jews in the US, yet was able to gain political support from those who see him as ideal illiberal democrat and a proponent of ethno-nationalism—like the Visegrád Group that seeks to prevent any EU criticism of Israel’s occupation policy, or US President Donald Trump whose decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem greatly boosted Netanyahu’s standing inside Israel and abroad.
The Politics of Missing Alternatives
Israel’s current situation can also be assessed in a completely different manner. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict continues to smoulder and during the past decade Netanyahu’s governments have not presented any concrete plans for its solution. Moreover, the economic data may seem dazzling but the costs of self-imposed austerity policies and a tax policy favouring the wealthy are high: the average poverty rate in Israel is 18 percent, higher than in any other industrialized country. Low government spending prevents long overdue investments in environmental protection and transport infrastructure. At the same time the middle class is shrinking and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of Israelis. Israeli democracy has also suffered substantial setbacks: hard-won civil and human rights have eroded in recent years; right-wing populists and even government representatives increasingly question democratic structures and incite against minorities.
Resistance within Israeli society is rather limited, which is not least due to the reduced influence of the Israeli Labour Party that ruled the country until 1977. Since then, i.e. for more than 40 years, it has mostly been in the opposition apart from short spells during which it joined the government coalition. The Labour Party’s political weight is dwindling further: in the upcoming elections it can expect to receive five to eight percent of the votes.
The Labour Party’s decline is also due to demographic changes in Israel. It is seen as a representative of long-established, at times wealthy Ashkenazim Jews who immigrated from Europe. By contrast about half of Israel’s Jewish population, namely the Mizrahim, Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries who arrived mostly in the 1950s and their descendants, are hardly likely to vote for the Labour Party as it is perceived as the party that, while preaching equality, discriminated against Mizrahim, was at times racist in its attitude towards them, and hindered their socio-economic advancement. The Labour Party also kept its distance from later waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. The Likud took advantage of that situation and came to power in 1977 as the protest party of the Mizrahim. This is still true today: although there are parties that specifically address the interests of Mizrahim (among others, the ultra-orthodox Shas Party) or those of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (for example, the Party Yisrael Beiteinu [Israel is Our Home] headed by hardliner Avigdor Lieberman), they see themselves as integral parts of the Likud camp. Currently these parties linked to the Likud seem to be declining—perhaps a sign of the immigrants’ increasing assimilation into the Israeli melting pot—but most of their votes remain within the right-wing camp.
Thus the right-wing camp managed to achieve a narrow structural majority and was able to realize two major projects in the last decades: for one, it gave the economy a distinctly (neo‑)liberal character despite the massive social protests in 2011. As if to prove that it actually represents the interests of the upper classes, the Labour Party has supported this policy for decades and influenced the Histadrut, the federation of trade unions, in this respect. As a result, it is commonly assumed that there is no alternative to the existing economic system. Secondly, the right-wing camp was able to multiply the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank making it an almost impossible task to dismantle the settlements for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Here again, the right-wing camp could build on ground prepared by the Labour Party: Labour’s last prime minister could not bring himself to make the necessary concessions to the Palestinians and announced after the failed negotiations that there was no partner on the Palestinian side. This led to the breakdown of the peace movement that has not recovered since. It is thus not only Netanyahu’s economic course that seems to be without alternative, but also his mantra that Israel has to “live by the sword” forever.
The Triumph of Ethnonationalism
To secure a majority for his camp, Netanyahu also makes use of Israel’s enemies real or imagined both at home and abroad. Among these are firstly the Palestinians and Iran as well as the person who signed the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin, alongside the entire peace camp and “the Left” in general. In recent years Netanyahu has increasingly targeted refugees, the media, and the independent judiciary as well.
Demonizing enemies facilitated a shift to the right on the entire political spectrum. Today the Likud has been cleansed of its old guard, who adamantly positioned themselves on the right but respected the rule of law. Moreover, there are no less than three right-wing parties running for elections in April. One of them is the Union of the Right-Wing Parties (United Right), which also includes the openly racist Party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) with whom Netanyahu recently formed an electoral alliance. Otzma Yehudit is a successor party to the Kach Movement, which was banned in the US and Israel as a terrorist organisation. It pursues the dream of building the Third Temple and strives to promote “Jewish capitalism”. Another right-wing party, HaYamin HaHadash (New Right) headed by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, has sent a journalist from Breitbart News, a website known for its hate and smear campaigns, into the race. Together these parties are expected to win more than ten percent of the Knesset seats.
The popularity of the right-wing nationalists is also due to the fact that rabid ethno-nationalism has enjoyed majority support for quite some time already. About two years ago, for example, Minister of Culture Miri Regev (Likud) described refugees from Africa as “cancer in the body of the Jewish nation”—according to opinion polls, the majority of the population agrees with her view. In that light, the success of the civil society initiative that culminated in tens of thousands demonstrating against deportations was all the more astonishing. There is also broad support for the Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset in July 2018, which places the rights of the Jewish majority above the equality of rights for all citizens.
Concepts of illiberal democracy also enjoy wide popularity, as recently illustrated by Netanyahu’s support for Orbán’s anti-Semitic campaign against the investor and philanthropist George Soros in Hungary. There is also widespread applause for Justice Minister Shaked when she deliberately attacks the independence of the judiciary for repeatedly foiling certain bills or government measures which in the courts’ opinion violate basic democratic rights and principles of the rule of law. Members of the government have recently attacked the army as well, a hitherto “holy” institution, because it tried a soldier in a military court for shooting and killing a severely injured Palestinian terrorist who was lying on the ground.
The Generals Enter the Stage
At the same time, however, a growing part of the Israeli population feels uneasy about the allegations of corruption against Netanyahu and the accelerating erosion of democracy. In the run-up to the elections three parties joined forces to form the alliance Kahol Lavan. Their charismatic leaders decided to challenge Netanyahu together. They include TV presenter Yair Lapid and three former chiefs of staff of the Israeli army: Benny Gantz, who heads the alliance, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi.
Their joint electoral programme was clearly put together rather hastily: there is no mention of a two-state solution; instead there is the commitment not to withdraw from the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem, which actually amounts to a rejection of a viable Palestinian state. Nor is the current economic policy called into question in any substantial respect. Instead the aim is to fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law and freedom of expression.
According to recent opinion polls Kahol Lavan might win 35 Knesset seats, whereas Netanyahu’s Likud would only get 29. The three former chiefs of staff and Gantz in particular enjoy enormous popularity in Israel, where the appointment ceremonies of top army ranks are covered live by all television channels. In the past, former chiefs of staff such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak of the Labour Party also won elections against the Likud and its leaders.
The Overshadowed Left
Meanwhile, the Israeli Left remains confined to a niche. The term “Left” has become a curse word. The Meretz Party, which still pursues a historic compromise with the Palestinians, social justice, and progressive policies on gender, transport, and the environment, has to worry whether it will be able to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. It has become a party of the dwindling educated middle class of European origin. The list of its candidates reflects a compromise between concern for its traditional left-liberal constituents such as members of Kibbutzim or residents of the affluent northern quarters of Tel Aviv, and the desire to reach out to broader social strata. The top ranks of the list therefore include among others two Palestinians and an activist of Ethiopian origin.
The situation is even more dramatic for the Joint List, which was perhaps the most exciting political project during the last parliamentary term. The List is an alliance of four different parties representing the interests of the Palestinian minority in Israel, which constitutes about 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. The List brings together diverse political positions ranging from socialist to liberal and Islamic-conservative. With 13 MPs it was the third-largest political group in the Knesset. Its MPs included Muslim, Christian, Druse, and Bedouin men and women as well as a Jewish socialist. In particular the socialist party Hadash saw to it that the Joint List strove for an end to the Israeli occupation and more social justice.
Yet the Joint List had hardly any political success, as was consistently excluded from the political scene. Moreover, there were personal quarrels, in particular the claim to leadership by the politician Ahmad Tibi, which eventually led to a split. Thus the four parties are running in two separate lists for the April elections. Programmatically these lists are composed in a completely arbitrary fashion, which significantly reduces their chances of success.
The main contest on 9 April will likely just be between Likud and Kahol Lavan. If the right-wing nationalist camp wins the elections current policy will continue or be intensified, not least due to the fact that Netanyahu will be more susceptible to blackmail given the pending indictments against him and the likely increase in his extreme right-wing coalition partners’ strength. Potential focal points could become the annexation of parts of the West Bank or the further promotion of right-wing and at times messianic ideas across the entire education system. Yet whether Netanyahu will survive the next parliamentary term in full will also depend on the judiciary. One may doubt that “Bibi” will get a majority for a bill granting immunity to incumbent prime ministers.
On the other hand, if the right-wing camp loses its majority in the elections Kahol Lavan will not automatically form the government given that it does not intend to enter a coalition with either the Likud under Netanyahu or Arab parties. Hence it would be rather difficult to form a government with the participation of parties that are currently members of Netanyahu’s camp. The participation of Kahol Lavan in the next government might at least halt the ongoing erosion of democracy, slow down the settlement construction in the West Bank and soften the belligerent rhetoric against Iran.
Israel’s right-wing hegemony is thus likely to continue. A new peace initiative or the creation of a fairer economic order will be the task of future generations.
Tsafrir Cohen is Director of the RLS Israel Regional Office in Tel Aviv. Translation by Ursula Wokoeck Wollin.