News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Israel - Middle East Right-Wing Hegemony Secured

On the outcome of the 2019 Knesset elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates his victory at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, 10 April 2019. Foto: picture alliance / NurPhoto

After a garish election campaign it is now clear: the right-wing nationalist camp was able to defend its majority and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to head the Israeli government. This also endorses a further erosion of democracy and the rule of law, the extension of Jewish privileges in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories—and thus a definite “No” to a two-state solution and the continuation of a harsh neoliberal and austerity policy in the shadow of these ethno-nationalist, illiberal currents.

With 65 to 55 seats compared to 67 to 53 in the last elections, the coalition and opposition camps remain almost the same size. But there were considerable changes within each camp. In the right-wing camp, campaign genius Netanyahu pulled off a brilliant final spurt helping Likud to attain 36 seats (2015: 30) at the expense of his right-wing coalition partners. While the other far-right parties thus suffered losses, the openly racist Union of Right-Wing Parties made it into the Knesset. The Union advocates annexation of the West Bank, the “facilitation” of Palestinian emigration, the “re-assumption of ownership” over the Temple Mount, and toys with the idea of building the Third Temple.

A Transformed Opposition

On the other side of the political spectrum there was a dramatic shift. The Labour Party that determined Israeli politics for decades crashed and only attained six seats—despite making major concessions to the prevailing hegemonic nationalist discourse. This represents the worst result for the Social Democrats in their history.

From now on, the main opposition bloc is the newly established alliance “Kahol Lavan” (Blue-White) that managed to get 35 seats in parliament, five of which will be held by generals. Their common denominator was the removal of Netanyahu, and its members include politicians close to the Labour Party alongside distinct right-wingers such as former Likud Minister of Defence Moshe Ya’alon, or the annexation proponent Yoaz Hendel. The alliance is headed by Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, who boasted in his election campaign that as chief-of-staff he had pursued a bloodier path of action against the closed-off Gaza Strip than Netanyahu, and promised that he would not withdraw from the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem, which practically amounts to a rejection of a viable Palestinian state.

The left-wing Meretz Party advocating a historic compromise with the Palestinians, social justice, and progressive gender, transport, and environment policies, was unable to reach any additional Jewish public beyond its dwindling European-born bourgeois constituents in kibbutzim and Northern Tel Aviv. Yet electoral gains among the Palestinian minority enabled it to pass the 3.25 percent threshold and attain four seats (2015: 5).

This was facilitated among other things by the split of the Joint List, an alliance of parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel comprising a wide range of political currents from socialist and liberal to Islamist and conservative, that became the third-largest political group (13 seats) in the Knesset in 2015. Taken together the two separate lists that now ran in the elections received considerably less votes than in 2015. One of the lists got six seats. The socialist Hadash/al-Jabha plays a decisive role in it, which advocates a just two-state solution, equality for Palestinian citizens in Israel, and their recognition as a national minority as well as workers’ rights, and which serves as the political home for thousands of Jewish voters especially among the radical, anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Left. The second list merely got four seats. It comprises the Islamic-conservative United Arab List and the more social-democratic Democratic National Allianz Balad/al-Tajamu’ that split off from Hadash/al-Jabha. Balad/al-Tajamu’ advocates a two-state solution. It rejects the exclusively Jewish character of the State of Israel and strives to transform it into a democracy for all its citizens irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. Moreover, it supports the rights of Palestinian citizens as a national minority in Israel and their cultural autonomy.

The main reason for the two lists’ disappointing results was a dramatic decline in voter turnout of more than ten percent, sinking to about 50 percent. The abstention and/or boycott was due in part to disappointment at the dissolution of the Joint List, but to a larger extent the feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness among Palestinian citizens in Israel. They witnessed the Joint List’s persistent exclusion from the political arena during the last parliamentary term and then faced the right wing’s hate campaign in the run-up to the elections, while Kahol Lavan treated them as lepers and excluded any cooperation. All this culminated in a particularly insidious campaign by the Likud on election day when 1,300 cameras and microphones were installed in Arab polling stations—awkwardly resembling methods employed in the US to prevent African-Americans from realizing their right to vote.

International Solidarity Is Needed

Netanyahu made it, again. One aim of coalition negotiations will certainly be an immunity law to protect him from impending charges in several corruption cases. This may come at a rather high cost: the extreme right, but also a majority within the Likud, want to include a possible annexation law. They can even draw on Netanyahu’s own election promise to annex the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

These elections give more than just a vague idea of where the road leads: there will be no Palestinian state. In the occupied West Bank two different legal systems will continue to develop, one for Jewish settlers and the other for Palestinians. The privileges of the Jewish population will be further expanded to the detriment of the Palestinians. Those living in Israel will remain second-class citizens and those in living in the occupied territories will be squeezed into densely populated enclaves and, without citizenship, allowed to administer their misery in “autonomous” territories. International opposition? None. Details of Trump’s “deal of the century” have already been leaked, which heads in a similar direction.

To turn things around, the Israeli opposition needs to realize that it can only succeed if it replaces its pandering to right-wing nationalist hegemony by developing a proper alternative including real partnership with the Palestinians. The small, persistent Israeli left currently fighting for its survival could play a key role in this respect. For its empowerment, more solidarity is required and a clear stand on the part of the progressive camp all over the world—including the Federal Republic of Germany.

Nothing has weakened the Israeli left more than the global rise of right-wing populist forces and particularly Trump’s victory in the presidential elections, in the wake of which the right-wing nationalists in Israel have had one success after the other as reflected in the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Meanwhile the opponents of Trump’s worldview have hardly said anything. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) demonstrates to the world how wonderfully he gets along with the chief ideologist of the right-wing nationalists, former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, large parts of the progressive camp all over the world show less and less commitment to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and some left-wing politicians are making a detour around the Israeli Left to avoid a confrontation with the Israeli government or out of fear of being seen as anti-Israel. Such action (or lack thereof) sends the wrong signal and makes the Israeli Left appear irrelevant.

Tsafrir Cohen directs the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung's Tel Aviv Office. Translation by Ursula Wokoeck Wollin.