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Israel in the run-up to the September 2019 Knesset elections



Tsafrir Cohen,

It was a short-lived triumph. Although the right-wing camp won an absolute majority in the Knesset elections in April 2019, 65 of 120 seats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition. In the ensuing deadlock, the Knesset voted for new elections to be held on 17 September 2019. Yet it seems that the balance of power between Netanyahu’s camp and the opposition will not change substantially in the upcoming elections. Thus negotiation skills, strong nerves, and even the attorney general might play a decisive role in the formation of the next government coalition.

Machos among Themselves

The main obstacle blocking Netanyahu’s path to his fifth term of office was Avigdor Lieberman, formerly manager of Netanyahu’s office and general secretary of Likud, today head of the secular nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home).

Though firmly based in the right-wing camp, Lieberman refused to join a government led by Netanyahu arguing that the ultra-Orthodox parties would play a too powerful role in a coalition with a narrow majority. These parties had managed to increase their share of votes in the April elections and would have been represented by 16 Knesset members among the 65 belonging to the right-wing government coalition. Instead, Lieberman demanded forming a broad coalition including Likud and the biggest opposition party, Blue-White. But the latter, just like all other opposition parties, refused to enter a coalition with Likud as long as it was headed by Netanyahu, who has been accused of corruption, fraud, and embezzlement on several counts, as well as illegal exertion of influence on two leading Israeli newspapers.

Lieberman’s explanation that he wants to prevent an increase in the political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties is rather flimsy. In the past he often got along with them well, most recently in a joint campaign to prevent the election of an unwanted secular mayor in Jerusalem. His true motives stem from a personal rivalry with his former mentor: it is a power struggle, pure and simple, in which Lieberman takes revenge on Netanyahu and seeks to present himself as his successor.

In general, a development that has been on the way for quite some time is coming to a head in these elections: substantive arguments fade into the background, while the question of the preferred leader takes centre stage. In order to challenge the veteran warhorses Netanyahu and Lieberman, the opposition also relies on experienced warriors in the literal sense. Although Blue-White has no charismatic chairman, no less than three former chiefs-of-staff of the Israeli army are among the top candidates on its lists. In addition, left-wing Meretz worried that it might fail to pass the 3.25 percent threshold and therefore joined forces with the former prime minister and chief-of-staff Ehud Barak.

The Cause of the Crisis: A Lack of Alternatives

The parties rely on “strong men” for a lack of alternative programmes and visions in the main areas of Israeli politics. Earlier than in other countries, the strongest organization of the Left in Israel, the social-democratic Labour Party, decided that there is no alternative to adopting a neoliberal ideology as economic policy and thus determined a policy of privatization and low taxation as well as the breaking of the power of the trade unions. Moreover, in 2000 Labour’s former chairman Ehud Barak, as prime minister, pompously announced to the Israeli public that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, though he was well aware that this was not true. Since then the Labour Party has no peace policy worthy to be seen as such. It only mentions a two-state-solution in the fine print, while stipulating conditions that make a viable Palestinian state impossible.

Given the lack of substantive alternatives, the political discourse is reduced to mere manoeuvring in the struggle for power. Two questions are becoming more and more central: who is most suitable to lead the country due to his personality and skills? And which group gets what piece of the pie? The lack of competing visions for the future fosters disinterest in politics in general and at the same time affirmation of the status quo: it might be, many tell themselves, that there is long-lasting occupation and oppression of another people, but we see no way out and do not want to apologize for it anymore; it might also be that the average poverty rate in Israel (18 percent) is higher than in any other industrialized country, that the middle class is shrinking, and that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few in the country, but we are anyhow unable to change that and therefore let’s celebrate ourselves. What a relief!

Depoliticization and affirmation of the status quo have a stabilizing effect on the system. Yet, that does not mean that everything remains the same. In an era of a neoliberal economic regime solidarity is dwindling and the state apparatus as well as other institutions, such as the trade unions, are weakening, while the national conflict keeps smouldering and the immigrant society has to cope with its inherent fragility. In that context the “nation” as locus of genuine and imagined solidarity is becoming increasingly important. For the Jewish majority society in Israel that “nation” is the Jewish people. By contrast, in the more liberal 1990s there were approaches attempting to conceive of the nation in more open terms, not only as Jewish but also as Israeli. Thus the nation could also include the Arab-Palestinian minority in the country, constituting 20 percent of all Israeli citizens, as well as non-Jewish migrants. But all those approaches are now obsolete. In the current political discourse, it is taken for granted that the privileges of the Jewish majority society may be preserved and expanded in relation to, and at the expense of, the non-Jewish population. A prominent example is the “Nation-State Law”, passed in 2018, which prioritizes collective Jewish interests over the precept of equality essential to a democracy. Another example are the government’s attempts to deport all non-Jewish refugees, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, whom Minister of Culture Miri Regev called a “cancer in the body of the Jewish nation”. The government’s policy is supported by the majority of the population. The same holds true with regard to the policy preventing non-Jewish labour migrants from attaining a permanent resident status or citizenship.

The Beneficiary of the Crisis: The Right-Wing Populist

No one managed better than Netanyahu to take advantage of this relapse into tribal identity and to present himself as the saviour of the Jewish people. His rise to the status of the undisputed, even irreplaceable charismatic leader of the country is closely linked to a “policy of enmity”, that is the instrumentalization of real or imaginary, internal or external opponents of Israel. Those include first of all the Palestinians and Iran, as well as Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords, the entire peace camp, and “the Left” in general. In recent years Netanyahu is also targeting non-Jewish refugees and migrants and, as of late, increasingly critics of his policy in western countries, accusing them of being hostile towards Israel or even anti-Semitic.

In the perpetual crisis thus imagined, Netanyahu looks like a noble knight. If the tribal interests are the decisive point of reference in the political debate, institutions such as parties, the media, or the division of powers appear as mere obstacles hindering the realization of the will of the people. Against that backdrop Netanyahu presents himself as champion of the people fighting against the elites and the establishment – despite the fact that he is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. He has demoted the once-proud Likud to his election campaign organization and purged its old guard, who – though firm right-wingers – respected the rule of law. In the name of the people, Netanyahu undermines the work and credibility of the media and of institutions that are part of the democratic control mechanism and guarantee the rule of law, orderly administration, and the protection of human rights. Lately he has even targeted the army, a hitherto “sacred” institution, because it put a soldier on trial in a military court for shooting dead a severely wounded Palestinian terrorist who was lying on the ground.

This puts Netanyahu in the best of bad company. Huge election campaign posters show Netanyahu together with Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump. He forms alliances with right-wing populists. For example, he supported the anti-Semitic campaign of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán against the investor and philanthropist George Soros. He is prepared to offend his liberal allies in the EU or the Democratic Party and broad sections of the traditionally left-wing or liberal Jewish communities in the USA. He considers the trade-off worthwhile given that he receives political support from those who see him as an exemplary illiberal democrat and champion of ethnonationalism. These include, among others, radical evangelicals in Baden-Württemberg (Germany), the Central European Visegrád group that seeks to prevent any criticism of Israel’s occupation policy by the EU, as well as US President Trump whose decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights considerably boosted Netanyahu’s standing both domestically and internationally.

Netanyahu’s National-Religious Allies

Whether Netanyahu will be able to win the upcoming elections depends on whether the right-wing camp will be able to gain a majority without Lieberman’s party. According to the latest opinion polls, the camp’s support falls a bit short of such an absolute majority. Apart from Likud, expected to win about a quarter of the votes (that is a bit less than in the previous elections), three religious parties belong to the camp. Two of them are the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which in the past used to tip the scale between Likud and the Labour Party. They used their key role to obtain as much as possible for their often economically poor supporters, mostly families with many children, but otherwise kept out of politics. Today their supporters and voters are firmly based within the nationalist camp. The third potential coalition partner is Yamina (“rightwards”), an alliance of several extreme right-wing parties, expected to win about ten percent of the votes.

It is noteworthy that the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist circles are becoming increasingly intertwined, which leads to the formation of a group with a strong sense of mission and at times a messianic vision. The group’s representatives hold key positions, such as the ministries of education and of justice, or the chair of the Knesset finance committee, and thus are gaining more and more influence.

Blue-White: The Challenger

Alarmed by the constant incitement against the rule of law and the “elites” as well as the increasing power of the religious parties, Blue-White (in Hebrew: Kahol Lavan – the colours of the Israeli flag), an alliance of three new parties, was established in the run-up to the elections in April 2019. With its five generals, including one woman, as well as several prominent figures of the administration and the media, Blue-White represents the Israeli establishment. Its common ground is their opposition to Netanyahu and to the right-wing populist attacks on the rule of law and its institutions. They aim at combatting corruption, strengthening the rule of law and freedom of speech, and preventing further intertwinement of state and religion. With regard to other topics, however, there is no substantial difference between Blue-White and Likud. They also use Netanyahu’s dictum that Israel has “to live eternally by the sword”. They do not mention a two-state solution, but promise that Israel will not withdraw from the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem, which actually amounts to a rejection of a viable Palestinian state. With regard to the Gaza Strip, Blue-White brags about their determination to pursue an even harsher policy than Netanyahu. Moreover, Blue-White does not question the bases of the current social and economic policies. According to the latest opinion polls Blue-White is again expected to win about a quarter of the votes.

Left of the Centre I: The Labour Party and Gesher

While the other parties remained more or less the same, major changes occurred in the parties to the left of the centre. Three such lists run for election, each of them with a different orientation than in the previous elections.

The once proud Labour Party, which dominated Israeli politics since the establishment of the state until 1977 and afterwards occasionally headed the government, won merely six seats (about five percent of the votes) in the last elections – an all-time low. In the ensuing dispute over the reform of the party Amir Peretz won out over two younger candidates, who had played a leading role in the social protests in 2011. Peretz, born in Morocco in 1952, was already party chairman from 2005 until 2007. Then and now he is convincing as a candidate who can credibly represent the interests of poorer social strata and attract them to the party, especially with regard to Mizrahim, Jewish immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries and their offspring who mostly immigrated in the 1950s and today constitute about half of the Jewish population in Israel. Until now voting for the Labour Party was hardly an option for Mizrahim, given the party’s long track record of preaching equality while discriminating against Mizrahim in contrast to Ashkenazim, the Jewish population of European origin, at times treating them in a racist manner and preventing their socio-economic advancement. In light of the disastrous election results, attracting Mizrahim has become vital for the Labour Party. In the assessment of journalist and author Meron Rapoport, the Labour Party took a revolutionary but long over-due step with the election of Peretz, trade unionist and former mayor of Sderot, an impoverished town at the periphery, in the immediate vicinity of the Gaza Strip, a town the inhabitants of which usually vote for the right-wing camp. In Rapaport’s view, the Left in general has neglected the Jewish periphery that constitutes a quarter of the electorate for far too long, while left-wing parties have hitherto won merely three percent of the votes.

The Labour Party is running for election together with Gesher (“Bridge”), founded by Mizrahi and feminist activists after they split from the right-wing camp due to strong disagreements over socio-economic issues. The election programme of the alliance is rather revolutionary for the Labour Party, envisaging a radical paradigm shift in social and economic policy. An increase in the state deficit and higher taxation of the wealthy are supposed to fund investments in infrastructure, raising the minimum wage to 40 NIS (about ten euro) as well as disability and pension benefits, and make it possible for educational institutions and health services to again be funded completely by tax revenues. The alliance remains rather vague with regard to the Palestinian minority in Israel or peace issues, yet it calls for a stop to investments in Israeli settlements in the West Bank apart from those in the major settlement blocs.

It may be doubtful whether voters will be convinced by a declaration made so shortly before the elections promising a return to the principles of left-wing social-democratic policy, in particular given that the Labour Party was hardly present in the public sphere for quite some time, nor did it participate in any local struggles.

Left of the Centre II: Meretz and the Democratic Camp

Meretz decided to move into the opposite direction. It still calls itself a left-wing party, fighting for a historical compromise with the Palestinians and advocating social-democratic and even socialist positions on economic issues as well as progressive gender, transport, and environment policies, but joined forces with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to form the Democratic Camp. Barak’s focus is on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like Meretz, he advocates for a two-state solution. Yet Barak is a controversial, even hated figure for the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel because as prime minister he was responsible for the bloody suppression of the protests in Arab towns in northern Israel in October 2000.

Through its alliance with Barak, Meretz boosts its image as a party of the dwindling educated middle class of European origin, but at the same time undermines its chances of success among the Palestinian minority, from which it received a quarter of its votes in the last elections. On the other hand, Meretz might be able to attract those who used to vote for the Labour Party but disagree with its new orientation, leaving its European urban subtext and opening up to the peripheries, the marginalized, and the Mizrahim.

Left of the Centre III: The Joint List

The Joint List, established in 2015, was seen to offer great hope for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The list received 85 percent of the Palestinian votes and thus became the third-largest group in the Knesset, with 13 of 120 seats. In the run-up to the elections in April 2019 the list broke up due to personal quarrels. The involved parties formed two lists, the composition of which was completely arbitrary. Both lists taken together only won ten Knesset seats.

In light of the electorate’s demand, the Joint List was now re-established by the four quite diverse parties that represent the interests of the Palestinian minority in Israel. The list includes a wide range of political views spanning from socialist via liberal to Islamic conservative ones. In 2015 the Joint List attracted attention, at time even enthusiastic admiration, in the entire Arab world—as well as in Europe and elsewhere—since it provided a counter model to the hostile discord, which may even lead to armed conflict, among these political currents elsewhere in the region. The list of candidates includes Muslims, Christians, Druse, Bedouins, as well as a Jewish socialist. Especially the socialist Hadash/al-Jabha (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) saw to it that the programme of the Joint List does not only take into account the interests of the Palestinian minority in Israel, but also offers a progressive vision for Israeli society as a whole, calling for an end to the occupation; a democracy that is not only an expression of the will of the majority; and more social justice.

It is doubtful whether the Joint List will be able to repeat its 2015 success in the upcoming elections because the personal quarrels among the list’s leadership at the beginning of the year have led to growing disaffection with politics, especially among young voters. Whether it will once again be possible to mobilize Israel’s Palestinian citizens also depends on the attitude of the other opposition parties—the right-wing camp anyhow considers parties representing the Palestinian minority as illegitimate and excludes them from the political game on principle. If there is, apart from Meretz, no political party that perceives them as potential ally, it will become increasingly difficult to explain why Israel’s Palestinian citizens should participate in the elections at all.

Against this backdrop the chairman of Joint List, Ayman Odeh, declared his readiness to join a centre-left coalition on the condition that Blue-White accepts some of the list’s basic demands regarding the Palestinian minority in Israel and the peace process that are meant to ensure that the members of the Palestinian minority will no longer be second-class citizens. Odeh’s historic coalition offer was immediately met by rejection: Blue-White declared that it would not cooperate with the Joint List in any way; Likud even warned of the danger of a government supported by terrorists.


The key question is whether Benjamin Netanyahu is still at the apex of his power or whether these elections will bring his right-wing populist era to an end. The most likely outcome of the elections is yet another stalemate, where the two camps seek to destabilize each other. Netanyahu will do every in his power to face or prevent his imminent indictments from the advantage position of incumbent prime minister. He is likely to lure Blue-White and Labour Party–Gesher, which are unstable alliances, or individual Members of Knesset thereof into his coalition, baiting them with some substantive concessions or appointments. Blue-White and Lieberman, in turn, are likely to try inciting Likud against Netanyahu, who is admired and dreaded in his party but hardly loved. Last but not least, the attorney general will be another leading actor. His decision of whether and when to put Netanyahu on trial is likely to have considerable repercussions.

Whatever the election results may be, no positive change is to be expected with regard to a peace process, since about 80 percent of the votes will go to parties that despite differences in their rhetoric share common ground: they all explicitly or implicitly reject the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and hence a two-state solution. The further the political mainstream moves to the right, the more likely a continuation and intensification of a policy advancing the colonization process, in the course of which Palestinians are squeezed into densely populated enclaves in order to make room for Israeli infrastructure. Such a development is liable to destroy the chances for solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict for future generations as well. In addition, no progressive reorientation is to be expected with regard to socio-economic issues and any hope for positive change will depend on whether the nascent demands for more social justice gain greater support outside parliament.

Yet the elections might be decisive with regard to the rule of law. A victory of the right-wing camp is liable to entail further dismantling of democracy and an even firmer entanglement of religious-messianic and ethnonationalist discourses creating a toxic mixture incompatible with democracy. By contrast, these processes might be stopped or even reversed if the right-wing camp does not win or if it needs a coalition partner from the current opposition camp. But even such a development would not alter the assessment that a country cannot be democratic if it permanently and systematically denies another people the right to self-determination and thus deprives millions of people of their civil and human rights.

In these elections the left-wing parties in Israel find themselves in an unusual situation. None of the three alliances to the left of the centre are classical leftist parties. Each one of them addresses a particular public and aims to represent the interests of that public. While the Joint List primarily claims to represent Israel’s Palestinian citizens, the Democratic Camp is clearly a peace list tailored to a public of European origin, with a social profile—congruent with its well-off urban electorate—oscillating between left and liberal. By contrast, the alliance between the Labour Party and Gesher addresses marginalized groups, in particular Mizrahim, but cannot be considered “left” with regard to the peace process. The left-wing camp is thus fragmented based on social sectors. It remains to be seen whether these alliances—each on its own or jointly—will be able to develop a progressive discourse to oppose the hegemonic right-wing nationalist one.

Tsafrir Cohen is the director of the RLS Regional Office in Tel Aviv. Translated by Ursula Wokoeck Wollin.