Israelis went to the polls yet again on March 2, for the third time in less than a year. It is still unknown whether it will be possible to form a government or if Israelis will have to go back to the polls, for a fourth time, in September. Here are four takeaways from this week’s election.
Netanyahu won—but he lost, too.
Since dissolving his government in December 2018 and propelling the country into repeated rounds of elections, Benjamin Netanyahu has defined the campaigns as a referendum on his performance—bolstered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s support in the form of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, recognition of the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, and publication of the “deal of the century.” Despite three indictments for corruption, growing social unrest, deteriorating infrastructure and increasing inequality, the public gave Netanyahu three seats more than they gave to his primary challenger, Benny Gantz, from the Blue and White party. That’s a great personal victory.
But voters did not give his party or the right-wing bloc on whom he depends the 61-seat majority required to form a government. In December 2018, that bloc had 60 seats; now he has only 58.
Furthermore, Netanyahu won not only by attacking his opponents viciously but also by decimating the ranks of his own party and anyone in any party who opposes him. Despite the victory laps that Netanyahu is running all over the country, he and everyone else knows that forming a government will be difficult, if not impossible. And there are a lot of politicians in all the parties just waiting for him to fail.
The Joint (Arab) List won—but it’s still not enough.
The Joint List has been the third-largest party in the Knesset since 2015, and on Monday, they increased their strength even further and now hold 16 seats.
Even in Israeli politics, which often seem to operate by rules not known in other democracies, the laws of physics prevail, and actions produce reactions. In response to Netanyahu’s attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel and on the party that largely represents them and rejection by the left and center parties, and in response to the threat that Trump’s deal of the century would cede them to the Palestinian Authority, the Arab public came out voting, reaching a historically high level of voter participation.
By refusing to be delegitimized or succumbing to alienation or voter fatigue, Arab society demonstrated a new level of political maturity and made it clear it intends to be a full participant in the political process. Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Fund, a Jewish-Arab group promoting equality, refers to this as a “paradigm shift…away from the politics of whining to the politics of engagement.”
But it’s still not enough for Jewish society. Fearful of a backlash from the Jewish right, and even though he knew he might need them to form a coalition, Gantz declared early in the elections that he would not bring the Joint List into any government that he would form.
This campaign has been ugly—the aftermath will be uglier.
The campaign has been marred by fake sordid videos, innuendos about sexual impropriety, and a lot of mud-slinging. It’s been so bad that President Reuven Rivlin called the campaign “awful and grubby.”
And the police, worried that one side or the other would exploit the coronavirus scare and issue fake news reports that this or that polling station had been exposed, even set up a special command to protect against virus disinformation that might disrupt the vote. (It didn’t.)
But now it’s time to try to build the coalition that will sit around the government table, which is much more difficult than working out the seating arrangement at a bar mitzvah or wedding. Coalitions are often based more on who won’t sit with whom than on ideological agreements or shared priorities.
If Avigdor Liberman would join a Likud-led coalition, then Netanyahu would have a majority. But Liberman has made it clear that he despises Netanyahu and will not participate in any government that he would head. A “unity party” made up of the Likud and Blue and White (and without the representation of large sectors of Israeli society, including the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox) would have enough seats—but Gantz won’t allow Netanyahu to head that coalition because of the criminal indictments. The haredim won’t sit with Blue and White or Liberman because of their anti-religious coercion positions. The Arabs, even if they were invited, wouldn’t join the table with Liberman or Netanyahu because of their right-wing positions.
In an attempt to woo recalcitrant right-wing bloc parties, Netanyahu and his political team are promising ministries, committee head positions and funds; that still may not be enough to gloss over the personal enmities.
But if no government is formed, Israel will be tossed back into another election campaign, and no one wants that. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If only Netanyahu had three more seats, he could form a coalition and would only have to horse-trade within his own bloc. Not that that would be simple—knowing that his coalition depends on each and every vote, we can expect that the demands will be high.
The media is already reporting that the Likud has attempted to blackmail one member of the Blue and White Party to defect by threatening to release incriminating information about her.
The other side is gearing up, too, and is considering appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. Netanyahu’s trial begins on March 17. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister can continue in office until a final conviction, but it is not clear whether an indicted person can be appointed prime minister even if that person has won a majority.
To Netanyahu’s supporters, this petition would be nothing less than an attempt to overturn their democratic choice. It will further deepen the rifts between the “elites,” who largely voted against Netanyahu, and everyone else, and it will further undermine their belief in the basic institutions of the state, including the police and the judicial system.
The situation is bad—but not as bad as it seems. And there’s much that we, progressive Israelis and Americans, can do together.
Yes, the numbers show that Israel has moved to the right—but not as far as the prophets of doomsday predicted..
The far- and alt-right parties didn’t get in. Most importantly, the extremist Kahanist “Jewish party,” which Netanyahu legitimized in an attempt to strengthen his right-wing bloc, didn’t cross the threshold. And the bloc of right-wing settler parties and their supporters is actually smaller than it was two decades ago. True, some of this is because they “mainstreamed” into the Likud, but it does show that they couldn’t do it on their own.
Counting the center-left, left and Arab parties together, the center-left actually hasn’t decreased much over the years, despite the repeatedly failed peace process and the still-latent traumas of the Second Intifada. Furthermore, until recently, in their rush to bemoan the erosion of democracy, even progressive pundits rarely include the Arab party in their tallies. Yet, initial data shows that increasing numbers of Jewish voters voted for the Joint List—pointing to the possibility of a new form of sociopolitical alignment in Israel, based on separate identities as Jews and Arabs and a shared vision for a society based on social justice and equality.
Moreover, the Blue and White and the left ran a seemingly halfhearted campaign. Its only real message was “anyone but Netanyahu.” But it could never out-Netanyahu Netanyahu when it comes to personal attacks. He’s much better at that. Instead, the center-left could have made an effort to court women, Jews of Ethiopian and Russian descent, the elderly and young adults—all of whom have suffered from the decimation of social-welfare and rising inequality. Netanyahu knew how to exploit their resentment; the center-left could have offered them an alternative vision and hope.
It didn’t. And it paid the price.
True, the definitions of center and even of “left” have moved increasingly rightward, especially with regard to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Yet at this time, I am much more concerned about the disaffection, alienation from critical social institutions and polarization that have taken over large parts of their society.
This is where civil society comes in. Civil society has the responsibility and capacity to develop critical thinking skills among those who haven’t benefited from years of higher education and training in the social sciences and humanities. Civil society has the power to educate, to keep progressive values alive, to counter negative messages.
This will inure us all against political manipulation and help us to build a better society. It’s a long-term project, but that’s how we can build a better society—as long as we don’t have elections again in September 2020.