Opinion | Why is Israel Deadlocked?

The Netanyahu factor may not explain the ongoing election stalemate.
By | Sep 21, 2022
2022 September/October, Opinion

The prospect of Israel’s fifth election in less than four years does not seem promising. It’s not promising for anyone, because nothing much seems to have changed. Israel is still politically deadlocked, and whether what emerges from this cycle is a short-lived new government or an immediate sixth election will mostly be a matter of luck and coincidence. Maybe a party fails to cross the electoral threshold, giving one of the camps a slight advantage. Maybe Arab voters, who currently seem completely uninterested in this election, will suddenly rise up and vote, giving the edge to another camp. Maybe. But even if so, not much will change. The basic tie is still with us. The polls barely move. No wonder—after four cycles, most Israelis pretty much know what they want.

They aren’t suddenly going to regret their previous choice and move to the other camp.

With such a depressing outlook, one question remains: Is the constant tie a cause or an effect?

The one consistent feature of the five almost consecutive cycles of election is the division between the two main camps in Israel. These camps aren’t exactly ideological. They have social characteristics, they have certain geographical structures, they clearly separate the more traditional from the less so.

But by and large, their main expression is the tendency of one camp to insist on one leader—former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and the tendency of the other camp to insist on anyone but that one leader.

Thus, the obvious question: What happens if we take Netanyahu out of the equation? Suppose Netanyahu decides to step aside, or his party, Likud, decides to turn the page and elect a new leader.

Or suppose some parties in Netanyahu’s camp (maybe one of the ultra-Orthodox parties) decides to jump ship and dismantle the camp as we know it. What happens then?

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Americans might face a similar question if or when Donald Trump is removed from the scene, whether by his own choice or by losing an electoral battle. This isn’t a suggestion that Netanyahu is anything like Trump, because he isn’t: Netanyahu is a thoughtful, serious intellectual and was an effective leader of Israel for many years. Rather, it is a question that ought to bother all Israelis who conveniently assume that their problem is a nagging yet essentially uncomplicated one—having to deal with one controversial leader whom some admire, almost worship, and others can no longer tolerate.

This assumption is convenient, because if it’s so, Israel’s current problem is temporary. A fifth election, a sixth, a seventh—eventually, Netanyahu will get tired, or his opponents will, or circumstances will force his departure. If Netanyahu is the cause, then our ongoing political crisis has an expiration date. We do not know the exact date, but it exists. It could be as near as the upcoming election.

Alas, there is another possibility. The debate about Netanyahu may not be the cause but rather the effect of much deeper currents. If so, then Netanyahu is merely shorthand for something else—a way to make the problem seem smaller, less threatening, in the hope that when the man goes, the political crisis goes with him.

It is possible. There are reasons to suspect that if Netanyahu is somehow removed from the scene, a stable coalition would become imaginable. Put someone else, with less baggage, at the head of the Likud Party; let that candidate negotiate with prospective coalition partners, right, Haredi and center; and voilà! You could have Prime Minister Yariv Levin (just as an example—he came out on top in the recent Likud primary election), Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, you name it. Most of these leaders’ ideological differences aren’t going to be a problem. They all oppose a nuclear Iran, they all consider a Palestinian state an irrelevant issue, and they all favor a market-based economy with a social safety net. This should be an easy solution to Israel’s need for political stability.

And yet, there’s the other option: That Netanyahu exits the scene, and we suddenly realize that he wasn’t the problem, he was just a stand-in for it.

What could be the problem, then? Any answer would be long and complicated, but here’s a quick speculation. The problem could be a wide cultural gap between Israeli Jews in regard to their future vision for the country: a gap between those Israelis who want to see Israel as a Western liberal democracy with some Jewish characteristics and those who want to see Israel as a unique Jewish state with some characteristics of Western liberal democracy. Such a gap may sound fairly nuanced, but it’s a gap that would take more than just a change in leadership to bridge.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based editor and columnist.

Opening picture: US embassy Tel Aviv via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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