Toby Greene is a former deputy editor of Fathom and author of Blair, Labour & Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11.
Israel’s fifth election in four years has finally broken the deadlock, producing a decisive victory for Netanyahu and his far right and ultra-Orthodox allies. This promises to deliver a stable government. But it is one that threatens grievous damage to the fabric of Israeli democracy, to Arab-Jewish relations, to the hope for a Palestinian state, and to relations between Israel and its international allies as well as large parts of the Jewish diaspora. It will also provide an opportunity for anti-Zionists, and require new thinking from Israel’s liberal-minded supporters – Jewish and non-Jewish – about how to respond.
The deadlock of recent years has been defined by two interconnected cleavages: the personal question of Netanyahu’s leadership, and the national question of Israel’s identity. In general terms those backing Netanyahu despite his corruption charges want to advance the Jewish over the democratic character of the state. Those opposed to Netanyahu, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz want to preserve Israel’s liberal-democratic or secular character alongside (or in the case of some Arab parties in place of) Israel’s Jewish character.
Support for these two blocs is finely balanced. Even in this round the national vote share was split evenly. But the stronger coherence of Netanyahu’s bloc delivered their decisive victory, thanks to an electoral law which discounts votes for parties that fail to secure 3.25 per cent of the vote. The fragmented Lapid-led ‘bloc of change’ fought the election with five parties polling close to the threshold. Two of the five – left wing Meretz and Arab-nationalist Balad – fell just short, consigning hundreds of thousands of anti-Netanyahu votes to the dustbin. The result enables Netanyahu’s Likud to swiftly form a 64-seat majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, together with the far right Religious Zionism list and two ultra-Orthodox parties.
Many will be particularly shocked by the sight of extremist Jewish nationalists of the ‘Religious Zionism’ list taking up ministerial roles. How can we explain their rise?
On one level their success is a result of specific conditions in this election. The defection of more pragmatic right-wing politicians to the anti-Netanyahu camp, including ultimately Naftali Bennett, left a vacuum on the religious-nationalist right. Netanyahu personally brokered and endorsed an alliance of those far-right parties unperturbed by his corruption trial. Whilst not all Israel’s national-religious tribe are as extreme as those they elected, this list became the natural home for many of them. Its leaders – especially Itamar Ben-Gvir – also exploited a feeling of insecurity and lawlessness, against the backdrop of intercommunal violence a year ago, and a recent wave of terror attacks.
Taking a step back we need to register the longer-term changes that swell the support of religious and right-wing parties. This includes the collapse of the left-wing agenda on the Palestinian question, the demographic growth of national religious and ultra-Orthodox populations, and their political radicalisation – including among ultra-Orthodox youth.
Zooming out further we should see events in Israel as part of a wider polarising trend within many states, between those committed to universal humanist values, and those committed to versions of ethnocultural nationalism. In Israel as elsewhere, these divides are sharpened by the fragmentation of traditional media and the toxicity of debate on social media.
What does this mean for Israel?
This result is an unmitigated disaster for the anti-Netanyahu camp. It will now return to the opposition and watch with horror as a government of its nightmares is formed.
It is led by a resurgent Netanyahu and his Likud loyalists. They seek to subdue what they see as an excessively powerful judicial system, which both holds in balance the liberal-democratic and Jewish aspects of the state, and ultimately threatens to send Netanyahu to jail.
Indeed, the primary threat to the stability of this coalition is Netanyahu’s trial, meandering at a snail’s pace through the Jerusalem District Court. The new coalition partners have an overwhelming shared interest to cancel or neuter this process, and various political options to try.
The next largest partner is the Religious-Zionism list, a technical merger of the Religious-Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich, and the Jewish Power party of Itamar Ben-Gvir. Though Ben-Gvir has sought to reassure the public that he has moderated his views, this collection of far-right Jewish supremacists, energised with messianic fervour, has thrived on confrontation between Jews and Arabs which they have stoked and exploited. They are also determined to entrench Jewish presence in the West Bank and bury forever the promise of a two-state solution.
The coalition is completed by the two ultra-Orthodox parties whose priority is to stop the state disrupting the social fabric of its impoverished and demographically ballooning community. In return for their Knesset votes they will receive a promise that a core curriculum of English and Maths will not be imposed on their schools, and that their community will remain effectively exempt from military service.
Whilst this government’s agenda will itself be taken by many as a blow to hopes for a coherent approach to Israel’s long-term social and economic challenges, the greater concern is the threat to the very integrity of the political system.
The independence of any institution that limits the power of the government, disagrees with its values, or challenges Netanyahu personally, could be a potential target. This includes the judiciary, the police, civil society, elements of the education system, and the media.
Previous Netanyahu coalitions challenged in various ways these institutions but were still somewhat restrained, either by Netanyahu himself, or by more moderate elements in the coalition. This coalition has no obvious moderating elements, save perhaps Netanyahu’s desire to maintain a claim to democratic principles both domestically and internationally.
Israel’s liberal democratic institutions, and especially the judicial system, are therefore essentially undefended against the threat of an assault comparable to those seen in Hungary and Poland. They are particularly vulnerable since Israel has neither a second legislative chamber as a check on the Knesset nor an entrenched constitution. The question is how far this coalition will go, and much damage will be inflicted before the next election comes around. Israel’s elections in the past have been free and fair. This cannot be taken for granted in future.
One source of restraint may be international pressure from Western allies. Attacks on the status of Israel’s Arab minority or escalatory steps in the West Bank will provoke a negative response from liberal orientated Western governments, including the Biden administration, and European allies, including the UK, especially under a future Labour government.
But many Western countries face their own internal struggles between liberalism and various stripes of populist nationalism. Israel will become more of a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats in the US. Meanwhile collective EU pressure will be blunted by European radical right elements that have much in common with Netanyahu.
A greater source of restraint with respect to the coalition’s policies in the West Bank, and towards Israel’s Arab minority, may be Israel’s Arab allies. The Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain depended on Netanyahu suspending plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Moves towards annexation could jeopardise this signature achievement of Netanyahu’s, and any hopes he may have to strengthen or expand ties between Israel and Western-orientated Arab governments.
What now for the anti-Netanyahu camp and its international supporters?
Inside Israel, the fragmented anti-Netanyahu camp will have to work out how to resist the coalition’s agenda from the opposition. The decision of two left-wing parties, Meretz and Labor, not to run a join list, proved a fateful mistake. A fundamental realignment of the remnants of the Israeli left is now unavoidable. New approaches are also required to mobilise Israel’s disaffected Arab electorate. If more of that sector had voted, Netanyahu’s victory could have been prevented.
But this election result not only intensifies Israel’s identity crisis, it represents a potential blow to the coherence of Jewish peoplehood. It further exposes the rift between the ultra-nationalist Jewishness of the incoming Israeli government and the more universalist Jewishness of their liberal opponents in Israel, which is shared by many Diaspora Jews.
Anti-Zionist activists in the West will no doubt try to seize this opportunity to double down on their claims that Israel is an inherently illegitimate or apartheid state. To the extent they are successful, they will not only harm the morale of diaspora Jews deeply connected to Israel but play perfectly into the hands of the Israeli right, and make the job of Israel’s opposition all the harder.
So what should be the reaction of Israel’s friends around the world, including liberal-minded Jews? How can they reconcile their commitment to Israel, the welfare of its people, and the principle of Jewish self-determination, with their opposition to Israel’s ultra-nationalist leadership?
First, this is a time to stress that the rise of an Israeli government including far-right extremists, has not invalidated the principled legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It has not cancelled Israel’s indispensable role in Jewish security and welfare, or cultural and spiritual life. It has not reversed the country’s extraordinary social, creative and intellectual achievements. Nor has it cancelled out the significant precedent of the Lapid-Bennet government of including an Arab party for the first time in an Israeli coalition. It is also no less true after this election, that contemporary anti-Zionism (to be contrasted with justified support for Palestinian national rights) is almost always underpinned by a conspicuous disdain or lack of empathy for the identity and history of the Jewish people.
Second, Jews and non-Jews alike who want to support the defence of Israel’s liberal character, promote equality and coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and the realisation of Palestinian political rights, should stand with Lapid and other parties of Israel’s mainstream parliamentary opposition.
They are on the front line in the struggle for Israel’s soul. They are the ones best placed to win back support in Israel’s centre ground, to defend Israel’s institutions, and to exploit the inevitable mistakes, contradictions, and in-fighting this coalition will surely encounter.
Israel’s international friends should understand that Lapid must fight the incoming government’s agenda whilst avoiding being portrayed as disloyal to Israel as a Jewish, as well as a democratic state, and that the two-state solution remains the only hope for reconciling these goals.
For many in Israel and around the world the outcome of this election marks the start of a deeply troubling chapter in Israel’s story. A clear-sighted and realistic response, directed in support of Israel’s mainstream opposition, is the most hopeful way for them to help prevent this chapter becoming the defining one.