Home » Netanyahu Is Back, but the Real Winner in Israel Makes Bibi Look Timid

Netanyahu Is Back, but the Real Winner in Israel Makes Bibi Look Timid

There’s no other way to put it: This week’s Israeli election,
the fifth in less than four years, was a wipe-out for the “coalition of change”—the
left, center, and right that joined forces last year to defeat former Prime
Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid has acknowledged
as much and has already begun the transition process.

The big
winner, by contrast, was the Religious Zionism Party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir
and Bezalel Smotrich, which won far more votes than the polls had suggested and
now becomes the third-largest party in the Knesset. They are really an amalgam
of three parties, one more racist and backwards-looking than the other. They
are anti-modernity and all expressions of liberalism.

Famously
known for his youthful embrace of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein (who
murdered 25 worshippers in a mosque in Hebron in 1994), Ben-Gvir is the hideous
face of a festering 55-year-old occupation. A leader of a network of feral,
hard right activists, he once bragged of pulling a front-piece off of
then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, adding to the incitement that led to
Rabin’s murder. Just a week before the election, he showed up at a
demonstration in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to harass
Palestinian residents by pulling his pistol from his belt holster. Significant
violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is inevitable as settlers take
back control of the levers of government. and Jewish expansion into the West
Bank thickens exponentially at a time when the Palestinian Authority is
severely weakened.

While
liberal Israeli Jews ignored the occupation, which was barely a blip in this
and the previous four elections, extremist settlers like Ben-Gvir were planning
their takeover not only of Hebron, home to Ben-Gvir, but of secular,
free-flowing Tel Aviv. The occupation has smashed straight into the Tel Aviv
beachfront. The idyllic lifestyle and Tel Aviv tech bubble was defeated at the
polls by a hard-right coalition not only of Ben-Gvir but of ultra-Orthodox
parties whose numbers rose, too. So now, for instance, an active debate about
public transportation on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, will not only disappear
(there won’t be public transportation), but these extreme parties will likely
also challenge other freedoms that Tel Avivis have come to take for granted
like LGBTQ rights. Even women’s reproductive rights may be on the table.
Abortion has been long legal in Israel, but the right wing there has already
expressed an interest in going where the United States has regressed a nation
on reproductive rights. And, finally, the occupation that was pretty much
ignored by these same liberal souls in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel, will
become front page news again—mostly because of incitement that will no doubt emanate
from this newly empowered Jewish right wing, whose leaders are themselves some
of the most extreme of the settlers.

Gary
Brenner, a veteran Israeli peace activist, put it this way: “Israel pretended for 50+ years that
she can ‘manage’ an occupation and be a democracy at the same time. The result
is Ben-Gvir and an endangered democracy. Two former commanders in chief
(Benjamin Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, whose party came in fourth) have less value
to the voters of Israel than Ben-Gvir. 
The myth of Tzahal [Israel’s army] is over. The bubble is broken.”

Israeli Jewish voters elected a slate of right-wingers—and
convicts at that, or at least people in deep legal jeopardy. Netanyahu is on
trial for three different serious counts; Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, the
ultra-Orthodox 
Sephardic Party supported by Jews from North Africa and Arab countries,
resigned the previous Knesset with a plea deal for tax evasion; and Ben-Gvir himself
has been convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, Kahane
Chai.

As prime minister, Netanyahu will have to decide how much of
Israel’s remaining global credibility he wants to squander. That will determine
how truly right-wing and incendiary his government will be. But he needs his
newly created Frankenstein, Ben-Gvir, to manipulate the legal system to stop
his ongoing criminal trial. Keeping himself prison-free was the sole reason for
Bibi’s reelection bid. Ben-Gvir is demanding the Homeland Security ministry,
which oversees the police. That’s like putting a Proud Boy in charge of patrolling
America’s Black neighborhoods. Gvir would head up the entire national police
force, putting Israel’s Arab citizens and many others at risk. It will be
immensely difficult for Netanyahu to control Ben-Gvir, with the latter feeling
that he is responsible for Bibi’s return to office. 

The only
real surprise in this election was the tremendous turnout, in spite of nearly
annual elections. Nearly three-quarters of eligible Israeli Jews voted, with 54 percent turnout from the
Arab sector. This was significantly higher than expected, due to eleventh-hour
get out the vote efforts. The left-wing Arab leader of Hadash, Israel’s
Euro-communist party, literally went into the streets of his home city of Haifa
with a megaphone calling people to the polls. Yet the split from a combined
list of four Arab parties to three different lists adversely diluted the Arab
vote. The decision by the Labor Party not to merge in the race with Meretz resulted
in a weakening of both parties such that Meretz, the party of the struggling
Israeli peace camp, didn’t even clear the voting threshold for Knesset seats (this
could change when the final tally is announced on Friday).

So now what? Once the election is called on Friday, the president of Israel and former leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, will call on the largest party to first try to assemble a government. This means that he will ask Bibi to assemble a 61-seat Knesset majority. It is possible, though unlikely, that Herzog will suggest that Bibi try to assemble a “unity” government that would consist of his Likud Party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party along with some of the smaller ones, excluding Ben-Gvir and his guys, for the good of the nation. But this would mean that Bibi’s own goal, of self-salvation, wouldn’t be realized. So it’s difficult to imagine him saying yes. 

Assuming, then, that Bibi will form his right-wing government, his next step will be to dole out ministerial positions, which will go to everyone he feels he needs to get something from in return. Bibi, it was noted in the Israeli press during the election campaign, has no governing agenda except to wreck the court system and change the law to simulate the French law, where a sitting prime minister can’t be convicted during office. His allies in the Likud have also expressed interest in firing the attorney general, who, in Israel, is an independent actor outside of politics. This would be as chilling an occurrence as has ever threatened Israeli democracy—but it would be part of their broader agenda to politicize the courts and the legal system. 

Bibi’s allies, and soon his ministers, have multiple agendas, from instituting more settlement growth, more funds to the Haredi ultra-Orthodox sector, stopping any laws that privilege the non-fundamentalist Jewish population, letting go of core curriculum for Yeshivas, and more. It’s likely that there will be a call to formally announce an end to the dormant two-state peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, though that could come up against some opposition from the newly allied Gulf States that have formed the Abraham Accords. (The accords themselves, as well as Israel’s treaties with Jordan and Egypt could be jeopardized if there is significant turmoil within the Occupied Palestinian Territories.)

As for the left… “The feeling is that we got kicked in the
guts. Today, we took the day off, like sitting shiva. But tomorrow we will be
back to work,” an exhausted Noam Vidan told me. Vidan is the CEO of IDEA, a
relatively new think tank promoting liberal democracy in Israel. But its job
will not be easy. Israel’s center and left are split among small parties and
within ideologies. Furthermore, there is no consensus between Jewish and Arab
citizens of Israel on how to work together, especially among the Jewish
centrists, but even in many left-wing circles. Add to that the traditionally
liberal free-market religious but not fanatical right (I almost wrote Romney
Republicans here, because that’s the comparison) that is searching for a
landing spot, and the puzzle gets more complex. “For many years, the left and
the center worked totally separately, and now we need to create an option for
how to work together as a camp. Populism won. We need to bring together the
left, center, and liberal right. This is our time to build an option for our
camp. Jewish Israelis and Palestinians,” Vidan stressed.

One thing that this election has once again proven is that
the Jewish left (and center) in Israel simply can’t win without Arab citizens
of Israel joining in, not just for voting; not as an afterthought, but in
leadership positions with a platform that promotes shared society and equality.
This is not only pragmatic politics but must be the values of a democratic
movement. These modifications are also the only hope that the center-left in
Israel has to rebuild a sustainable leadership.

It’s no accident that Netanyahu used the canard of the Arab
vote to compel his voting base to the polls. As always, Bibi ran on incitement
against the 21 percent of citizens who are Arab. His attacks on the very notion
that an Arab party could serve in government, in response to the first-time
inclusion of the Raam Islamic party in the Lapid government, no doubt fueled
larger nationalist Jewish turnout. (No matter that he had also negotiated with
Raam to join a coalition.)

There is a burgeoning combined young left of Jewish and Arab
activists. In fact, a leading group, called Standing Together, was sued by
Bibi’s Likud Party for their get-out-the-vote efforts in an attempt to suppress
Arab turnout. But the court ruled in favor of Standing Together, which sent
canvassers to Arab communities. This is the court system over which Bibi and
his new ministers hope to take control by changing judicial selection and much
more.

Finally, Israelis have a choice: to
head toward increased inequality and racial polarization with constant conflict
inside and outside its borders; or enhance their democracy by moving from a
“Jewish state” to a homeland for the Jewish people with equality for all its
citizens, a new formulation for Israel that ensures security for the Jewish
people but creates a more equal society for all Israelis that promotes openness
and liberal values. This will not be easy. But without a clear and growing
alliance between progressive Israeli Jews and Israel’s Arab citizens, the
Israeli center-left can’t sustain a stable coalition—or act as an impactful
opposition. There can be no hedging. For Israeli democracy to survive, there
must be a reckoning and a repositioning.

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Photo of author

Enzo Smith