by Giorgio Gomel. Economist and member of the IAI (Istituto Affari Internazionali), the Steering Committee of Jcall-Italia and the organization Alliance for Middle East Peace
Now in its fourth electoral round in just two years, Israel’s vote tally confirms the primacy of Benyamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud and prime minister with uninterrupted continuity for 12 years, despite the accusations that weigh on him for corruption and breach of trust, and the wait for a trial postponed several times by the COVID-19 epidemic and procedural delays. The hearings have just resumed after a long interval. The subject of the electoral contest was essentially Netanyahu’s future; the elections resulted in a referendum on his behalf, a distortion of the rules of a stable democracy wherein a person who has been indicted is subject to a trial, not an election.
The paramount issues for the country—socio-economic inequalities; a peace agreement with the Palestinians that satisfies their right to an independent state and respect for the rule of law; and the fair navigation of the complex and twisted link between religion and politics whereby the ruling power of religious authorities injects itself into matters of civil and family rights—have been largely evaded. Only the Left, albeit weak and fragmented, has raised the dilemma that looms over the country’s future. Even the outcomes of the pandemic, which were very negative at first with extensive infections and deaths, then positive with the rapid and widespread mass vaccination campaign, do not seem to have significantly affected the vote.
At the current juncture, the Palestinians remain weak and divided, despite the prospect of elections in the West Bank and Gaza that should take place in the coming months and perhaps lead to pacifying relations between two antagonists—Fatah and Hamas. Part of the Arab world itself opposes these elections with undisguised annoyance and almost intolerance to Palestinian requests for an independent state, driven by a convergence of interests with Israel and against Iran to the point of establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. In such a context, Israeli voters tend to divide themselves over Netanyahu, his claims of immunity from possible conviction, and the dispute over the independence of judges and the Supreme Court, which has been subjected to a heavy campaign of delegitimization by the Right.
On the other hand, there has been a shift in Israeli society towards ethno-nationalist positions for some time. Likud supports a partial or total annexation of the West Bank. Some parties to the Right of Likud express increasingly radical positions to the point of embracing the fanatic ideology of those who not only preach the annexation of the territories but also the expulsion of the Palestinians. In opinion polls, over 50% of those interviewed declared themselves to be Right-wing, compared to about 25% from the center and less than 15% from the Left, a marked orientation especially among young people. This phenomenon is due to the social and demographic transformations of the country, such as the great immigration from post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s and the growing demographic weight of the religious demographic. But it is also a reaction to the nihilist path taken by the Palestinians: the terrorist violence of the intifada in the years 2001-2005, and the unfortunate guerrilla war waged by Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
In the new parliament, ideologically oriented Right-wing parties occupy about 75 seats out of 120, although at least two of these—Lieberman’s “Israel our home” and Sa’ar’s “New Hope”—belong to the anti-Netanyahu front and may have attracted votes from centrist voters driven by this common goal rather than by the ideology they embody.
The counting of the ballots revealed a near-paralysis: 52 seats in favor of Netanyahu, although his party lost 6 seats compared to a year ago; 57 against, but in a very heterogeneous spectrum of positions; 11 attributed to two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum—one from the nationalist Right, the other Islamist-conservative. Will Netanyahu, to whom President Rivlin has entrusted the exploratory task of forming a government, be able to develop a coalition between a party that preaches the annexation of the territories and an Arab party close to the Muslim Brotherhood? Perhaps, with his notoriously unscrupulous tactics, he will try to seduce refugees from the “New Hope” of Sa’ar, mostly members of the same Likud who are opposed to Netanyahu—or recruit Gantz himself, leader of the “Blue and White” party and defense minister in the current government, with an argument that only Netanyahu can save Israel from the paralysis of a government trying to balance the Islamists against the racists of the new “religious Zionism” position.
The United Arab List suffered a collapse of votes from 15 to 6 seats. In part, this reflected the decrease in voting participation of Arab citizens of Israel disappointed by the post-election event of 2020 when Gantz, when entrusted with the task of forming and leading the government, rejected an offer of support from the Arab parties. Also to blame was the collapse of The Joint List, a political alliance of four Arab-majority political parties. One of them, the Islamist Ra’am party—conservative in matters of civil and social rights—left the alliance. The party’s leaders were seduced by the flattery of the outgoing premier, and they were convinced of their ability to influence, from within, a possible government coalition on the fate of the Arab minority. This population suffers from economic hardship, a shortage of houses, infrastructures, schools, and is riddled with a disturbing wave of crime.
The Left, Labor and Meretz—reduced to just 5% of the votes in the elections a year ago—has regained vigor, reaching around 10% of the vote. Their voters had opted for a strategically useful vote in 2019 and 2020, in favor of the “Blue and White” center party in opposition to Netanyahu—a party that later split after the decision of its leader Gantz to join forces with Netanyahu himself to create a government of national unity.
For now, the attempt by some intellectuals and progressive activists to create an Arab-Jewish party has failed, although Arab candidates have been elected in the parties of the Jewish Left. But in the medium term, the recovery of the center-Left in the country requires a political alliance between Jews and Arabs, for a future based on the principles of equality and democracy.
Finally, the most worrying fact is given by the more than 20 seats out of 120 obtained by the religious fundamentalist Right. Continuing in power are the two parties which traditionally reflect the requests of ultra-Orthodox communities that aim to impose their theocratic conception of power on the rest of the country and are linked for years by a close government alliance with Likud. There is also a new formation which has entered the Knesset, called “religious Zionism,” and this party has subtracted a significant number of votes from the two parties mentioned above. This formation is partly the legacy of the Kach, the party founded by Meir Kahane, standard bearer of anti-Arab racism, who was excluded by Parliament for this reason at the end of the 1980s. It preaches the expulsion not only of Palestinians but also of Arabs from Israel who do not accept a test of allegiance to the state, the annexation of the entire West Bank, and discrimination against LGBT communities. This party, which Netanyahu favored and pushed in the electoral campaign so as not to dissipate votes on the Right, could join a coalition of the religious and nationalist Right, securing the required majority of 61 seats and obstructing the initiatives of a future government.