Israel continues its march to the right
Israeli election nights are not for the faint hearted, or for anyone who would like to know the character of the next government by the end of it, let alone enjoy a good night’s sleep.
There is something disconcerting about the moment when the exit polls are published, leading to the immediate thought: What was all the fuss about? Well, months of political crisis and electioneering have resulted in another stalemate, but not without significant takeaways, most of which should be a source of great concern about the direction of Israeli society and its fragile democracy, though there are also flickers of hope.
First, the difficulty of forming a coalition ranges from extreme to insurmountable — thus the absurd and equally disturbing likelihood of a fifth election in a matter of months, following the four that have already taken place in the past two years. If this fourth election could be seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, its result has left us none the wiser. Despite his demonstrably poor judgment in managing the coronavirus pandemic, and regardless of the seriousness of the corruption charges he is facing in court, he has maintained a sufficiently solid support base to enable him to continue as prime minister — although this may not prove sufficient to form a coalition, let alone one that could serve a full term.
The second takeaway is Israel’s march to the right, and the extreme right at that, including the better than expected performance of the religious ultra-right Kahanist Religious-Zionism party, which disgracefully won seven seats. However, there is still something paradoxical about the inability of the person who more than anyone else personifies the right in Israel, namely Benjamin Netanyahu, to form a government when in election after election the right has been performing well at the ballot box. Without the Netanyahu factor, whose party Likud emerged as the Knesset’s biggest, with 30 of the 120 seats, the right could have formed a stable government almost overnight. But in the last four elections the divisive issue has been between two main party blocs, one of which supports Netanyahu as their sole candidate for prime minister, while the “anyone but Bibi” grouping won’t share a government with him as long as his trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges continues. Netanyahu’s presence has created a rigidity in the already arduous task of forming a government.
Israel’s democratic system needs a radical overhaul, and with it a set of clear rules governing the criteria and norms that should apply to those seeking to enter public life and to their behavior once elected.
Third, the divisions in Israeli society reflected in election after election, as much as they can be attributed to the manipulative and cynical character of Netanyahu, who has stopped at nothing to prevent the justice system from performing its duties in his trial, run much deeper, and present a tangible risk to the very survival of the democratic polity. In the next Knesset, 13 parties will be represented, some of them sectarian with no sense of duty to the wider population and the state, and others with strong anti-democratic tendencies.
Fourth, one of the surprises of the night was the relative success of the left. Both Labor and Meretz, who until recently were teetering in opinion polls and on the verge of failing to cross the 3.25 percent entry threshold, performed better than expected, though still not well enough to return to their historical role as a governing power. With a combined force of 13 seats in the new Knesset they consolidated strong foundations to become part of a powerful opposition, and build for the future. The new Labor leader is Merav Michaeli, who has taken a party on the verge of extinction and managed to breathe life into it with a feminist and social-democratic agenda. What is still missing from Labor’s policies, unlike Meretz, is a strong peace agenda based on a fair and just solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. For the party that initiated and led the Oslo peace process, and for a leader who fashions herself as Itzhak Rabin’s successor, this is a damaging omission.
Lastly, Netanyahu may not be able to form a coalition, but it doesn’t look like anyone else can either. The second biggest party is the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, which won a mere 17 seats, and the arithmetic of forming a government is against him, or anyone else for that matter. For the Zionist parties the only way to break the deadlock and create more options is to abandon their underlying, racist refusal to include Arab-Israeli parties in government. Sadly for the Palestinian Israelis, the split in the Joint Arab List led to the loss of a third of their seats and with that their ability to influence the nature of the next government.
Israeli politics moves in mysterious ways, and at the end of the day it is a numbers game, all about reaching the magical 61 members to form a coalition government with the necessary majority. In this game no one is more experienced than Netanyahu at performing miracles, and using every trick in the book to lure parties or deserters from parties to support him. So we can’t rule out the possibility of this happening again, although the odds are against it. But should the anti-Bibi coalition end up with a Knesset majority and join forces to change the law so a defendant in a criminal case won’t be able to lead a government, this would open up an array of coalition options — but don’t hold your breath, as the results are too tight, and this camp has its own hang-ups and is too ideologically heterogeneous to cooperate with the necessary discipline.
An oft-quoted observation in science is: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If this needed any further validation, the last two years in Israeli politics have provided it. As things stand the political system is wide open to manipulation, divisive tactics, anti-democratic forces and corruption. This has been all too evident over the last four elections. Israel’s democratic system needs a radical overhaul, and with it a set of clear rules governing the criteria and norms that should apply to those seeking to enter public life and to their behavior once elected.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg