The March 2021 elections have confirmed what has been evident for quite some time: the Israeli political system is totally gridlocked. In this fourth iteration in less than two years, once again Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies on the right failed to garner a majority of the seats in the Knesset. His diverse opponents also cannot put together a viable replacement to his long-lasting hold on Israeli politics. The post-election ritual around attempts to construct a new government, beginning with the president’s consultations on the identity of the first person to be charged with that formidable task, is just the prelude to a period of in-fighting, callous bartering, outright bribery and constant machinations aimed at squaring an infinitely unmovable circle. It may be better for all concerned — and for Israel’s well-being and resilience — to use the next few months to capitalize on the shifts that have taken place during the past year (and accentuated in the latest ballot) to lay the groundwork for the construction of a meaningful alternative.
The ground in Israel is shifting. A new fluidity has emerged which has yet to take shape and solidify into something that diverges from past patterns. Confronting the four main changes apparent in the latest elections and their immediate aftermath is a good starting point for such a remaking.
The first unique characteristic of the latest Israeli experience at the polls is fragmentation. Unlike in the previous rounds, in which the right-religious agglomeration under the leadership of Netanyahu was pit against a center-left coalition headed by the large Blue and White coalition, this time splinter parties appeared across the political spectrum. The right was breached by the emergence of new pro-Netanyahu (The Religious Zionists) and anti-Netanyahu (New Hope and Yamina) forces. The depleted center, in the form of Benny Gantz and his Blue-White party, ran alone, while his former partners in Yesh Atid did so as well. Labor and Meretz to the center-left did not join forces and vied with each other for support in an already over-crowded field. The Joint Arab List split, with Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party advocating greater integration into the Israeli political scene for all individuals, just as his former cohorts continued to call for equality on a collective basis as well.
The binary structure that has marked party competition was thus broken, most notably by differences of opinion on the continuation of the Netanyahu incumbency, but also by the accentuation of ideological and strategic disparities throughout the party map. In all cases, these were exacerbated by the severe competition between political fragments struggling to pass the electoral threshold. The upshot is that the 13 successful parties now have to either give substance to their success at the ballot box by reexamining and sharpening their core beliefs on critical issues (from economic and social policy to security and foreign affairs) and hence their future course, or decide whether and how to forge new coalitions around common contents. The picture of political contestation is being redefined.
The second new feature of this electoral round is the legitimation of Arab political parties. If in the past — with a brief hiatus during the second Rabin government in the early 1990s — Arab parties have not been part of the coalition calculus, today that is no longer true. The Israel Democracy Institute found in its latest survey that 44 percent of Israelis favor the incorporation of Arab parties into the power nexus (in contrast to 23% just a year ago), while 41% oppose such a move. Even in unexpected quarters, such as among some of the ultra-Orthodox, resistance to such a move is beginning to break down.
This shift in the definition of the polity is potentially transformative. While Netanyahu and his partners still talk about “the people” (a euphemism for Jews only), an increasing number of politicians and activists are moving towards a more embracing civic depiction which is based on equality — also on the political level — amongst all citizens. As far-right opponents of such a change have made eminently clear, the institutionalization of such a change — wrought by the kingmaker role of the conservative Arab party, Ra’am — has far-reaching consequences not only for power alignments in the country, but for its self-identity as well. The next few months can be usefully devoted to reinforcing this change and giving the idea of a shared society concrete form.
The third, mirror image, of this trend, is the fortification of the retrogressive right in the public domain. Benjamin Netanyahu’s recognition and encouragement of the exclusionary right — Bezalel Smotrich and his new partners in the unabashedly ethnocentric Jewish Power party — as a tool to maintain his political hegemony has succeeded in doing what no Israeli leader of any political persuasion has been willing to openly sanction in the past: the acceptability of a patently Jewish racism as an integral party of Israeli politics. Indeed, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the graduate of the Kahanist youth movement, and his fellow travelers — especially Noam party leader Avi Maoz — have purveyed a deep hatred of Arabs, secular Jews, women and the gay community (not to speak of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) that has drawn sharp reactions not only within Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world, but also widespread concern — if not outright abhorrence — in democratic quarters elsewhere.
The venomous discourse of these far-right elements backed by messianic religious leaders — which has garnered proponents in the heart of the Likud as well — not only magnifies deep schisms in Israeli society, it also threatens to undermine what is left of its fragile democracy. It breeds on ignorance and fear, while dismissing any chance of reconciliation with the country’s Palestinian neighbors. In the process, its proponents tear the country asunder and make a mockery of its foundational principles of equality and equity. Preventing the entrenchment of these groups in the Israeli political firmament is an essential step in reaffirming these guiding norms and establishing a semblance of social solidarity so essential for the cultivation of new notions of the common good.
The final key outcome of this election period — and the coronavirus period that preceded it — is the severe disillusionment with government in general. The best indicator of the prevailing disappointment is the poor participation rate in the 2021 elections. Voter turnout levels were the lowest since 2013, even though fewer citizens were abroad because of the pandemic. Diminished support levels were evident in most parts of the political spectrum, with Arab society rates barely scratching 50%. Reduced participation is an outward sign of a loss of trust in those who control the state apparatus. In its extreme form, it indicates a breakdown in public confidence in the institutions themselves.
The restoration of trust in the powers that be is a precondition for effective socioeconomic rehabilitation. This depends not only on the reaffirmation of a commitment to concepts of social justice and civil rights, but also to the design of appropriate policies for their egalitarian distribution. The injection of substantive approaches and clear goals can go a long way toward building up lost confidence through effective alterations in the system, thereby reducing uncertainty and fear by improving benefits to all segments of the population. This cannot be achieved overnight, especially not by a prime minister under indictment for the abuse of office for personal gain. The foundations, however, can be laid down now in anticipation of another, much more substantive, plebiscite in the near future.
These dynamics point to potentially important changes that, if pursued, can significantly remold the nature and shape of Israeli politics. The inability to constitute a new government at this juncture is not an obstacle in these circumstances. To the contrary, if this situation is accompanied by self-reflection, an enlarged capacity to listen and address emotional and material concerns, along with a willingness to reset priorities, it may actually prove salutary.
Two key tools may help to promote this process: the use of the Knesset’s legislation and oversight power to limit abuses during the extended transition period (even if not enough supporters can be found to replace the present speaker); and the further reliance on the High Court of Justice to oversee executive actions (as it has been compelled to do during the past two years). The composition of the incoming Knesset prevents egregious abuses and makes some progress along these lines possible.
Israelis have nothing to fear from a fifth round of elections in October. In fact, a full 68% are dissatisfied with the results of the latest ballot. If the interim period is used properly, the forthcoming round — more sober, responsive and constructive — can yet be the harbinger of a different and much improved tomorrow.