Israel’s latest elections appear to have broken the prolonged stalemate between the two ‘blocs’. I don’t mean ‘left’ and ‘right’ – terms that make very little sense in the current Israeli political context; I don’t even mean ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’; no, I mean the anti-Netanyahu and pro-Netanyahu camps – that’s the only accurate way to describe the two political tendencies that participated in the latest electoral contest. Were it not for Netanyahu and his legal ‘tzores’, Israel would have had a stable government, without the need for those unprecedented five national elections between April 2019 and November 2022.
While there’s many a slip twixt election results and a coalition government, the victory certainly belongs to the pro-Netanyahu bloc, which garnered 64 seats of the 120 available in Israel’s unicameral parliament – the Knesset. The anti-Netanyahu bloc won only 51 seats, with the remainder of 5 occupied by the majority-Arab Hadash-Ta’al party – which adopted its usual ‘plague-on-both-their-houses’ strategy (read: they ruled out joining any governing coalition with ‘the Zionists’).
Most Israelis were not surprised; but the results sent a huge tremor in the ranks of the self-described ‘progressives’. And not just because they signalled the almost complete demise of what some insist on calling ‘the Israeli left’ (that is, Meretz and the Labour Party); but even more so, because of the rise of Religious Zionism, the ‘far-right’ or ‘hawkish’ alliance.
Had I participated in these elections, my vote would have gone to National Unity – Benny Gantz’s party. No, not because of the (rather naff) name; nor because I like its leader – though I think he is a decent guy. Finally, not because I don’t like Netanyahu. Though I’ve never been a great supporter, I do think that Netanyahu has, by and large, been a good leader. Even his most bitter adversaries cannot deny that he has presided over a period of economic growth and prosperity; that he has pursued Israel’s vital interests without engaging in adventurous military conflicts in places like Syria and Lebanon – let alone Iran; that he has somehow managed to expand Israel’s diplomatic reach beyond what many thought possible. His adversaries will attribute those achievements to luck or circumstance; but if one manages to stay lucky for 12 straight years as Prime Minister of Israel – I for one will nevertheless applaud!
True, Netanyahu hasn’t made peace with the Palestinians. But if this is the only measure of success, then all Israeli leaders have been failures – so why single out Netanyahu?
Many accuse Netanyahu of dishonesty. It is true that, in his political dealings, he often broke promises and told lies. But politics is not a business for the faint-hearted; and if we were to crucify all disingenuous politicians – there’d be a lot of hammering in the great halls of many a parliament. As for his purported corruption – that must be assessed in a court of law; and that’s all I have to say about it.
So if Netanyahu is such a great guy – you ask – why would you not vote for him? Well, mainly because he has been in power too long. Israel needs some new blood at the helm; and she isn’t getting it, because nothing grows well in the shadow of a big tree. And yes, also because, in his quest for power, Netanyahu has now made some unsavoury alliances. For all those reasons, Israel must – sooner or later – wean herself from Netanyahu, just as she did in the past from Ben Gurion.
Still, I am not particularly worried about Netanyahu winning again: he is 73 and – unless he has the grace to draw a line himself at a propitious time – nature and a few political vultures will at some point do it for him.
As for the ‘Religious Zionism’ extremists, I have nothing but contempt for them: their way isn’t my way and their Zionism is a very far cry from mine.
Still, I don’t share the ‘gewalt’ atmosphere that some (especially in the Diaspora) dishonestly create around these elections, and that others naively ingurgitate – hook, sink and proverbial liner.
A bit of history
For many, the major ‘item’ in these elections is the meteoric rise of Religious Zionism: led by the ‘far-right enfant terrible’ Bezalel Smotrich and including Itamar Ben Gvir – an extremist and former disciple of Meir Kahane – Religious Zionism more than doubled its parliamentary footprint; it won 14 out of the 120 Knesset seats, becoming the 3rd largest political group.
It is worth examining the history of this party: its first embodiment was T’kuma (Revival), a small splinter of the National Religious Party (known in Israel mostly by its Hebrew acronym – Mafdal). The latter was formed as early as 1956 and initially leaned left, operating its own trade union and cooperating in coalition governments with the Labour Party. It increasingly turned right, mainly in reaction to what it perceived as the Labour’s neglect and lack of interest in Jewish faith and tradition. The founders of T’kuma left Mafdal in 1998, over its perceived ‘softness’. Between 1999 and 2013 it survived by forming, breaking and reforming alliances with other small parties on the ‘right’ fringe of Israeli politics. Bereft of real power and influence, the leaders of T’kuma were reduced to attempting to gain some measure of notoriety through political stunts and outrageous statements. They featured often in the reports of foreign journalists intent on showing extremism in Israel; but most Israelis dismissed them as irrelevant, big-mouth non-entities.
In 2014, the Knesset approved a bill which increased the threshold for entering the parliament from 2% to 3.25% of the votes – meaning that the smallest possible political group represented in the Knesset was 4 members.
The brilliant Israeli political analyst Haviv Rettig Gur described the move:
The reform passed in the Knesset relatively easily. Its purpose, as articulated by the bill’s sponsors at the time, was to reduce the government’s dependence on tiny, marginal factions and thus increase stability and governability.
There are too many parties jostling around in the Knesset, went the argument. Prime ministers must satisfy as many as half a dozen – in the case of the outgoing government, eight! – separate factions to keep the government alive. A dozen factions might negotiate over any piece of legislation. This complexity and dependence on small parties warped decision-making and was a major source of political instability. Simple governance had been rendered nigh impossible by the sheer messiness of it all.
At the time, most Israeli political analysts either applauded the move as ‘a step in the right direction’ or dismissed it as cosmetic tinkering, demanding more radical changes.
It was opposed, of course, by the small parties that were likely to be left out of the parliament.
The Arab parties saw the move as directed against them – as they tended to win between 2% and 4% of the votes; they lost no time in calling it yet another ‘racist’ measure aimed at denying Arab Israelis their political rights. But the increase in threshold was seen as affecting the Jewish far-right even more – those small parties generally won below 3%. Hence, T’kuma and others on the fringe right called it ‘anti-democratic’ at the time.
The prospect of getting rid of the small far-right parties (and, possibly, to attract more votes from the Arab sector) caused many ‘progresives’ to support the bill.
Haviv Rettig Gur reminds us:
President Isaac Herzog, then a senior Labor party lawmaker, had proposed an even steeper increase to 5% a few years earlier.
The increase in parliamentary threshold from 2% to 3.25% should forever be studied as a textbook example of how the Law of Unintended Consequences works in politics.
In the years to come, some of the measure’s fiercest critics were to benefit from it – while some of its supporters would suffer.
The 3.25% hurdle would force more of the small parties to merge or at least form temporary, pre-election alliances. Thus, the Arab parties (who had so vehemently denounced the higher threshold) formed the ‘Joint List’ – which won 13 seats in September 2019 and 15 in March 2020, becoming Israel’s 3rd largest party. Conversely, in 2022 the Jewish left (which had mostly supported the bill) failed to unite, which left the hard-left (Meretz) out in the rain, while the more moderate Labour narrowly scraped in, with just 3.69% of the vote.
Ever the wily political operator, Netanyahu understood the significance of the increased threshold: since parties gaining less than 3.25% would not get any seats in the Knesset, fragmentation in the ‘pro-Netanyahu’ camp risked wasting votes and thus pushing his putative coalition below the minimum required majority of 61 in the 120-large parliament.
In 2021, he engineered an alliance between T’kuma (which had meanwhile been renamed ‘National Union’ and was already led by Bezalel Smotrich) and two other tiny parties: Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) and the anti-gay No’am. Netanyahu assessed (correctly, most analysts would say) that in the absence of such a pact both Otzma Yehudit and No’am would fail to pass the electoral threshold, thus wasting votes for his camp. Otzma Yehudit was generally seen as the weaker partner in the alliance, which is why Ben Gvir was placed not on the second place (after Smotrich), but only on the third.
As it happened, the new alliances (dubbed ‘Religious Zionism’) won only some 5% of the votes, resulting in 6 Knesset seats. As we know, Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition, while his opponents from hard-right to hard-left) managed to rise above their huge ideological differences and form a – however feeble – governing coalition.
From irrelevance to ‘victory’
So what caused Religious Zionism to more than double its electoral strength between March 2021 and November 2022 – from 5.12% to 10.83% of the votes, or from 6 to 14 mandates? It was certainly not its legislative achievements: the party was in opposition and (apart from fiery speeches and annoying stunts) contributed absolutely nothing.
Some – both in Israel and abroad – are eager to ‘explain’ the party’s success so as to show Israelis in the worst possible light.
Esawi Frej (an Arab Israeli politician representing the hard-left Meretz party in the Knesset and Minister of Regional Cooperation in the outgoing government) tweeted:
14 mandates to Ben Gvir is 14 mandates to hatred of Arabs. The 3rd largest party is racist, Kahanist, violent… it doesn’t want me or my children here. It’s no longer a slippery slope. It’s the abyss itself.
Frej’s post was written in Hebrew, but the text was translated and gleefully re-tweeted in English by Yachad, a self-described ‘progressive’ British Jewish outfit whose raison d’être is ‘criticising’ Israel.
But why would ‘hatred of Arabs’ (assuming that’s what impelled people to vote for Religious Zionism) rise from 5% to almost 11% of the population in just a few months? And how is ‘hatred of Arabs’ consistent with the quasi-general support for the Abraham Accords, including masses of Israelis eager to visit and do business with some of the newly-accessible Arab countries?
In reality (as I’m sure both Esawi Frej and Yachad know, but choose not to say), the rise of Religious Zionism is the result of a ‘perfect storm’, consisting mainly of two factors.
Firstly, in May 2021 Israelis experienced yet another mini-war with Gaza. Denied participation in the Palestinian elections (it was widely expected to win them, which is why Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas ‘postponed them side die), Hamas decided to bolster its credentials as ‘the’ defender of Palestinians by launching a rocket assault on Israel. This in itself would not have been so traumatic: it happened quite a few times before.
But something completely new happened this time: massive riots by Arab citizens of Israel, randomly targeting Jews and Jewish property. The riots were particularly violent in the ‘mixed towns’ (i.e. places where Jews and Arabs live together, such as Lod, Ramle and Acco). In those places, the riots resembled pogroms, with bands of young Arabs attacking passing Jews (two were killed and several others injured), throwing rocks at cars and setting fire to Jewish houses, cars and synagogues. What’s more, many testified that some local Arab citizens, while not participating themselves in the violence, pointed out Jewish homes and cars to the rioters, who proceeded to attack or burn them. The Arab riots (and the Jewish ‘counter-riots’ that soon followed) continued for a whole week, forcing the government to impose a state of emergency.
To complete the grim ‘score line’ of this episode of violence: the Arab rioters set 112 Jewish homes, 10 synagogues and 849 cars on fire (as well as an Arab house, which they mistook for being inhabited by Jews). 386 Jewish homes were looted and another 673 damaged. There were more than 5,000 recorded instances of stone-throwing against Jews. On the Arab side, 13 homes and 13 cars were burned by rioting Jews and there were 41 recorded incidents of stone-throwing.
It is hard to exaggerate the traumatic effect of these riots. Imagine cowering in your home with your family, while rioters are already burning houses and cars a few blocks away; imagine driving home from work one evening, your car pounded with large rocks from both sides of the road, while large mobs appear to be baying for your blood. While only a small percentage of the Israeli population directly experienced the riots, practically all others watched them on television, or on videos circulating on social media. Israelis have a keen sense of history and the images of Jews experiencing pogroms in their own country were devastating.
Timing is of the essence here, too: the riots started in the evening of 10 May 2021, almost at the same time as 150 rockets were launched from Gaza at random targets in Israel. They continued while Israel was pounded with hundreds of additional missiles.
To make matters worse, once the riots died down, (on 18 May 2021) Arab Israeli politicians declared a general strike – in support of their ‘brothers’ in the West Bank and Gaza. This may be a ‘symbolic’ act; but hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews saw their Arab colleagues refusing to come to work (in hospitals, schools, factories and offices), in the midst of a war, in ‘solidarity’ with the enemy. The strike pulled the rug from under the feet of those (among them the Israeli left) who preached coexistence and insisted that the riots involved only an unrepresentative, violent minority. Conversely, it bolstered the far-right propaganda, seemingly vindicating their portrayal of Arab Israelis as a ‘fifth column’ ready to act in concert with the country’s existential enemies. There were Arab voices that publicly condemned the riots; but the general strike drowned them down or rendered them meaningless.
Many of the votes for Religious Zionism are, no doubt, a reaction to the May 2021 riots and to the general strike that followed. But another factor contributed, as well.
Those who, like me, follow the meanders of Israeli politics would have noticed a significant absence in the 2022 elections: that of Yamina (Rightwards), the party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. In the March 2021 elections, Yamina won 7 seats. Although ideologically to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud, Yamina decided to side with the anti-Netanyahu bloc. It thus enabled that bloc to form a wide governing coalition, including Labour, the hard-left Meretz and the Islamist Arab party Ra’am. Naftali Bennett initially headed that coalition, as Prime Minister; he later kept his promise and stepped down to enable Yair Lapid (leader of the centrist Yesh Atid/There’s a Future) to assume the premiership, as part of a ‘rotation’ agreement.
But many in Yamina’s right-wing constituency took a dim view of this alignment with the left, seeing it as a ‘crossing of the lines’ and a betrayal of the mandate that the voters gave that party. So strong was that backlash, that Bennett decided not to run in 2022. His decision was vindicated when the party of his political partner Ayelet Shaked failed to even come close to the electoral threshold.
Betrayed once and not about to be fooled again, Yamina’s voters (typically religious people leaning right) looked around for a political home. But, given that Netanyahu had orchestrated an alliance of the small right-wing parties, the pickings were slim. Some no doubt chose to vote for the religious Mizrakhi Shas, which would explain that party’s rise from 9 seats in 2021 to 11 in 2022; but many more chose Religious Zionism – not necessarily because of its extremism, but because it was the only party left that represented the two aspects that ‘talked to’ these voters: religion and nationalism.
Esawi Frej is wrong – and he knows it: it is not ‘hatred of Arabs’ that propelled Religious Zionism to its apparent prominence. Many of those who voted for this party did so not because of its extremism, but despite it – in reaction to events that that party neither triggered nor engineered – but simply profited from.
Of course, I’m no naïve: there is, unfortunately, little love lost (and quite a lot of rancour, actually) between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Frej is no doubt right that Ben Gvir would rather he and his children did not live in Israel. I suspect that Frej would also prefer ‘the Zionists’ not to have ‘settled’ in ‘Palestine’ in the first place. Fortunately, neither Ben Gvir nor Frej has any choice in the matter: both communities are there to stay and must find a way to satisfy one’s aspirations without impinging too much on the other’s.
But while many Israeli Jews feel some degree of hostility, fear and mistrust towards their Arab countrymen – that isn’t (as the likes of Yachad want us to believe) ‘racism’. It is not a conviction that Arabs are racially inferior that’s behind most Israeli Jews’ attitude. Rather, this is the ‘normal’ resentment caused by 100 years of a conflict beseeched by existential threats and fears, by abominable acts of violence, by denial of humanity, aspirations and history and by outlandish accusations of ‘Nazism’ and ‘apartheid’.
That hostility is akin to the one felt by Brits towards Germans in World War I; not to that propagated by Nazis against Jews in World War II. There’s an ocean of difference between the two; and those who try to merge them into one problem are either blatantly dishonest, or something is seriously wrong with their moral compass.
While not constituting ‘racism’ and while being understandable in the context of the conflict, the rancour between the two communities remains a bad thing. We (Jews and Arabs) must strive to rise above it; we must fight those (from either side) who seek to exacerbate it.
I’m an optimist: given how deep, long and hurtful this conflict has been, the levels of hostility are actually surprisingly low. It might be disturbing to see Arab rioters on the rampage in a Jewish neighbourhood – and Jews ‘responding’ with violence against other, uninvolved Arabs. But, despite everything, the two communities soon returned to ‘normal’: working in the same hospitals, schools, factories and offices; interacting in a civil – if not very warm and cuddly – manner. Compare that with what’s happened just a short distance away, in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria; or even in Egypt; and, in the past, in Jordan – and more recently in Iran…
Gewalt – racists on board!
Of course, that does not mean that Smotrich and (especially) Ben Gvir – and some of their supporters – aren’t racists. I believe they are. But they learned to dissimulate it, to moderate it just enough to allow them to squeeze below the standard of proof required by law. Ben Gvir claims that he has no desire to expel Arabs for being Arabs, but only those who are ‘disloyal’ – meaning they engage in or support acts of violence or subversion against the state. Personally, I doubt he is sincere about that; but in a democracy we cannot stop people from running because of what we suspect they actually think; but only because of what they say and do. That’s why Ben Gvir (unlike his former mentor Kahane) was declared ‘kosher’ to run. As the Israeli expression goes, he may be ‘kosher, but stinks’.
But, if this is the situation, should we not be terribly worried? I mean, Ben Gvir may soon be Public Security Minister – in charge of the national police!
So maybe the likes of Yachad are right to ‘demand action’ from the Diaspora – to ‘save Israel from the Israelis’? Maybe the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and other bombastically named Jewish ‘leadership’ bodies are right to express ‘grave concerns’?
Well, I think the Diaspora ‘armchair activists’ are all wrong. I think they talk through their arses, have no genuine understanding of Israel, her history and her politics and, if anything, only do harm.
Some people have short memories: we’ve actually seen this film before. When the tough-talking Menachem Begin became not just minister but Prime Minister, many warned of an impending catastrophe. After all, Begin was a former leader of the Irgun – seen as a terrorist organisation in Britain and elsewhere. The same Irgun which perpetrated the bombing of the King David hotel (which, however, ‘happened’ to be the headquarter of the British Army); the organisation that captured two British sergeants and hanged them in retaliation to the hanging of its own captured operatives; the organisation that attacked Deir Yassin.
Begin had been a promoter of ‘Greater Israel’ – including not just the West Bank, but territories on the eastern side of the Jordan River, if and when they were captured (or ‘liberated’). Yet Begin was the Prime Minister that relinquished 100% of the Sinai peninsula (which constituted some 70% of the territory under Israeli control) in return for a ‘cold peace’ with Egypt. In the process, he even uprooted Jewish ‘settlers’ – something that ‘the experts’ assessed he’d never do. Prime Minister Begin (for whom even uttering the term ‘Palestinian’ was anathema) became the first Israeli leader to accept the idea of ‘autonomy’ for the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza.
Some people never learn. So, when Ariel Sharon became first Minister of Foreign Affairs and then Prime Minister, we were treated to the same predictions of impending doom. After all, as a military commander Sharon became famous for his ultra-aggressive actions – sometimes in open defiance of orders. As a politician, he became a major promoter of settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. As Minister of Defence, he presided over the war in Lebanon, which ended with expelling the PLO ‘troops’ far from Israel’s borders – but also with the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.
Yet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the Israeli leader who unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. In the process, this ‘darling’ of the ‘settlement movement’ evacuated (forcibly when necessary) every Jewish ‘settler’ from that territory – and (as a sign of further intentions) also from 4 West Bank ‘settlements’. The ‘extremist’ Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and became permanently incapacitated before putting in practice his intentions to extricate Israel, one way or another, out of most of the West Bank.
There was also a certain Avigdor Lieberman. He, too, had the reputation of being a ‘meshugener’ – an unreliable hothead. Among other things, it was reported that he opined that, in the event of a war with Egypt, Israel should bomb the Aswan Dam. No more and no less! His intemperate outbursts directed at members of the Knesset from the Arab parties were (in)famous – and so were his threats directed at anyone who, in his view, incited terror against the State of Israel. No wonder that his 2016 appointment as Minister of Defence caused trepidation. Yet Avigdor Lieberman did not start wars and did not get involved in any military adventure. In fact, his major contribution as Defence Minister was… coming down very assertively in favour of equal rights for LGBT soldiers.
In fact, Israel’s short modern history is replete with ‘colourful’ characters who talked wildly but acted with surprising restraint and prudence. And on the few occasions that a real extremist came out of the woodwork – such as Meir Kahane in the 1980s – the Israeli political body spit it out.
“Hold on a minute” – I hear you say. “Netanyahu needs Religious Zionism in order to form a coalition and, then, to remain in power. They have him by the short and curlies!”
Well, it’s true – at least apparently. Netanyahu seems intent on forming a coalition with Religious Zionism and the two Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. But ‘seems’ may be the operative word in the sentence above. He may do what everybody expects him to do – or he may surprise us all. After all – unlike after the previous four rounds of elections, he now has a clear path to majority. That, paradoxically, may open a range of possibilities – and few are as adept at playing the political game as Bibi the Fox.
But, even if he does proceed along the obvious route to power, how likely is Netanyahu to – in practice – relinquish some of that power to the likes of Smotrich and Ben Gvir? True, he needs them; but, in reality, no more than they need him. They may be extremists – but stupid they’re not: when the inebriating fumes of victory disperse, they will realise (if they haven’t already) that their success is the result of a very peculiar set of circumstances, one very unlikely to occur again. The next round of elections is likely to see them cut down to size again. In particular if they are seen to have inflicted yet another round of elections on the people of Israel – after just a few months. And you can bet your bottom shekel that Netanyahu will make sure they are seen in that light.
That there is no love lost between Netanyahu and either Smotrich or Ben Gvir is the world’s worst kept secret. Netanyahu has stated in the past that Ben Gvir is not ministerial material. And while, for obvious reasons, he has recently changed that particular tune, no one believes he also changed his mind; least of all Ben Gvir. In the midst of the recent elections campaign, a recording surfaced – and the entire country could hear Smotrich disparaging Netanyahu in stark, even vulgar terms. The entire country could hear – including of course Netanyahu himself.
In fact, Netanyahu has already started to put Religious Zionism in its place. Several times during the campaign, he made it clear that the major ministries (Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defence) will be under Likud’s control. More recently – and in response to vague ‘plans’ by Religious Zionism to ban LGBT pride events – Netanyahu made it clear that his government will not allow any worsening in LGBT rights, including no limitations on pride parades. The Israeli media referred to those signals coming from Netanyahu’s office as “slapping down [his] far-right partners”.
One does not win multiple elections in Israel without learning a trick or two. If, drunk on their lucky electoral success, Ben Gvir and Smotrich pick a fight with Netanyahu… well, that conflict can only see one winner. Netanyahu – who has seen off much worthier opponents – will chew them both for breakfast
Let’s not forget: Bezalel Smotrich has been a minister before – he held the Transport portfolio between June 2019 and May 2020. But – whether he learned some restraint himself or whether because Netanyahu kept him on a short lead – his short stint as minister was utterly unremarkable.
But, let’s leave aside Netanyahu and his great talents or utter lack of scruples – choose one according to your inclination. Let’s, instead, look at Israel’s track record. In her 74 years of modern existence, the country has faced tremendous, unparalleled challenges – military, economical, political and social.
Haters will hate, Cassandras will forever prophesise impending doom, and for some people the glass is always half-empty. But, despite all those challenges, Israel is today not just undefeated militarily, but economically successful, democratic and generally flourishing. This young country is ranked 19th in the world by Human Development Index – on a par with mighty Japan and higher than France, Italy and Spain; 12th in the world by life expectancy – higher than Sweden, Norway, France and Canada (UK is 29th, USA 46th); the International Monetary Fund predicts that between 2021 and 2027 the Israeli economy will grow at an average annual rate of almost 4.5% – one of the highest in OECD.
Yet some in the Diaspora never seem to see this; or if they do see it, they don’t quite believe it; or if they do believe it – they see disaster looming just around the corner. Why? Is it really Israel’s fault? Or is it the diaspora spirit – forever fearful, forever uncertain, forever plagued by guilt?
It’s time for this worried Diaspora to chill and learn a bit of optimism. Why not start with that great Hebrew expression:
!יהיה בסדר (It’ll be fine!)
Have a little faith, folks!