There are plenty of reasons why Israel is becoming more religious and less liberal. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is not one of those reasons.
The Center-Left bloc refuses to sit with him, purportedly because of a corruption trial. Just below the surface, the true source of anger towards Netanyahu is simple: he is willing and more able to garner support from a critical mass of illiberal and religious voting power.
As Hillel Halkin put it last month, “the Center-Left bloc, which is answerable to a secular and liberal base, can never outbid Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud for religious support.” People that form this secular and liberal base are angry because they can no longer win at politics in their own country.
That is an understandable source of frustration, but it doesn’t have to be a source of despair. In a parliamentary system where no single party achieves a majority, losing an election doesn’t have to mean failure. The Center-Left can dust itself off, turn its frown upside down, and take solace in the fact that Netanyahu prefers leading moderate coalitions – solace because Israel’s secular and liberal Zionists are best suited to enable such a coalition.
After the Center-Left’s poor showing in November 2022’s national elections, joining a Netanyahu-led government would have let the bloc tip the scale somewhat in favor of liberalism and secularism, helping shape Israel for years to come.
It certainly would have been a compromise, but it would have been a strategic and well-timed compromise, as expanding a liberal and secular voter base may not be viable right now. Demographic momentum is in the other direction, liberal norms are under assault around the world, and charismatic extremists have become adept at using populist sound bites across social media.
But the secular and liberal base remains insistent on a different path. Full of resentment, they scapegoat Netanyahu as if he’s the reason this country is less liberal and secular in the first place, whining endlessly that Israel is done for because it’s not the version of itself for which they and their parents had hoped. As part of a last-ditch effort to reclaim the state (as if the state is theirs to reclaim), they disregard everyone who thinks differently from them.
Not only has the sloppy, off-putting years-long campaign to oust Netanyahu failed, but it has unleashed more damage than its proponents had fathomed possible. Without an angry and just-as-clumsy Center-Left, Jewish supremacists who were untouchable pariahs as recently as 2019 could not have become relevant, let alone transcend to political superstardom, all within three years.
Sure, the Likud abandoned moral restraint and took a leap once thought unimaginable – forming a government with Kahanists. But it didn’t do this in a vacuum. Another leap, repeated several times in different forms over the past few election cycles, was no less unimaginable: dozens of Knesset seats occupied by Center-Left Zionists (46 in this last iteration) boycotting the majority of Jewish Israelis.
The Likud took a terrible step, but Israel’s secular and liberal base paved the path on which they did so. In the end, the worst and most extreme elements of our community strolled along that path to impact and influence.
With more pragmatism, we could have had a moderate coalition whose leader enjoys a rock solid voter base and, under the right circumstances, can keep the increasingly illiberal and increasingly religious Right in check. But we don’t have that because all the Center-Left knows how to do is be distraught and hysterical and blame Netanyahu for everything.