The first, and only time, that the Israeli and American federal elections coincided one week apart, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu was the Israeli ambassador to the United States*. In the coming weeks, this seemingly unremarkable juxtaposition will occur once again, with Israel and the US going to the polls on November 1st and November 8th respectively. These elections share many parallels and come at a very consequential time for each country, both internally and concerning the Israel-US relationship.
Following a primary election season in the United States with Israel at the forefront of headlines due in part to AIPAC’s heavy involvement in various matchups around the country and major tests of the status of Trump’s influence within the Republican Party, the stage is set for contentious midterm elections. As of now, it appears plausible Democrats hold their slim control of the Senate while losing their majority in the house. No matter who wins control of each chamber of Congress on November 8th, Capitol Hill, specifically the House, will look drastically different come next January given the significant amount of retirements. A total of 49 congress members have announced their intention to not seek re-election to the House, including 18 Republicans and 31 Democrats, representing more than 10% of the Democratic Caucus and the most Democratic retirements since 1992. A significant number of the retiring members on the Democratic side are pro-Israel stalwarts, including Ted Deutch (who took a job as CEO at the American Jewish Committee), Kathleen Rice, Tom Suozzi, and others, paving the way for a new class of members many of whom have yet to take a strong stance on Israel.
Israelis are preparing to head to the polls for the 5th time since 2019 with the hope that following this election a stable coalition will finally be formed. For the first time since 2009, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is running not as the incumbent but as the ex-Prime Minister trying to retake his long-lost throne. Following this election, there is a distinct possibility that far-right extremist Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party will play a key role in government if Netanyahu captures the premiership for a fifth time. There is a chance that Netanyahu approaches current prime-minister Yair Lapid to see if he will join up with Bibi in order to prevent the Religious Zionist bloc from becoming ministers, but if he refuses the power-hungry opposition leader will likely be left with no other choice The prospect of Neo-Kahanists as ministers in an Israeli government has notably caught the ire of prominent pro-Israel Jewish groups and elected officials in America.
Elected to the Knesset in 2021, Ben Gvir is the first and only member of Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset. Founded in 2012, Otzma Yehudit is considered a descendant of the outlawed Kach party, which extremist Meir Kahane infamously led. Since the 2021 elections, Both Otzma Yehudit and the anti-LGTBQ Noam party have been part of the ‘Religious Zionist bloc’ alliance, in large part due to Netanyahu’s urging, with the far-right Religious Zionist Party led by the controversial Betzalel Smotrich, which allowed Ben Gvir to become a Knesset member in the first place. Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich are very controversial figures because of their previous statements and actions. In 2021, Ben Gvir pulled out a pistol on Arab parking lot security guards. He was also reported to assert that Arab citizens who were “not loyal to Israel” should be expelled and previously had pictures of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Arabs in Hevron in 1994, on the wall in his house. Ben Gvir was notably exempted from military conscription for his extremist right-wing political background. In 2016 Smotrich advocated for segregated maternity wards, and previously declared that he is a “proud homophobe”. Furthermore, in 2021 Smotrich told Arab lawmakers that they “are here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”.The controversial and discriminatory statements of Ben Gvir and Smotrich have cemented them as the face of the far right in Israel and put the Religious zionist bloc in the spotlight. In all, the Religious Zionists bloc now holds 6 seats in the Knesset but is poised to expand its power, with recent polls showing the alliance growing to 14 seats in this election, which would make them the 3rd largest bloc behind the Likud and Yesh Atid. The Religious Zionist bloc and Netanyahu’s Likud both find themselves part of the “national camp”, a bloc of all the right-wing parties Polls right now show the national camp, simmering around 59-60 seats just below the 61 needed to be in the majority and control the government. In an interview with Channel 14 on October 23rd, Bibi stated that Ben Gvir “certainly can be (a minister). Anyone who is elected in Religious Zionism can be, but I assume he will be elected.” This represents yet another shift, likely for political reasons, made by Bibi who said that Ben Gvir could be part of his 2021 coalition but would not be considered for any minister positions.
In the leadup to the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu urged the ‘Jewish Home’ alliance to accept Otzma Yehudit into a new alliance called the “Union of Right-Wing Parties”. Bibi hoped that broadening the alliance would help them gain enough Knesset seats to help him form a viable coalition, even promising members of the far-right alliance ministerial positions in the process. This move by Netanyahu prompted the AJC to put out a statement, which AIPAC said they supported. “The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel…‘Historically, the views of extremist parties, reflecting the extreme left or the extreme right, have been firmly rejected by mainstream parties,” AJC said. Ultimately the Netanyahu-led ‘national camp’ was not able to gain enough seats to form a coalition, therefore, preventing the possibility of a government with Otzma Yehudit in power.
The potential of Ben Gvir and Smotrich to be ministers in the next government, if a coalition is formed, has prompted pushback and condemnation of prominent pro-Israel lawmakers and American Jewish organizations alike. On a recent trip to Israel, Senator Robert Menendez, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch supporter of Israel, was reported to criticize the prospects of a coalition that would include Ben Gvir in a meeting with Netanyahu. “The senator told Netanyahu he needed to realize the composition of such a coalition could seriously erode bipartisan support in Washington, which has been a pillar of the bilateral relationship between the US and Israel,” one of the sources said. This represents a significant step for a staunch supporter of Israel to effectively way in on the race of a close ally. Congressman Brad Sherman of California, a pro-Israel stalwart, took it a step further by publicly calling out Ben Gvir by name on Twitter. “As Israel heads towards another election in November, I urge Israeli political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state,” Sherman wrote. “These extremists undermine Israel’s interests and the US-Israel relationship, which I and my colleagues have worked to strengthen,” the California congressman added. While they may be the only ones to have voiced their opinions publically or to Netanyahu himself, Sherman and Menendez are certainly not the only pro-Israel Democrats who have concerns about Israel with minister Ben Gvir. One caveat with regard to angst amongst Democrats in congress about Ben Gvir is the reality that there is a decent chance that Democrats will not be in control of one or both houses of Congress next year, and Republicans are unlikely to care about Ben Gvir being in office. In addition, the ADL issued a statement asserting that a government with Ben Gvir as a minister “would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.” ADL is among the multiple groups which have voiced their opposition to Netanyahu including Ben Gvir in a coalition. It is abundantly clear that Jewish groups and elected officials alike are not afraid to condemn Ben Gvir and will likely continue to do so if he is welcomed into the government.
This year is not the first time American officials have attempted to influence the Israeli elections. In 2019, during the run-up to both the April and September Israeli elections, then-president Trump acted in many ways which appeared to be in favor of Netanyahu, including publicly praising Bibi as being “a great leader,” announcing the recognition of the Golan Heights, and other actions which were done in conjunction with Bibi, leading Netanyahu and the Likud to place the close relationship of the two leaders at the forefront of their campaign. In the 1996 and 1999 elections, President Bill Clinton did not try to conceal his desire for Netanyahu to lose, including holding a peace summit with then prime-minister Shimon Peres in the days before the 96’ election. In the leadup to the 2015 Israeli election, there were many accusations made by those in Likud’s camp that President Obama and his allies were trying to influence the election against Bibi.
Despite operating under different electoral systems, many parallels can be drawn between the current standing of the Republican Party in the United States and its leader (Donald Trump) and the ‘national camp’, and their leader(Bibi Netanyahu). Both the ‘national camp’ and the Republicans have been out of power since 2021, with Trump leaving office on January 20th and Netanyahu transitioning into the role of opposition leader roughly 6 months later. Trump and Netanyahu similarly do not appear to be ready to give up power over their party in the near future, with Trump remaining heavily involved in the 2022 Republican primaries and being widely rumored to be plotting a revenge run to regain the presidency in 2024, and Netanyahu remaining chairman of Likud despite some opposition and running for prime minister again this year. In addition, both Netanyahu and Trump are and have been under investigation for various charges of fraud, corruption, and other misdoings, and are trying to use their power to quash the investigations. The Republican Party and the ‘national camp’ bloc both find far-right extremists in their midst, which their opponents have highlighted in their campaigns. The Republicans have Congress members such as Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and others. In Israel, there is Ben Gvir and Smotrich among others.
The centuries-old experiment known as democracy is facing a time of uncertainty and cynicism in both the US and Israel. In Israel, many citizens have grown pessimistic in their belief that their system of democracy can work, given that this is their 5th election in just 3 years and it’s very possible that they still won’t have a stable coalition in a week. The fact that no coalition lasting over a year has been able to be formed in Israel in the last 3 years is a testament to the intense policy and political disagreements within Israel, a concept Americans are quite aware of. Similarly, in the United States, there is a severe amount of polarization, largely in part due to negative polarization, or the detest of the opposing party or belief rather than focusing on supporting the policies of one’s party. The increased polarization has led to bipartisanship in large part becoming a thing of the past, making the passing of legislation a difficult feat. The United States is also at a time where some on the far right are raising doubts about the results of the 2020 elections and claims of voter suppression have been made by both republicans and democrats. Israel and the US are both considered to be beacons of democracy in their own ways, Israel the lone true democracy in the Middle East, and the United States is considered the leader of the free world. The two close allies certainly have work to do to live up to their respective statuses as democratic role models in each their own right.
While there is a great deal of uncertainty about the probability of a coalition being formed, it is clear that if a right-wing one can be formed it will likely include Ben Gvir in a position of prominence, which could be detrimental to the vital US-Israel relationship. At a time when Israel, in conjunction with the United States, is trying to expand their diplomatic relations around the world, any cause for strain will be very harmful. In addition, these two elections, closely together, illuminate the parallels between the state of each country’s democracy. In all, there will definitely be no shortage of things to watch for in both the US and Israeli elections in the coming weeks.