Israel Elections: Win or lose, the Right still can’t get it together - analysis

The idea of what was long considered the Right may continue to shift and the camp will likely continue to be as disjointed as it has been since the end of 2018.

 WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

There is a story that older members of the Right like to tell, about how they delivered Yitzhak Rabin his government in the 1992 election instead of preventing the Oslo Accords.

That election was earlier than it had to be, as the vast majority of Israeli elections have been since 1948. The government led by staunchly right-wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir from the Likud fell apart because small parties to the right of Likud quit the coalition after Shamir – along with then-deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu – went to the Madrid Conference on Middle East peace, in which the Palestinians were participating.

Though Shamir was a firm opponent of territorial concessions, and he went to Madrid essentially because the US was threatening much-needed aid exactly when hundreds of thousands of Jews were immigrating to Israel from the just-dismantled Soviet Union, those parties, Tehiya, Tzomet and Moledet, resigned from the coalition in protest.

If we weren’t such purists, the right-wing argument has gone in the subsequent decades, Shamir would have stayed in power longer, Rabin would not have been elected, and there would have been no Oslo Accords.

Alternate histories can be fun – or depressing – to consider, though there’s no way to really know what would have happened if Moledet leader Rehavam Ze’evi and his ilk trusted Shamir a bit more.

Rehavam Ze'evi, also known as ''Gandhi,'' of the right-wing Moledet party gestures as he speaks with a member of the religious Shas party during a no-confidence debate in the Knesset (Parliament) October 26, 1998. (credit: REUTERS)Rehavam Ze'evi, also known as ''Gandhi,'' of the right-wing Moledet party gestures as he speaks with a member of the religious Shas party during a no-confidence debate in the Knesset (Parliament) October 26, 1998. (credit: REUTERS)

What is clear is that 30 years later, either enough of the Right has forgotten that story or doesn’t take it seriously enough to learn its lesson, or the term Right no longer means what it has in Israel for over half a century.

The background of Israel's recent five-election cycle

In every election in Israel in this five-election cycle that started in April 2019, the Right has had a majority but was too divided to turn it into a broad right-wing coalition from moderates to hard-liners the way it did in 2015. Remember, that government lasted close to four years.

Some blame the inconclusive result of the first 2019 election on the New Right, led at the time by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who split from much of their Bayit Yehudi list, not passing the 3.25% electoral threshold. There was also Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, a right-wing libertarian party that siphoned votes off from Bennett and Shaked but was far from getting into the Knesset.

Others blame Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who refused, under any circumstances, to be in a coalition led by then-prime minister Netanyahu or with haredi parties. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party has been so solidly ensconced in the Center-Left, or “change,” bloc for the past three and a half years that people seem to forget that they have been consistently right-wing on almost every issue except religion and state.

Bennett and Shaked managed to make their way back into the Knesset in subsequent elections, but Liberman held steadfast to his redlines. In the 2021 election, he was joined by New Hope, a party of Likud refugees, mostly on the party’s more liberal side, led by longtime Netanyahu antagonist Gideon Sa’ar. They’re mostly fine with the haredim – Sa’ar is especially chummy with them – but refused to be in a coalition led by Netanyahu because of the ongoing corruption allegations against him.

In this election, New Hope seemed unlikely to pass the threshold and merged with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in what has come to be called the National Unity list. Gantz has a decidedly not right-wing record on economic issues – Israelis’ top concern according to polls – with ministers and committee chairpersons from his party kowtowing to unions, and on what has long been the defining issue for the Right – Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank – even if he has claimed otherwise in the final days before Tuesday’s vote. So, just like in 2021, Sa’ar and Liberman say right-wing things but are giving their votes to the other bloc.

Bennett is out, but Shaked is back running with Bayit Yehudi and struggling to pass the threshold as these words are written.

And then Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist Party appear safe to get in to the Knesset, along with their haredi partners.

Whether Netanyahu ends up eking out a coalition, and whether it’s right-wing or Center-Right, it’s very clear from the past three and a half years that there are more right-wing parties than the Right can realistically get into one Knesset.

This raises the question of what right wing means in Israel.

The socio-economic approach of Likud ideological forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky that “every individual is a king,” meaning an approach based on individual rights and freedoms, as opposed to the socialist Zionist movement that birthed the Labor Party, is a strong current on the Right today. However, it was not always as popular in religious-Zionist circles as it is today, and it remains unpopular among Likud’s haredi partners as well as many Likud supporters in Israel’s social and geographic periphery.

Traditional Judaism and support for the religion-and-state status quo is also a strong common thread on the Right, but they still welcome and attract secular voters.

The best definition of Right in Israel, since the Six Day War, has generally been a hawkish approach to the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict and an opposition to territorial concessions.

That thread still runs through the Right, with some allowances to include Yisrael Beytenu, which favors land swaps, and Likud, which historically has made most of Israel’s concessions despite campaigning against them.

Yet it no longer ties them together enough to put that before everything else.

Netanyahu’s partners basically put Netanyahu before all other issues, while trusting him to allow them to – or to be strong-armed to – deliver on their other electoral partners. They’re also united by a distrust of the judiciary and a strong sense of anti-elitist grievance politics, which are related to the Netanyahu trials but also predate it.

Sa’ar and Liberman, however, put not-Netanyahu – whether on grounds of alleged corruption or his prioritizing of haredim and not-hawkish-enough response to the Palestinians, respectively – before all other issues.

It doesn’t look like there’s another Oslo Accords on the table if Lapid remains prime minister – though you never know. He’s for a two-state solution, and Oslo was not expected, either – but the Israeli Right is not united enough to prioritize that concern and has proven that five times in less than four years.

The Right’s shift in priorities reflects those of the greater electorate, which makes sense, since they’re the majority. A poll in Israel Hayom last week found that 49% of Israelis chose the cost of living as the issue about which they care most, with security and the conflict with the Palestinians in a distant second, with 19%.

With those numbers, the idea of what was long considered the Right may continue to shift, and the camp will likely continue to be as disjointed as it has been since the end of 2018.