Israel just went to the polls for the fifth time in four years, in November 2022. It’s hard to remember now, but this cycle began back in the fall of 2018 when Avigdor Liberman and his party walked away from the Netanyahu-led coalition and it appeared snap elections would be called. However, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked agreed to stay in the government.
At the time, the controversy related to whether Israel would use a tougher hand against Hamas in Gaza. Operation Northern Shield, to neutralize Hezbollah tunnels, began two weeks later.
This Tuesday things came full circle when Shaked’s party failed to pass the threshold and appeared to secure less than 100,000 votes. This was part of a larger landslide for the Right and Benjamin Netanyahu, a major repudiation of the coalition for change that Yair Lapid and Bennett had cobbled together in late May 2021. Part of this repudiation came about because voters who went to the polls in March 2021 felt their votes were ignored by party leaders, and in November 2022 they voted for openly right-wing parties that could be counted on to stay on the Right.
What changed from November 2018-2022?
A lot happened between November 2018 and 2022. Netanyahu’s trial began; there was the pandemic, lockdowns and green passes; there was a war with Gaza that brought chaos to Israel’s streets in May 2021; and there were endless elections.
The instability of the period 2018-2022 is interesting because Israel’s politics appeared broken. The country seemed to be slouching into some kind of chaos, like what happened in Italy in the 1980s, or generally during the interwar period: the chaos of a country that cannot be governed.
This chaos was due in large part to Netanyahu’s choice to continue having elections even when he couldn’t form a coalition. In many countries, when a politician finds their coalition in chaos, they let someone else take over, such as happens in the UK; but in Israel, Netanyahu discovered that endless elections enabled him to govern largely without the checks and balances of a coalition.
However, the "Change Coalition" that formed to unseat Netanyahu was able to bring to the table enough parties that vowed not to work with the longtime leader and opt for something new. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid has taken over the centrist populist vote, was willing to step aside to some extent and let Bennett become prime minister first.
WITHOUT GOING into all the issues involved, it’s worth noting that while Bennett and Lapid wrestled a lot of political parties into their coalition in order to work together, the voters behind this complex coalition were not happy. Bennett and Lapid had worked together before, with Netanyahu after the 2013 elections; but as leaders they had to hold together an impossible coalition. Their majority was so small that every week brought renewed chaos.
However, from a government perspective, they had competent ministers who took their jobs seriously, and a breath of fresh air was felt. Normal things like budgets were passed and Israel’s foreign policy became vibrant again. With Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry, Lapid was able to do a lot with the Foreign Ministry and also improve relations around the world, from the European Union to the US, from Morocco to Turkey. This veneer of normality, though, didn’t seem to filter down to tangible benefits that bring voters to the polls.
It’s hard to diagnose what led to failure for the change coalition in November 2022. One problem is that ruling parties often face troubles at the polls. But Netanyahu didn’t have to even use any of the shenanigans he used in the past before elections; there was no warning about Arabs “flocking” to the polls, or fear mongering about a radical-left “weak” government.
Instead, Netanyahu strolled to victory, and there is a sense that Bennett left politics with a martyr’s solemnity, leaving Lapid to run a campaign that was based on showing he could govern the country, but one that didn’t invigorate the “street.”
At the end of the day, Israel has a lot of centrist voters, but they still don’t seem to bring home more than 35 mandates, which is around 1.2 million votes.
One thing I learned, working in politics many years ago, is that there are no hidden voters. “Get out the vote” doesn’t really lead to huge numbers of new voters magically appearing. The Center just doesn’t have the numbers to win elections in Israel and create ruling coalitions. It doesn’t matter if it is Yesh Atid or Blue and White or Zionist Union or Kadima. The numbers are not there.
The only thing that got Bennett and Lapid across the line was that Ra’am, an Arab party, agreed to join the coalition; and they had New Hope, a party led by a former member of the Likud.
Former Likud-aligned politicians seem to populate a plethora of parties that drift into the center – for example, Bennett, Liberman, Tzipi Livni, Moshe Kahlon. This is why there isn’t really a Center that can govern, because it can govern only with some members of the Likud and, nowadays, Ra’am.
RA’AM’S DECISION to join the coalition was an unprecedented decision of Mansour Abbas and his party. It has its voting blocs in the South and some other towns. Although critics said that this is akin to Israel bringing in the Muslim Brotherhood, Abbas showed pragmatism and illustrated that a new politics was possible.
It’s worth recalling that when Ayman Odeh first formed the Joint List comprising Hadash, Balad, Ra’am and Ta’al, it came in as the third largest party, with some 450,000 votes, in 2015. But Odeh, despite glowing press coverage of a new kind of leadership, was not able to play a role in a governing coalition, even though he could have done so from outside the coalition, as Arab parties did with Yitzhak Rabin’s government.
The Joint List squandered a unique opportunity, but this wasn’t entirely its fault; the ruling coalition of Netanyahu spurned working with Arab parties, or even the ostensibly Jewish-Arab Hadash Party.
The extremes in Israel feed off each other; so the extremes in the Arab sector, which push Palestinian nationalism, tend to benefit when the far Right is also rising; because both groups can point at each other as enemies. During the period when Ra’am was in the government, the far Right used this as an angle of attack – even on Tuesday, election night.
Ra’am’s flexibility was not valued or rewarded, and this illustrates that even when Arab parties want to play a role, the rhetoric about how Israel wants moderate Arab voices that will play a role in Israeli society tends to be just that – rhetoric; a swath of Israel doesn’t want Arab parties running ministries. This isn’t a secret; the constant references to a Jewish Israel on election night and “showing them who runs this place” were slogans that illustrate how hard it is to have a diverse governing coalition.
THIS BRINGS up one last point. During the election campaign, B’Tselem released a report about how Israel isn’t a vibrant democracy but, rather, apartheid. This builds on a campaign by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that labeled Israel as being “apartheid” in the last year. These claims are always based on looking at the “whole area” of Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, asserting that Israel still occupies the Strip.
The decision by some voices to increase the apartheid rhetoric – even though Israel had a center-left coalition with Ra’am as a member – illustrates that no matter what Israel does, it will always be called “apartheid” by the critics. Israel left Gaza, but they claim Israel denies Gazans a vote, even though the two-state concept and the UN do not mandate that Gaza be part of Israel.
The push for one state is now part of the anti-Israel agenda. It’s not about empowering Palestinians to have their self-determination; it’s about forcing them and Israelis into one state, like forcing Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo back together.
We learned over recent years that no matter what Israelis do, even if everyone would vote for Ra’am and Meretz, the anti-Israel crusaders would still call Israel “apartheid.”
The voters in Israel also seem to quietly understand this. Many of them vote for the Right and religious parties, and they don’t care if this may cause problems for Israel’s relations abroad.•