The Israeli Crossroads: Where to?

Israel is now past its second elections this year, and still the chances for a wide and stable coalition seem slim. How did Israel come to this point? Where could Israeli politics go next?


(Social) Security Please
Until 2019, almost every Israeli election campaign was mainly decided based on security. Yes, Israelis have their share of other social and economic problems, but the main question for them has always been the question of survival. Israeli security policy could be roughly divided into external and domestic security. External security is Israel’s policy towards the neighboring Arab states militias such as Hezbollah. Domestic security is Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli willingness to make territorial and other concessions in favor of a future Palestinian state. When Israelis say “leftist”, they do not refer to social-economic standings, but to a security policy orientation: a leftist is willing make larger concessions to the Arabs, in favor of a long-lasting peace agreement. A rightist is less generous and more skeptical about the need or the feasibility of such an agreement.
First signs of a change revealed themselves in 2011. A group of Tel-Avivi middle-class students set up tents in Rothschild Boulevard, in protest against the obscenely high rent in Tel Aviv and their inability to support themselves, despite holding jobs in parallel to their studies. This local initiative quickly grew into a unique protest movement which held demonstrations in all the major urban centers against the “social injustice” and high cost of living. Unlike past movements, it was a fluid group of people with several prominent leaders but with no hierarchy. They refrained from affiliating themselves with any party, and addressed social and economic problems which were previously mostly ignored.
Social issues grew in significance in the following election campaign, with parties adopting a more economic and social discourse. The right spoke mainly about reducing taxes and increasing competitiveness, while the left promised to increase government spending in support of people in need. It seemed like the interest in social issues began to die out again in subsequent years, but it appears to have remained with us after all.


We don’t Need No State Religion
Alongside the rise of economic concerns, another social issue which became widely spoken is Israel’s state religion. Currently, Israel has a rabbinical institute which is officially entrusted with religious matters such as weddings, burials and wakes, providing kosher certificates to kosher restaurants and more. This institution is Orthodox in its orientation, and is often perceived as coercing and unwelcoming for secular Jews, or religious Jews from non-orthodox sects.
In later years, secular Jews became increasingly angry and wary of what they call “Hadata”, perhaps best translated as “religionalization”. Many Israelis feel that the government gives larger and larger portions of its seats and budgets to religious institutions, and this has ramifications which are present in everyone’s private life. For example, parents complain that educational textbooks in schools involve more and more religious contents. Commuters and people without means criticize the absence of public transportation on Shabbat due to religious restrictions. Feminist organizations protest against the increasing trend of excluding women from private or even public events in religious centers.
And indeed, the Likud, unwilling to share its leadership with center and left parties, chose to make a political pact with the hard-right and the religious parties. But this time, an unexpected challenge came to Netanyahu – from his own political wing.


Liberman for Liberty
Avigdor Liberman came to Israel from Moldova in 1978 and joined Israeli politics a bit after. He worked as the Likud party’s Director-General from 1993 to 1996, under Netanyahu himself. He left the Likud in 1997 following his disappointment with Netanyahu’s concessions to the Palestinians in the Wye River Memorandum. In 1999, he formed his own party, “Israel Beytenu” (“Israel Our Home”). His unique party represents the secular but hard-right public of Israel, and chiefly the Israelis from the former Soviet states. His party is both aggressive towards the Palestinians, but also very liberal and anti-religion when it comes to domestic affairs.
Liberman traditionally joined the Likud’s coalitions with the religious parties, out of their mutual interest in supporting a strong Israeli political right bloc. But in these last elections Liberman decided to drop a bomb, and promised that Israel Beytenu will not join a coalition with the religious parties. Instead, he insisted, the Likud must form a national unity government with Blue and White. While only holding 5 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Liberman’s veto was enough to deny from Netanyahu the necessary 60 seats required to formulate a government. For the first time in Israeli history, the main issue at hand became the need for a secular government, rather than a rightist or a leftist one.
Following the second election campaign of 2019, Liberman’s tenacity and eagerness made him significantly stronger, and brought him up from 5 Knesset seats to 8. The Likud, on the other hand, dropped from 39 seats to 32 only, making it the second largest party after Blue and White (33 seats). Former Likud supporters which grew tired of the party’s ties with religious parties chose to vote for Liberman, as well as leftists which care more for religious coercion than they care about foreign issues. People grow increasingly wary of the smaller parties’ blackmailing and the reluctance of the two major parties (Likud and Blue and White), which together hold more than 60 seats, to work together. Liberman became the man of the hour in Israeli politics.
Now, the conundrum seems far from over. Netanyahu is unwilling to hand over the leadership to Blue and White, not only because he wants to preserve his political power but also because he is facing serious legal charges. While the leaders of Blue and White openly support a national unity government with the Likud, they strongly oppose doing it with Netanyahu. They insist that he must resign to face his charges prior to the establishment of any such government. And without Liberman, neither the left nor the right hold enough seats to establish a government on their own.


So Now What?
Netanyahu faces charges in cases known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. The cases revolve around political corruption. The first hearing is scheduled for Wednesday 2nd Oct., and will likely be spread over 4 days. The hearing will decide whether Netanyahu will be indicted or not. From there, most commentaries suggest the following scenarios:

  1. A national unity government: In case Netanyahu will be forced out of public life due to an indictment, or if Blue and White would agree to partner up with him, such a government is likely to be formed. It is important to remember that while Liberman is keen on such a government, his presence in it is not required (the two largest parties share enough seats to leave all others out of the coalition, should they so desire).
  2. A surprising alliance: since both blocs are just almost big enough to form a government, all it takes to realign the coalition map is a small shift of parties from one side to the other. For example, should the religious and Arab parties side with Blue and White, they could form a government without the Likud or Liberman. Alternatively, the traditionally leftist Labor party could join Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.
  3. A third election campaign: if all else fails, some prominent political figure such as Naftali Bennett already discuss the option that the Knesset be once more dispersed and third elections will take place. It is unclear whether this option will benefit or damage the Likud. On one hand, many Likud supporters which felt safe enough to vote for Liberman might now be more inclined to go back home. On the other hand, should Netanyahu leave the Likud soon, the party might be forced to lead a campaign leaderless and divided. One thing is clear – this is the least popular option among everyone.

The Israeli Elections: Which is Which and Who is Who?

The 21st elections for the Israeli Knesset are due for the mid-April. These elections bring a multitude of new parties, a shift in the political blocs and perhaps even a political big bang, which could lead to a long-term change in the Israeli party map. With the candidate lists finalized and submitted, it is finally a good time to ponder over who might next lead the Democratic-Jewish state.

The Likud Party: The King is Dead?
The conservative right party led by Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading the Israeli coalition since 2009. Back then they held 28 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, and were later able to maintain their 30-31 seats in the election campaigns of 2013 and 2015. Some of the younger Israeli individuals, such as yours truly, can hardly remember a time without Netanyahu as Prime Minister. However, recent developments may have reshuffled the cards.
The Likud’s main problem is the rebirth of the Israeli center, in the form of the new “Israel Resilience Party”. The promising movement, which came to life in December 2018, later merged with the second-largest center party “Yesh Atid” into the grand union of “Blue and White”. The union went toe-to-toe with the Likud in the polls throughout February, and as of now it seems that it surpasses the Likud with an estimated average of 36 seats.
To make matters worse for the Prime Minister, just 40 days before the elections the Attorney General of Israel announced his decision to pursue an indictment against Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and a breach of trust in several cases he was allegedly involved in. Currently Netanyahu has no intention of resigning, but nevertheless this might mean that even if he becomes Prime Minister once more, he would later be forced to resign in order to face the charges, leaving the Likud without a strong and popular heir. This fact does not go unnoticed even by some eager Likud supporters, who are reluctant to throw their vote away.
Netanyahu is doing everything he can to combat these trends, and is not yet left without cards to play. The Likud maintains its position with 26-32 seats in the polls, and many of the political right parties announced that they would recommend Netanyahu for Prime Minister when the elections will be over. To further improve his odds, Netanyahu has launched a media offensive against the Attorney General which supposedly caved to the Likud’s political rivals, as well as against the leaders of “Blue and White”. He also went out of his way to support a merge among lesser right parties which were in danger of not passing the electoral threshold in order to reinforce his ability to form a coalition. Only time will tell if 40 days is what Netanyahu needs in order to make his way back into office.

Blue and White: Long Live the King(s)?
In 2013, some considered the new “Yesh Atid”, led by the former media person Yair Lapid, to be the promise of the elections. He presented himself as the moderate alternative to Netanyahu’s Machiavellistic politics and willingness to align with far-right and ultra-orthodox parties. Yesh Atid strove to dismiss the conservative “left-versus-right” debate, in favor of what they referred to as “new politics”. Lapid became the knight of the good, secular people of the center, those who are tired of having their interests sold out by politicians.
Although Yesh Atid reached a respectful second place in the 2013 elections with 19 seats in the parliament, Netanyahu was skillfully able to curb the party’s rising popularity. He brought Lapid into his coalition and, knowing that he had no political expertise, gave him the crucial yet extremely demanding Ministry of Finance. By the elections of 2015, Yesh Atid’s seats dropped to 11. The party was forced to go to the opposition and it seemed as though it might become just another second-tier party in the Israeli harsh political scene.
A significant reinforcement rushed to the Israeli center in December 2018, in the form of Benny Gantz. This former commander of the Israeli army was praised as a successful military leader and manager. His accomplishments, at the side of his impressive and yet calm kind of appearance, created a major interest in his political vision. Like Lapid before him Gantz condemned the radical and aggressive nature of the Israeli leading politicians and called to return Israel to its more moderate, institutional and united days. He established his own party, the “Israel Resilience Party”, which scored an approximate 12-22 seats in the polls of January and February.
Given the similarity of their agendas, a unification between Lapid and Gantz seemed natural to many of their voters, and it predicted that such a union could be a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The politicians heeded the call and just before the electoral candidate lists were closed, the two parties formed a union named “Blue and White”.
The new movement is now estimated to be the largest party of the elections, with 35-36 seats. However, it is still unclear whether the turnout will be as high as expected, and whether the union could raise enough support among other parties to become the first coalition leader from the Israeli center.

The New Right
Currently winning 5-9 seats in the polls. This party is led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. Bennett was a wonder-boy of the religious Zionism. After an impressive career in the military and in business entrepreneurship, Bennett entered politics and join the Likud party. Bennett joined forces with Ayelet Shaked, a female conservative right-winger from Tel Aviv, and together they moved during 2012 to the Jewish Home Party. They successfully transformed this entity from a fringe religious-right party into a much more popular group with 12 seats in 2013 and 8 in 2015, receiving votes even from moderate rightists tired of the Likud’s political pragmatism. Currently, Bennett is the Israeli Minister of Education, while Shaked occupies the Ministry of Justice.
Now, Bennett and Shaked left their party a second time in order to form “The New Right”, a political party striving to unite religious and secular right-wingers, who hold sacred the Jewish aspect of Israel and reject any idea of a Palestinian state. They hope that their departure from the often provocative and radical elements within The Jewish Home would allow them to bring the religious and conservative Zionism into the Israeli mainstream.

The Israeli Labor Party
The left party which was for long the largest party in Israel has never seen worse days. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, the party has been gradually losing its power and current polls predict that it would only gain 5-8 seats in the next Knesset. Avi Gabbay, the current leader of the party, is sometimes accused of abandoning the left for the sake of populism and was also criticized for disbanding the party’s partnership with Hatnuah, another party which disintegrated following the end of the merger.
The party slightly improved its weak position in recent weeks, following primaries which brought very popular figures to the head of the list, in addition to the rise of Blue and White and a hope for a new, center-left coalition.

Conclusion: Israel is going center
Following the departure of Ariel Sharon from the Likud party in 2005, the political center became a major phenomenon in Israel. While the Israeli left is long gone, and the right is now facing danger given the shaky position of its leadership, the current polls show that the center found its way back to the front.
Could this be the dawn of a new political age in Israel? Can a recently-established union between two relatively new parties assume immediate leadership of such a complex state? And what would become of the Likud in such a new era? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain – the 2019 elections are among the most interesting in Israel’s history.