by Fabio Bozzo
The Israeli legislative elections on November 1, 2022 will be long remembered. Not only for the result, itself not overwhelming as we shall see, but for the sharp shift to the right of the average electorate and the likely triumphant return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership.
The recent political instability
The root of this vote lies in the extreme instability of the Israeli political system, which sees the existence of a large number of parties (ten will have parliamentary representation this term), which have to compete for the 120 single-chamber seats in the Knesset with a pure proportional law having a 3.5 percent barrier. All this has led to the fifth election in four years.
It is true that historically Israel, even with the same electoral system, has enjoyed great political stability, but that was a geopolitical era ago. At the time of the Cold War, the strong ideological polarization meant that essentially two parties faced each other, namely the center-left Labor and the center-right Likud, which in turn were the evolution of the Haganah and Irgun, the underground movements that founded the State of Israel. Of course even then there were many other parties, and Israeli politics has always been characterized by countless splits and mergers, but until the 1990s everything, for better or worse, revolved around the aforementioned bipolarity. Moreover, the almost permanent emergency situation (just think of all the conflicts fought and won against the Arab states) forced Israel to have many National Unity Governments.
With the end of the bipolar world, energies and issues that were previously kept under wraps were released. This is because the geopolitical departure of the USSR has deprived the Arab states of their international protector, sanctioning the impossibility of destroying Israel by conventional warfare, and because the society of the Jewish state has been able to express more freely its enormous internal differentiations. For let us not forget that Israelis all have roots in the Diaspora, which brought them back to the ancestral land from around the globe: this inevitably created a society of partial melting pot, in which the "new Israeli man" needs at least two generations to shape himself permanently.
Rightward slide and the rise of Netanyahu
As a result, Israel's politics also saw two major changes. The first has been the gradual increase in the number of parties. The second was the slow relentless decline of the classical Left. The Labor crisis stems from the advance of history, as the days of Ben Gurion's heroic and pioneering Laborism have definitely passed along with the collective guilt that brands those on the Right. Moreover, in the 1990s and 2000s the Center-Left repeatedly made the mistake of seeking compromise with the Palestinians by offering more and more and receiving in return either rejections bordering on insult or counteroffers that, if accepted, would have meant the end of Israel. There is no doubt that Labor's intentions were good and sincere, and the refusal to put the security of the Homeland at stake proves it (in Israel unlike in the rest of the West the Left has never been anti-national), but Ben Gurion's heirs paid for their naive willingness with intifada and terrorism. The result has been that the Right, more pragmatic and without false historical guilt reworked by the pseudo-philosophy of the Frankfurt School, has gradually taken over civil society.
So we come to Benjamin Netanyahu. Known as "Bibi," Netanyahu displays the classic biography of the multi-decorated Israeli military man who turns to politics, in this undoubtedly aided by the aura of heroism surrounding his family (his brother Yoni fell leading the assault on the Entebbe airport terminal, in what to this day remains the most spectacular hostage rescue operation in history). Leading Likud Bibi, in 1996, became the youngest prime minister in Israel's history. Since then, electoral victories and defeats have alternated, as have various appointments as government or opposition leader, but Netanyahu will nonetheless stamp a personal mark on the next 30 years.
This brand is characterized by a relative toughening toward Palestinian claims, coupled with the ability to isolate them diplomatically, the construction of the anti-terrorist wall (a full-fledged re-enactment of the Roman limes) that brings down the number of civilians murdered by Palestinians, liberal economic reforms that have enabled significant economic growth in the country, strong incentives for population growth, and two triumphs in foreign policy. The latter were the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's sole indivisible capital and of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory in its own right. Both historic victories of Jewish diplomacy were the result in large part of the harmony that existed between Bibi and Donald Trump, then the Republican president of the United States and a longtime proud supporter of Israel.
However, the longevity of Netanyahu's political career also produced a series of personal contrasts with other public figures, which developed into a sentiment similar to that which surrounded Berlusconi during his golden years: one was either with him or against him. This generated, in Israel as in Italy, the emergence of broad and often too heterogeneous center-left coalitions, whose primary goal was to bring down the charismatic figure leading the opposing electoral cartel. Hence the incredible political stalemate that has forced Israelis to vote five times for parliament in the past four years. A stalemate that is unlikely to be entirely overcome by the November 1 result, despite Netanyahu's victory. Let's see why in our analysis of the vote.
Analysis of the vote
The last election saw a marked shift to the right by voters, with Labour down to the tiniest of 4 MPs, the result of a stunted 3.69%. Sad setback for the party that claims, largely rightly, to be descended from those who founded the state. Even more symptomatic of the times is the fact that the historic party to the left of Labor's, Meretz, did not even pass the threshold. The lists of Arab (better to say Arab-Islamic) parties were also downsized, but not wiped out, compared to the past legislature. This was because the electoral cartel assembled last time shattered due to internal rivalries and because Arab-Muslims saw abstention on the rise. A blow to the Western Left, which has always hoped for Israel's internal demographics to weaken the Jewish state.
Therefore, a 56-member strong opposition, of which 51 are from the anti-Bibi coalition, by whom is it represented? Mostly by centrist parties, such as Yesh Atid ("There is a Future," centrist and slightly anti-clerical) and the National Unity Party (liberal-nationalist). These two political movements, as also denoted by their names, do not have a programmatic platform too far removed from that of Likud. Separating them from the historic Center-Right, however, are the latter's (often numerically necessary) alliance with the religious Right and personal disagreements between centrist leaders and Netanyahu. As seen in the Knesset, the actual Left, minus the 4 Labor survivors, has all but evaporated, not least because Arab-Muslims with Israeli citizenship will never, like it or not, be reliable members of Israel's society.
Who, on the other hand, got elected the 64 MPs who will almost certainly support Bibi's next government? 32 are from Likud, the safe bet and at the same time the hard core of the classical Right. Then there are the 14 elected members of the Religious Zionist Party (RHP), which combines strong social conservatism with fierce nationalism on the demographic and territorial issue, much like the 11 from Shas. The latter party, however, in addition to being slightly older than the PSR, historically has not had too much trouble entering even center-left governments, albeit under certain conditions. Concluding the compact are the 7 deputies of United Torah Judaism, a two-party electoral cartel whose program is even more religiously driven than that of the other religious movements.
Finally, it should be mentioned the curious position of Israel Beiteinu, a party founded and led by the showy Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian Jew born in Soviet Moldavia. Israel Beiteinu was founded with the goal of politically protecting recent Russian-speaking and Russian-cultured Jewish immigrants, who are among the most secular in Israel despite being socially conservative and nationalist. This makes the movement's political platform a middle ground between that of Likud and secular national-liberals. Not only that, Lieberman was the first Israeli politician to openly propose the only realistic solution to end the conflict with the Arabs, namely a population exchange so that the territories ruled by the respective countries would have clearly defined and separate nationalities. This solution, which at first was branded as Nazism and today is gathering more and more support, partly brings Israel Beiteinu even closer to the religious Right, which otherwise despises it because of its marked secularism. Why then has Lieberman, who in the past was a valuable ally of Likud, this time been organic to the anti-Bibi coalition by electing 6 MPs and for the time being (never say never) ruled out support for yet another Netanyahu government? Needless to say: over personal diatribes with the strongman of the winning coalition.
In conclusion, Israel has given yet another victory to its experienced leader, Netanyahu, leader of the core party of the historic Right, which has objectively achieved remarkable results over the past 30 years. The most important among these, though the least conspicuous, is the increase in the number of Israelis, the result of both the arrival of Jews after the fall of the USSR and the birthrate incentives given by the state (a lesson for the rest of the West, particularly Italy).
However, the new government will have a slim majority, just 4 MPs. Given the diverse coalition that Bibi will be leading, a few twists and turns cannot be ruled out. It may be essentially of one kind, namely the loss of the parliamentary majority, probably because of the religious right. At that point there would be two paths to take. Either return to the ballot box for the umpteenth time (but at this point it would be advisable to first implement an electoral reform that raises the bar threshold or, alternatively, guarantees a majority prize) or replace the right-wing parties overly shifted to the denominational axis with national-liberal ones. On closer look they are more aligned with Likud than the current rabbinic-led allies, as well as more compatible with the secular and Western nature of the State of Israel. Of course, to succeed in this palace maneuver, it would be necessary to overcome the personalisms and grudges that revolve around the person of Netanyahu.
Nothing new under the sun: in Israel as in the rest of the West, the Right knows how to win elections and also knows how to govern its countries, but it struggles to govern itself.
Graduated in History with modern and contemporary majors at the University of Genoa. Essayist, he is author of Ucraina in fiamme. Le radici di una crisi annunciata (2016), Dal Regno Unito alla Brexit (2017), Scosse d'assestamento. "Piccoli" conflitti dopo la Grande Guerra (2020) and Da Pontida a Roma. Storia della Lega (2020, with preface by Matteo Salvini)
Ottima sintesi sulla politica israeliane
Grazie per l’ottimo testo. Ho avuto modo di apprezzarvi durante una manifestazione (scuola politica) a Milano. Complimenti
Grazie a te caro Nicola.