November 06, 2022
If anything is clear from the results of Tuesday’s general election, it is that Israel is not only moving but galloping toward the right and, tragically for the democratic character of the country and for relations with the Palestinians, to the far right.
At the time of writing it is impossible to know exactly which parties will form the next coalition government and who will hold key positions within it.
But as the night of the election gave way to dawn, it was confirmed that the count was such that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be asked to form the next government, and that the big winner was the Kahanist party, Religious Zionism, which holds anti-democratic and racist views.
It was one of those watershed elections whereby the democratic process elevated to a position of great power and influence those who neither believe in nor adhere to the most basic tenets of the democratic system, and for whom it is a mere tool to gain power and then weaken it from within, if not bring it crashing down completely.
There is no escape from the reality that Israel’s current sociopolitical landscape is shifting more and more toward religious fundamentalism, becoming more messianic, extremely nationalist and racist — a position that has developed a near-incomprehensible dependency on Netanyahu, has abandoned any progressive views, and no longer even pretends to want a fair and just settlement to the conflict with the Palestinians.
There is also an optical distortion in the outcome of this election that makes it appear to be a resounding endorsement of Netanyahu himself. Yet the bloc that supports him is only marginally bigger, in terms of votes, than that which opposes him — and even leaders of other parties from his own bloc have expressed strong views about his dishonesty and lack of integrity.
There are also strong right-wing elements within the bloc who have pledged not to share power with someone who is currently on trial for corruption, indicted on three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. They take issue with Netanyahu over his suitability to govern, though not necessarily with his views on the Palestinian issue.
After this fifth election in three and half years, the Israeli public remains deeply divided in its views on the direction of the Jewish state, which in a few months will celebrate 75 years of independence. But there is little doubt that it is moving further and further away from what its founders envisaged and what was expressed in its Declaration of Independence.
From the outset, Israel’s democracy was a complex one and the tension created by being democratic and being Jewish was bound to lead to intrinsic paradoxes.
It led to more rights and privileges being allotted to the Jewish population over the Palestinian minority that remained in the aftermath of the 1948 war and the Nakba. This was further exacerbated after the war of 1967 and the way Israel increasingly controlled the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who are now completely deprived of the rights bestowed on those living on the other side of the Green Line.
The election results confirm that a majority of the Jewish population in Israel embraces this situation and seeks to justify it; Jewish takes precedence over democratic.
To be sure, the outcome of this latest election merely confirms developments that have been festering for many years, and the different shades of right-wing politics — from the soft version through the populist version and all the way to the religious-messianic, ultra-right version — have proved to be more palatable to the electorate than the views of Israel’s liberal-progressive and left-wing groupings.
For the latter, this means a long process of soul searching: How can they increase their appeal to the wider population without compromising their core beliefs?
For those currently celebrating victory, the challenge is to govern the country and, despite their bellicose views, to do so without deepening the schism in Israeli society and without leading to a confrontation with the region and the rest of the international community. Unless, that is, this is indeed their ultimate objective.
And so Netanyahu, after a brief spell in the political wilderness, can now be confident of returning to power and is doubtless already plotting ways to derail his corruption trial and its possible outcome of a spell behind bars. He might even be spoiled for choice as to whom he should invite to join him in government.
However, his election promises have chained him to the prospect of sharing power with those he would least like to do so: the Kahanist Religious Zionism party and the ultra-Orthodox parties. It is his nightmare scenario, to be forced to form a coalition in which his major partner is a party that bluntly calls for the destruction of the judiciary, would further enshrine in law discrimination against those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and would like to perpetuate the occupation by annexing the West Bank to Israel, not to mention imposing Jewish law, the Halacha, on the country.
There is no escape from the reality that Israel’s current sociopolitical landscape is shifting more and more toward religious fundamentalism, becoming more messianic, extremely nationalist and racist.
But it was Netanyahu himself who legitimized Religious Zionism for his own opportunistic reasons. Alas, it has proved to be a greater “success” than he ever wanted it to be and so now he might be required to offer its members key positions in government.
He does share some of their views but behind his bombastic rhetoric lurks a conservative, risk-averse politician for whom sharing power with those who have not a nuanced bone in their body would feel extremely uncomfortable, if unavoidable.
Alternatively, and perhaps preferably from his point of view, he might choose to ditch his campaign pledges and approach those with whom he promised his voters he would never share power — and who in turn have pledged to never sit alongside him in the same government — and ask them to join his coalition.
Should he do so, both sides could easily claim that they are acting to save the country from the jaws of the messianic far-right and the over-influence of ultra-Orthodox parties. In the long-run, however, both sides might fear paying an electoral price for such a move and could therefore be reluctant to join forces.
Israel woke up on Wednesday to an uncertain future and one that promises to be more polarized than ever. The rise of the right is no accident. It is the result of demographic developments over decades and policies that have sponsored the expansion of settlements and friction with the Palestinians.
Along with this, the ultra-Orthodox parties have been allowed to create a parallel welfare system for their supporters, which includes education systems not fit for a modern, 21st-century society. As a result, they keep those supporters poor and dependent on these parties.
Netanyahu did not invent this system but he elaborated on it and has exploited it to the maximum for his own political and personal gain. However, it has left Israel’s democracy fragile and close to breaking point, with the likelihood of peace with the Palestinians non-existent and a Kahanist monster on the loose.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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