At around 2 AM Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, Benjamin Netanyahu, joined by his wife Sarah, ascended the stage of the Heichal Shlomo auditorium and declared victory. “I am deeply moved that the people of Israel once again chose to put their faith in me, for the fifth time, and more than ever before,” he told the raucous crowd in his deep baritone, now slightly hoarse. Israeli and Likud party flags waved in the audience, and at least one large Trump banner fluttered over the Likud supporters’ shoulders. “Bibi, Bibi, King of Israel,” the crowd chanted. Netanyahu, his face shining, almost damp, beamed back at them.
Netanyahu’s main rival, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, had rushed to give a victory speech of his own earlier Tuesday night, when exit polls showed his and TV personality Yair Lapid’s Blue and White party tied or leading Netanyahu’s Likud. Both Gantz and Lapid would give concession speeches less than twenty-four hours later. Netanyahu, ever the shrewd politician, instead waited for a better indication of what the real results would be. When it became clear, several hours later, that despite near parity between the two parties, there was no possibility of Gantz and Lapid forming the next governing coalition, Netanyahu claimed his due.
The election results are roughly what the polls predicted: another Netanyahu government, more right-wing than the previous. Though it will take some time before the coalition agreement is finalized, the general picture of Netanyahu’s next government is clear. The Likud will be the largest party, with thirty-six seats—a six-seat increase and Netanyahu’s strongest showing ever. It will include the ultra-orthodox parties, which, with fifteen seats total, performed better than expected; the United Parties of the Right, which includes the extremist, terrorist-supporting Jewish Power faction, with five seats; Avigdor Liberman’s Israel is Our Home party, also with five; and Kulanu, a right-leaning party, ostensibly concerned with issues of distributive justice, with four. In other words, Netanyahu’s next government will closely resemble his last, with the balance of power now tilted more toward the religious parties. The only real surprise is the fate of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, whose pro-annexation New Right party failed to win enough votes to enter the Knesset.
The parliamentary opposition, however, will look much different. Support for the left Zionist parties, which could once form a parliamentary majority on their own, evaporated. The Labor party, which ruled Israel continuously from its founding in 1948 until 1977, won just six seats. Meretz, the social-democratic, civil-libertarian party historically to Labor’s left, won four. Left Zionism has long been waning, its ideological synthesis neither coherent nor popular. Now reduced to an irrelevant political faction, it seems to have sounded its death knell. Tomer Persico, a left-leaning intellectual and scholar of religion, wrote that “the Labor party had completed its historical role as a governing party.” The chair of the Labor Party’s youth wing called the results “the near-complete obliteration of progressive Zionism in Israel.” (The term “liberal Zionist,” as Americans use it, hardly exists in Israeli political discourse, and there is no party in the Knesset that defines itself as such.) More than Netanyahu’s election to a fifth term as prime minister, now on track to exceed David Ben-Gurion in years in office, the collapse of the Zionist left was the night’s historic result.
The “near-complete obliteration” of the Zionist left is the product of multiple decades-long and interrelated processes: the discrediting of the peace camp after the failure of the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada; the simmering resentment toward the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor Zionist elite; the growing influence of religious Zionism in education and culture; more than half a century of maintaining a military dictatorship in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza; and the transition from a semi-corporatist state-led economy to the neoliberal model. Social democratic parties around the world are foundering as right-wing populism surges, and Labor and Meretz, Israel’s two parties affiliated with the Socialist International, are no exception.
But there are also more proximate causes. At least since Netanyahu’s election in 2009, Labor has repeatedly tried to defeat Likud by tacking right. Labor voters elected Avi Gabbay, a millionaire telecom executive and former minister in Netanyahu’s government, to head the party in 2017, in the hopes that he could reach voters beyond the party’s base. Gabbay, the son of Moroccan immigrants and raised in a poor Jerusalem neighborhood, was meant to take the party of the kibbutzim in a new direction. And in a sense, he did. He joined the right-wing attacks on the legitimacy of Arab political participation; when asked if he would form a governing coalition that included the Arab-led parties, he responded, “We have nothing in common with them.” He pledged not to evacuate Jewish settlements from the occupied West Bank. When, two weeks before the election, a rocket fired from Gaza hit a house in central Israel, Gabbay accused Netanyahu of being weak for not authorizing a more forceful military response. But voters who truly want ethnonationalism will always choose the real, bloody thing. Triangulation only moves the center of political gravity rightward, and when the center moves right, the left loses.
Meretz’s problem is different but related. The party was formed as a merger between the left-most Labor Zionist party, Mapam (the United Workers’ Party) and two other parties—Ratz, the party of the human rights, LGBTQ, and feminist struggles, and Shinui, a liberal, adamantly secular party. For the past several years, the party has been mired in an acrimonious conflict over its identity: should it become a post-Zionist party that explicitly embraces Arab-Jewish partnership, or should it double down as the last surviving remnant of authentic, socialist Labor Zionism? Not even its leadership can agree whether the party is explicitly Zionist, or merely includes Zionists as well as non-Zionists. It stands on the uneasy political terrain of guaranteeing special representation within the party to the kibbutzim—which, now mostly privatized, are functionally Jews-only gated communities—while increasingly relying on votes from Palestinian citizens of Israel. The party increased Arab representation on its parliamentary list to two of the top five spots for the current elections, and Palestinian citizens of Israel rewarded it with unusually high levels of support. But its residual Zionist commitments have prevented the party from pursuing more formal and resilient forms of cooperation with the Arab-led parties, for whom Zionism, understandably, means dispossession, racism, codified second-class citizenship. If there is any heartening outcome of the election, though, it is that the magnitude of the left’s loss has led more Jewish Israeli leftists to conclude, rightly, that there can be no serious left-wing challenge to Netanyahu and the right without joint Arab-Jewish struggle.
The emergence, and surprising success, of the Blue and White party, which won thirty-five seats, clarifies the current contours of the Israeli political landscape. Though nominally led by two men, Gantz and Lapid, the party is actually a coalition of four distinct factions: Gantz’s Resilience for Israel party, Lapid’s secular, middle-class Yesh Atid (There is a Future), Moshe Ya’alon’s nationalist-étatist Telem party, and Gabi Ashkenazi’s informal group of supporters. Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi are all former IDF chiefs of staff. Ya’alon is an ideologically committed right-winger and outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, while Gantz and Ashkenazi flirted with joining Labor before starting their own party. Blue and White will officially lead the opposition in the Knesset, but its opposition will be of a very particular kind. It is a praetorian, statist party—led by decorated generals, with a list composed of members of the defense establishment, exiled Likudniks, and minor celebrities. It will represent the status quo in the face of Netanyahu’s coalition, which, more right-wing and ambitious than ever, will likely push for dramatic changes: from formal annexation of the West Bank to the crippling of Israel’s judicial system to giving Netanyahu, facing multiple corruption charges, immunity for as long as he remains in office. The voters who abandoned the left Zionist parties for the Blue and White hoped to replace Netanyahu’s mafia-style politics with Gantz’s perceived martial dignity; the Blue and White party’s keyword was mamlachtiyut (roughly, statesmanship or civic virtue), which Gantz argued Netanyahu lacked. These voters, intentionally or not, have brought more right-wingers into the Knesset.
The differences between the Blue and White and Likud are significant, but the two parties—which combined received the votes of more than two million Israelis—also overlap in important ways. They reflect the consensus among Jewish Israelis that the country’s Palestinian citizens are undeserving of equal rights or political representation—that Arabs are at best a nuisance, an unfortunate reality that a responsible government must deal with, and at worst a security threat, a fifth column. Netanyahu’s Likud led an expressly racist campaign, warning that the Blue and White party would form a coalition with the Arab-led parties. For weeks, day and night, Likud MKs insinuated that Gantz and his wife were Arab sympathizers, and that Gantz would support the creation of a Palestinian state. Gantz and his party simply joined the parade of hate-speech in response. Gantz ran campaign ads boasting of having bombed Gaza “back to the stone age” and of how many people he killed as IDF chief of staff. Gantz and Lapid vowed they would not form a governing coalition that included the Arab-led parties and even promised to look first to the Likud to form a government, were they to win. While Blue and White splits with Likud on the choice between annexation or perpetual management of the occupation, both define the political arena as open to Jews only.
The nonstop racist incitement by every Zionist party (with the exception of Meretz) demoralized and demobilized Arab voters. And this, combined with various voter suppression tactics, diminished turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel. On election day, for example, Likud operatives dispatched as poll workers showed up to 1,200 polling sites in Arab cities wearing cameras with the intention of intimidating voters. Likud also sued civil society organizations for providing buses for Bedouin citizens to get to polling places. The atmosphere of fear and hatred that efforts like these created was enough to have the intended effect. The Arab-led parties’ seats decreased by two, to a total of ten. The merger of the socialist Arab-Jewish Hadash and the liberal nationalist Ta’al received six votes; the merger of the Arab nationalist Balad and Islamist Ra’am received four. There are, of course, other reasons for the Arab-led parties’ disappointing performance—anger with the current leadership and dissatisfaction with the fractiousness between the various parties.
Benjamin Netanyahu has governed Israel for the past ten years, and for twelve years in total. While he has empowered the country’s most right-wing forces and further entrenched Israel’s military rule in the West Bank, he has been a disappointment to the hard right, to whom he is now beholden. In theory, Netanyahu has had few obstacles to realizing much of the right’s agenda, from annexing the West Bank to neutralizing the power of the judiciary. And yet at every opportunity, he has consistently shied away from committing to drastic changes. Compared to the other right-wing leaders, Netanyahu is a cautious man, wary—though this may be hard to believe—of rocking the boat too much. The conventional wisdom in Israel, however, is that this time around, things will be different. Netanyahu’s political survival depends on the willingness of the other right-wing parties to defend him as he begins hearings in his multiple corruption cases. It is unlikely that he will be able to maneuver out of his eleventh-hour campaign promise to annex the West Bank (as prime minister he killed multiple annexation bills).1 It is also unclear to what lengths Netanyahu will go to remain in power despite the ongoing criminal proceedings. The government’s system of checks and balances, the rule of law—the sorts of things polite society worries most about—could all come under attack.
On election day a friend messaged me that they had voted for the Blue and White party. “I don’t want to wake up to another four years of Bibi,” they said. “It’s beginning to smell a bit like a dictatorship.” But for Palestinians, it already is one, and has been for a very long time. Palestinians within Israel lived under martial law between 1948 and 1966, and since 1967, Israel has ruled by military occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza until 2005, when it swapped occupation for a protracted blockade. The sad irony is that decades of maintaining a herrenvolk democracy within Israel and a military dictatorship over the Green Line have eroded the democratic institutions Israeli Jews took for granted. The tactics of repression, the intolerance of dissent and protest, the legitimation of political violence—hallmarks of the military-settler regime in the West Bank—are now being used against left-wingers and critics of government policy within Israel. Israel was only ever a democracy for Jews, and now even that appears in jeopardy. If the majority of Israeli Jews have so far failed to fully recognize the humanity of Palestinians, then perhaps they are more likely to be moved by the recognition that Jewish flourishing between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River requires Palestinian freedom. But until they grasp this, both Palestinians and Israelis are condemned to suffer.
Israeli pundits have spent the days following the election parsing the distinction between Netanyahu’s promise to “begin extending Israeli sovereignty over the settlement blocs” and proposals for full annexation of the West Bank and what this could mean for his government. His far-right coalition partners are unlikely to be satisfied with the gradual extension of Israeli sovereignty as opposed to immediate and total annexation. Then there is President Trump’s widely anticipated “Deal of the Century,” which is unlikely to include a plan for a Palestinian state but may also fall short of the right’s highest hopes. ↩