Analysis

Israel Election: Tell Us Which Minority You Hate, and We’ll Tell You Who to Vote For

In this election, there is nothing that ignites hatred more than the fear of rising Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities

A campaign rally of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019.
Shuki lerer

The current election campaign has focused on Israel’s core problem – attitudes toward minorities. The demographic, economic and political heft of both the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox in Israel is growing, and as a result, so is anxiety in the shrinking center, which fears a loss of control and a changed division of the national pie. Both prime ministerial candidates, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, have based their campaigns in the run-up to Tuesday’s election on exploiting this anxiety in order to woo voters.

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A statement on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Facebook account, later withdrawn, warned that “the Arabs want to destroy us all.” Then there was the warning that at a left-wing government with Arab Knesset members Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi would result in Israel’s destruction. For his part, Kahol Lavan leader Gantz advocated a secular unity government – transparent code for “the ultra-Orthodox want to oppress us and milk us for our money.” His voters understand this even without being shown pictures of ultra-Orthodox men dodging the draft or the core curriculum of secular school subjects.

In short, tell me whom you hate, and I’ll tell you who you are. Arab-haters to the right, haters of the ultra-Orthodox to the left.

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But the symmetry ends there. While Netanyahu embraces the ultra-Orthodox as his perpetual coalition partners, even at the price of putting off secular voters, Gantz is afraid to extend a hand to the Arabs, thereby giving up the left’s strongest card – massive voting in Arab towns. A rise in Arab turnout could bring Netanyahu down.

Yet it carries a price that Gantz is afraid to pay – driving Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman back into Netanyahu’s arms. Gantz has bet on Lieberman, who gave him the rare opportunity to run again following April’s election as his preferred partner.

Arab Israelis walk past campaign posters for the Joint List in Jaffa, September 5, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The main issue in the April election – Netanyahu’s corruption cases and the role of the institutional “gatekeepers” – is only of secondary importance this time. Netanyahu promised his voters that if they would make that small extra effort to keep him in power, he would destroy the hated elites, the rule of bureaucrats and lawyers, and let the rightist, religious majority do as it pleases with the country.

He portrayed the criminal investigations against him as a conspiracy of “the media, the police and the prosecution” aimed at ousting him, but also presented an alternative. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman shows what a bureaucracy of yes-men who seek to justify the government’s actions would look like. He is apparently the model that Netanyahu and the right-wing parties want to replicate throughout the bureaucracy.

Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which failed to elect its candidate for state comptroller, has taken a step backwards in addressing corruption during the current campaign. Instead of painting Netanyahu as a serial criminal defendant (subject to a pre-indictment hearing) who seeks to destroy the rule of law, instead of highlighting the transcripts of Netanyahu’s interrogations that have been widely reported in recent weeks, Gantz treats these cases as a technical legal problem that could hinder him from forging a partnership.

He has avoided harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s behavior and of the right’s hostile attitude toward state institutions such as the law enforcement agencies and the High Court of Justice. Here too, as in his attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox, Gantz takes his cues from Lieberman, his spiritual guide through the byways of politics.

Over the past two weeks of campaigning, Netanyahu has restored “the diplomatic issue” to the headlines by vowing to annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements and to negotiate a defense pact with the United States. He has dictated the diplomatic agenda despite not receiving favors from world leaders now as he had before April’s election, and despite his ongoing failure to calm the Gaza border.

On this field, Netanyahu is playing alone. Gantz hasn’t said anything about foreign and defense policy that would differentiate Kahol Lavan from Netanyahu’s Likud party.

On the contrary, by proposing a future coalition with Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu – parties that support annexing territory, expanding settlements and continuing the occupation – Gantz has placed Kahol Lavan on the right diplomatically. His approach is a core curriculum for the ultra-Orthodox in exchange for sovereignty over the Jordan Valley for the settlers.

But it’s hard to see this election being decided by promises to legalize the Mitzpeh Yeriho settlement outpost or Netanyahu’s claim that he would be better at handling U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are important issues that will assuredly preoccupy the next government. But they don’t turn voters on the way fear and loathing over the rise of minorities does.

A watershed election for Netanyahu – and for Israeli democracy