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It’s Not Netanyahu, Stupid: What This Israeli Election Is Really About

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A woman walks past campaign posters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's southern city of Beersheva
A woman walks past campaign posters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's southern city of Beersheva.Credit: HAZEM BADER - AFP
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

As Israelis votes yet again this week, it is easy to conclude that the entire 2021 campaign is about Benjamin Netanyahu. But flattening the elections to a cult of personality – love or hate for Netanyahu – is both inaccurate and dismissive to voters. 

The temptation to reduce everything to "for or against Bibi" is understandable. Kachol Lavan head Benny Gantz ran three campaigns during 2019-2020 on an anti-Netanyahu platform, and rallied far more voters than any single party challenging Likud today. 

What you need to know about Israel's unprecedented election: WATCH Haaretz's special briefing

It’s not only centrist parties that bolster the "Bibi: Yes or No" narrative. Whereas about 52 percent of all Israeli adults self-identify as right-wing in my recent surveys, in the final pre-election two week average, Israeli parties on the ideological right are polling at 76-77 Knesset seats (out of 120).

That’s because two right-wing parties, led by Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Saar – are also campaigning on ousting Netanyahu. Those parties have attracted some centrist voters, apparently more committed to their "anti-Bibi" goal than to ideology. 

After an unbroken run in the premiership since 2009, Netanyahu clearly looms large; but voters are not acting out of blind faith in, or rage at, him. His supporters approve of his policies, ideology and leadership. Netanyahu’s detractors believe he stands in the way of everything – or anything – they support, while doing profound damage to the country. The politics of personality is a factor, but ideology still exists in Israel, and issues too.

‘Benny to the Knesset or Bibi for ever’: Election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv for Israel's Kachol Lavan opposition party led by Benny Gantz Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

The defining divide: and it's not Bibi

The electorate’s greatest divide between left, right and center remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a defining, polarizing issue: 84 percent of all self-defined left-wingers (Jews and Arabs) in the Israeli-Palestinian joint survey from August 2020 support the two state solution, compared to just 24 percent of right-wingers. Self-defined centrists behave more like the left: a 63 percent majority support the two state solution

There are gradations within the camps: 30 percent of moderate right-wingers support two states, compared to 17 percent of firm right wingers. 

Whether campaigns focus on maximalist goals such as annexation, as they did in the first three rounds in 2019 and 2020, or avoid the issue altogether as in the current campaign, the conflict still dominates voters’ political identity. The conflict is the reason moderate right-wing voters won’t cross to other ideological "blocs." 

Days before the elections, Channel 12 asked a woman at a rally for the right-wing Yemina party why she would not support its head, Naftali Bennett, serving under Yair Lapid, head of the leading opposition party, Yesh Atid, as prime minister. She responded: "I’m concerned about the keeping the Land [of Israel] whole" – a euphemism for backing Israeli sovereignty over the whole West Bank and rejecting territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Yemina party leader Naftali Bennett and member Ayelet Shaked at a campaign rally in the southern Israeli city of Sderot this month.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP

The conflict need not star in campaign ads to have a determining power over Israeli minds. 

The march of normalization with Arab states under Netanyahu’s watch is important to his voters, and hasn’t changed the oppositional calculus of his political foes. His supporters invariably point to foreign policy achievements: One voter I spoke to, a right-leaning settler currently debating between Yemina and Likud, cited admiration for the Abraham Accords as a tick in the Netanyahu column.

But the accords are just the latest manifestation of Netanyahu’s longer term, energetic cultivation of global leaders and new alliances. Israelis of all stripes laud him on foreign affairs; but for those who oppose him, it’s not enough to change their minds. 

The next-deepest divide in Israel was actually, historically, its first. The discord between visions of a secular state or a theocracy began well before statehood. At least three parties in Israel campaign on instituting a separation between religion and state: Israeli Beitenu (Lieberman), Meretz, and Yesh Atid, whose leader Yair Lapid, is the son of a legendary/infamous anti-Haredi crusader. 

Yair Lapid, head of Israel's opposition Yesh Atid party, campaigns with fortune cookies in the city of Hod Hasharon this month.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

Netanyahu is seen as slavishly beholden to ultra-Orthodox parties. In truth, all Israeli governments, with few exceptions, have forged transactional and co-dependent coalitions with Haredi parties. But Netanyahu has forged the Haredi-Likud bond out of tempered steel. The two ultra-orthodox parties (Torah Judaism and Shas) are the only ones to declare future coalition loyalty to Likud. 

For "anti-Netanyahu" voters, this unbreakable pact symbolizes not only older grievances about preferential treatment for the constituencies of Netanyahu’s Haredi allies, but also the fresh outrage resulting from the COVID-19 crisis: kid-glove police enforcement of lockdowns in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, whose sky-high infection rates, voters believe, should have led to geographically differentiated lockdowns rather than sweeping national ones, a strategy Netanyahu adopted presumably to avoid altercations with his loyal partners. 

Haredi coronavirus -politics is just the latest manifestation in a longstanding, catch-all complaint of "religious coercion," which drives many Israelis, not only secular citizens, to despair. 

Supporters of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas party campaign in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market with posters reading: ‘Israel chooses God’.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

In a January 2018 survey, I asked what bothers Israelis the most about the Israeli right, and the top ranked answer was "religious coercion and encroachment of religion in daily life." This was true even for right-wingers, who placed religious coercion second behind the response that they had no specific criticism of the right.

In the same survey, 62 percent opposed the government advancing greater religious influence on public life, including 31 percent of the Jewish right-wing. Just 12 percent of the public said they were "indifferent."

Important...but secondary

Two issues are located in the middle ground in electoral priorities: economic and social policies. In recent years, Israeli voters have regularly ranked economic issues top of their concerns. Half a million Israelis took to the streets in 2011 to protest the cost of living, and the coronavirus crisis has reinforced the urgency a decade later. 

But unlike most western democracies, Israelis don’t see economic issues in polarized left and right terms. Indeed, they show, historically, only minor ideological variations on economics: today’s left and right-wing both long for lower consumer and housing costs, higher salaries and a social safety net.

Naftali Bennett spent his campaign waving his economic "Singapore plan," a Reagan and Thatcher-inspired drop-taxes-slash-government set of bullet points, but he is stuck at nine seats in the final polls (three more seats than in March, but far from the throne); one small party focused exclusively on economic policies has not crossed the threshold in any poll.

A woman stands in front of Joint List and Meretz party election campaign posters in the northern Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

In my experience, voters despair that any party will deliver their own economic wish-lists, and prioritize ideological considerations such as a two-state solution, or Greater Israel, instead. 

But inasmuch as economic issues do factor into votes, instead of judging politicians based on their personal economic circumstances, Netanyahu supporters point to Israel’s strong macroeconomic indicators, global high-tech success, and relatively limited damage during both 2008 and 2020 global economic crises; his detractors look at deep economic inequality and stubbornly high cost of living. These are substantive considerations, not blind faith.

On social norms, the question of what counts as "liberal" versus illiberal, theocratic or apartheid has emerged in recent cycles, but some party leaders have odd interpretations of the term. 

Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party head Itamar Ben Gvir alongside Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism list as they greet supporters in Jerusalem.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

For right-wing parties, "liberal" means hardline nationalist positions on the conflict, while supporting a secular state (Lieberman) or hyper-neoliberal free market economics (Yemina). Left-wing parties point to socially progressive policies, which in practice boil down to civil marriage and LGBT rights – while concern for human and civil rights underpin their support for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

This time around, LGBT issues have had a surprising presence in the campaigns: The Religious Zionist party incudes a gang of open homophobes, the Joint List took heat from liberal Arab-Palestinian citizens and a smattering of Jewish leftists when its prominent MK Ahmed Tibi publicly rejected solidarity with and from the LGBT community; Meretz has a gay party leader and, perhaps to compete with those voters, Yesh Atid produced an emotional ad supporting LGBT equality. 

To salvage or to destroy democracy

The issue that should have defined the 2021 campaign is the visceral debate over the judiciary. Arguments over law and politics, the role of the Supreme Court, judicial activism and the defense of constitutional rights date back at least to Israel’s "judicial revolution" in the early 1990s, though its roots go further back. 

The Israel Democracy Index picked up an ideology gap since the Index began in 2003: Jewish right-wingers consistently trust the court less than the center and left. 

But over the last decade, a full-throttled populist right-wing assault on the judiciary has deepened the chasm. Netanyahu personally joined the fray as his corruption cases neared prosecution, pushing the delegitimization of the judiciary to save himself. 

Only 38 percent of Jewish right-wing voters now trust the Supreme Court, compared to 84 percent of those on the left (2020 Israel Democracy Institute's Index)Credit: Israel Democracy Institute/2020 Israel Democracy Index

The divide is becoming a chasm: in the 2020 Israel Democracy Institute's Index, only 38 percent of Jewish right-wing voters now trust the Supreme Court, compared to 84 percent of leftists. The polarization is nearly as deep as the attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not by coincidence: both symbolize the potential to salvage or destroy democracy in Israel. 

The easy shorthand of framing these elections as a referendum on Netanyahu hands Netanyahu a victory – affirming his autocratic quest to make the state into an extension of himself. In fact Israeli voters care about a panoply of issues, ideology, problems of daily life, the future of their state, society and democracy. They hold deeply conflicted visions about how to answer these open questions. 

After leading the country for the last 12 years, Netanyahu’s answers are clear: maximalist positions on the conflict, more religious encroachment on public life, undermining the pillars and institutions of Israeli democracy, legitimizing corrupt leadership. To date, there is no unified alternate vision among the parties seeking to govern.

If the opposition wins, it has a responsibility to move beyond ousting Netanyahu and start showing it has a different path – if the end of the Netanyahu era is to have any meaning at all.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and co-host of Haaretz.com's Election Overdose podcast. Twitter: @dahliasc

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