Historically, Israeli elections fall into two supposedly distinct categories, swinging like a wild pendulum between them: They are either a “critical juncture in history,” in which monumental decisions need to be made, or they are a “Seinfeld election” – an election about nothing, just a dysfunctional political system.
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Naturally, politicians vying for position and power tend to exaggerate with colorful hyperbole the providential significance of the election. The public, by and large, tends to subscribe to the Seinfeld school. The upcoming March 23 election, though, is unique: It looks like a Seinfeld, but is actually critical.
Caught between the raging, mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic and its dire economic ramifications and the fact that this is the fourth election a fatigued and jaded electorate is facing in two years, the public seems not to understand or care about the gravity. This election is in fact one of the rare instances where the outcome truly may have dramatic consequences: either a change of government or a possible change of regime.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government, his rivals contend, he will legislate laws shielding himself from the threat of his trial, undercut the judiciary, severely and further weaken democracy’s checks and balances, and curb freedom of the press.
So, the election raises a clear choice: Will Israel’s inexorable movement to an illiberal democracy continue, or will it be mitigated by an unlikely coalition of the secular right, center and left?
Whether it will be a change of government or a deeper, dramatic – and, of course, gradual – change of regime depends on the blocs.
In order to form a governing coalition, a bloc – or group of parties that form an alliance to build the coalition – requires at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The main political question in every recent and close election revolved around movement between the blocs, realignments and political deserters and defectors. In the last several election cycles, blocs have become more clearly defined.
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Traditionally, the dividing line in Israeli politics and society was between a left wing-center bloc and a right wing-center bloc. Each had its extremes, its centrists, its ideologues and its pragmatists. Since 1967, the ostensible schism has been the future of the Palestinian territories – the possibility and viability of a Palestinian state. It generally concerned geopolitics, borders, peace, the economy.
This is no longer the case. Such divisions may recur as circumstances change, but the existing blocs are much more prosaic: anti-Netanyahu or pro-Netanyahu. It’s that simple.
This structure blurs and temporarily invalidates any differences between the traditional positions and policies of the left and the right. Avigdor Lieberman and the Meretz party are in the same bloc.
The ultra-Orthodox, who for decades refrained from taking a principled position on national security issues, have gradually become an organic part of the right wing, strongly aligned with Netanyahu’s quasi-authoritarian, anti-judicial system, anti-secular elites populism.
In this respect, the bloc formed by Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox is considered an enemy of the liberal democratic state by a majority of the Israeli public, not to mention at least half of the predicted incoming Knesset, on both the left and the right. Yet public attitudes and voting patterns are rarely aligned commensurately in Israel, and various other allegiances and emotions factor into the polling process.
Until around 10 to 15 years ago, the ultra-Orthodox – both the Hasidim and the Lithuanian Mitnagdim (those who have opposed the Hasidic movement since its inception in the 18th century) – kept out of the left-right future-of-the-territories debate. In fact, they kept away from Zionism and Israeli society almost entirely; their relations with the state were transactional and financial.
On matters of Israeli nationalism and the territorial or Palestinian issue, the Haredim – a general term for all ultra-Orthodox of all variants and origins – deferred to halakha, or Jewish law. In fact, the halakhic emphasis on the sanctity of life and spirituality and faith, as opposed to the sanctity of the biblical and ancestral land, place the Haredi political leaders roughly in the left-wing bloc, though the left’s secularism, liberalism, and pro-LGBTQ stance created an insurmountable gap.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder and leader of Shas party (a political home for Haredi Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent) and Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, the leader of the Ashkenazi-Lithuanian community, were considered bright white doves on the Palestinian issue. That changed profoundly.
The animosity toward secular elites dovetailed with growing anti-Arab tendencies, the center-left’s perceived support of a Palestinian state and their derision of religion in favor of individual rights and a liberal state. Many Haredi voters now consider themselves to be Haredi-nationalists, a clear departure from past disassociation from the state, and thousands may prefer to vote for far-right parties rather than for the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
The religious bloc as a whole is even more complex. Between the secular Zionists who conceived of and established the State of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox are the religious Zionists. Once a dependable ally of the Labor movement and the Labor Party, the religious Zionists underwent a tectonic transformation as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. In ancient Aramaic, this is called “Atchalta D’Geulah” (the beginning of redemption), or the commencement of the revival phase leading to the coming of the messiah.
This concept, rejected theologically by the Haredim, was developed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and later politicized by his son, the spiritual father of the settler movement (Gush Emunin), Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook.
While the Haredim maintain a halakhic objection to expediting redemption, they have come to terms with a convenient separation between high theology and the need for what the state offers. This compromise enabled the ultra-Orthodox to align themselves with Netanyahu, despite the overriding anti-liberal-state sentiment they harbor.
Ignoring polls and avoiding predictions and semi-informed guesstimates, this reality can essentially produce only one of two election outcomes. One of them is a secular-liberal-moderate right wing coalition, to be very loose with the laden terms “secular,” “liberal” and “moderate.” This coalition will consist of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, Labor and Meretz, with the outside support of the Joint List of majority Arab parties. Lapid and Sa’ar can rotate the prime ministership between them.
If Lieberman stands by his word (which he always does) and does not join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties under any circumstance – a pledge 61 percent of Israelis support, according to a recent poll – a coalition including the two ultra-Orthodox parties can conceivably be built without Yisrael Beiteinu.
Another scenario is a narrow coalition led by Netanyahu of the right-wing parties, the homophobic and racist far-right Religious Zionism alliance and the ultra-Orthodox. This is the coalition Netanyahu wants, hoping it will extricate him from his trial. This is his get-out-of-jail bloc. No other coalition scenario exists.
But, this being Israeli politics and having a permanent electoral impasse, there actually is a third electoral outcome: A new election, the fifth cycle in two years. Don’t bet against it.
In part III: Israel as an illiberal democracy-in-the-making, and the futility of the left.