Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Israel’s Knesset Elections: Dark Days Ahead (November 2, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Victory for Netanyahu and his bloc of partner parties?

A. As of Wednesday evening, November 2 in Israel, with nearly 90 percent of the votes counted, that appears to be the case. Netanyahu’s bloc has 65 mandates, of which the Kahanist-messianic Religious Zionism party has 14 and the Haredim/ultra-Orthodox (Shas and Torah Judaism) have 19.

While the Likud held more or less steady in these elections with 32 mandates, the achievement of these two religious partners in his bloc is extraordinary. It represents an alarming victory for the forces of extremist Judaism in all its forms. Note that Netanyahu’s prospective coalition of 65 will comprise only nine women.

On the center-left side of the electoral scales, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid climbed from 17 to 24 mandates, thereby cementing Lapid’s role as opposition leader. His outgoing coalition ally and centrist rival Benny Gantz of the National Camp scored half that number. Gantz and Lapid are already blaming one another for their shared setback. Two Arab parties, Raam and Hadash-Taal, scored five mandates each, whereas the extremist Balad failed to pass the four-mandate threshold.

On the Zionist left, Labor and Meretz were at the time of writing hoping to squeak through the four-mandate threshold with the help of soldiers’ ballots--still to be counted. Even if they succeed, this election was a disastrous setback that is likely to topple their leadership. It will be hard for the Israeli left to recover politically.

Q. Can we assume that Netanyahu will now assemble Israel’s most extreme right-wing government?

A. Yes, because Netanyahu finally is able, with his extremist political allies, to manipulate the legal system in order to escape his corruption trial. That is his highest priority and his first order of business. How far he will then bend to accommodate the coalition’s extremists is an open question. Netanyahu is usually a smart and cautious politician, but he is maneuvering the Likud into partnership with a very dark and reactionary set of partners.

Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism have Jewish-extremist and anti-democratic agendas (they also do not get along, and may split back into two parties that negotiate their ministerial portfolios separately with Netanyahu). They are anti-LGBT and want to constrain the rule of law and subordinate the High Court of Justice to an extreme right-wing Knesset majority. They have extremist allies in the Likud and among the Haredim. They want senior security portfolios even though both have a problematic history with the Shin Bet General Security Service and the Israel Police.

Religious Zionism’s 14 mandates reflect the vote of not a few centrists and moderate right-wingers, particularly in mixed Arab-Jewish towns like Ramla and regions like the Negev with its large Bedouin population, where Jewish residents are fed up with Arab lawlessness and Israel Police impotence and think Ben Gvir can restore law and order. Ben Gvir and Smotrich have to ‘deliver’ to hold onto these voters, and that means laying out an extreme agenda that includes strong measures against ‘disloyal’ Israelis.

Shades of Erdogan’s Turkey, and of Hungary at the extreme right-wing of the European Union!

Q. Any initial thoughts on the effect of a Netanyahu-led far-right government on burning issues like the Lebanon gas deal and relations with Russia and the United States?

A. Despite his criticism of the gas deal, Netanyahu is almost certain to hold up Israel’s end. He knows it is good for Israel’s security and energy economy, and that discarding it would rile Israel’s friends in the Arab world. He is also likely to maintain Israel’s low-profile ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran in Syria; after all, Netanyahu initiated that strategy, Bennett and Lapid continued it, and it is a success.

As for the Ukraine-Russia war, Netanyahu is likely to fall back on the good relations he cultivated with Vladimir Putin after Russia’s arrival in Syria in 2015. Expect Lapid’s recent tilt toward Ukraine to be reversed.

Finally, US-Israel relations will now become tense. Netanyahu will reach out to his Republican-Evangelical ‘base’ in America. President Biden won’t like it, but is hardly likely to pick a fight unless provoked--particularly if he has to deal with a Republican-majority Congress a week from now.

Q. Are there any accusations of cheating and stealing elections of the sort Americans are familiar with in recent years?

A. At a critical moment late Tuesday night, when it looked like all three Arab parties would pass the four-mandate threshold and thereby diminish the right’s achievement, Netanyahu did not hesitate to play his Trump card and allege, totally without foundation, that there were election irregularities at Arab polling places. Within hours, he realized that he simply did not have to pursue this track.

Note, here, that the Israeli system is relatively low-tech, hard to abuse, and renders it difficult even to provide fodder for accusations of abuse. There is no early voting except for diplomats abroad and there are no voting machines, no drop-boxes and no mail-in ballots.

Q. How does Israel’s election outcome compare to the rest of the democratic world?

A. The election outcome represents a global trend among democracies: a liberal leadership crisis, and the strengthening of the neo-fascistic right. The trend is not linear: Lula can win in Brazil just as Biden won in the United States. But the general direction is clear: Netanyahu is back, the Republicans are rebounding, Trump is planning his return, and similar developments have lately been recorded in Sweden and Italy.

Comparing further to the United States, note the role of demography. In the US, demographic and political trends are contradictory: whites are becoming a minority, even as they strive to preserve their hegemony through MAGA, a weighted Supreme Court and gerrymandering.

In Israel, demographics and politics appear to be in sync. Israel’s Haredi and settler-religious populations are growing and so are their political parties. The only exception to this trend is the Arab population of Israel, which displayed in this election a total inability to wield its demographic weight.

Q. Bottom line?

A. These elections represent another stage in Israel’s descent down a slippery slope toward violent, conflicted bi-nationality. The right-messianic mainstream has been strengthened: the country, under its most right-religious government in history, will be more inclined to oppress West Bank Palestinians and less inclined than ever to separate from them and from portions of the West Bank.

One obvious contributing factor to the strong right-religious vote was the May 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls. For the first time since 1948, violence broke out between Arabs and Jews inside Israel, in mixed cities and Arab areas of the Galilee and Negev. That this is the inevitable consequence of repeated Israeli governments, left and right, tolerating or encouraging West Bank settlement spread and positioning Israel on a slippery slope toward bi-nationalism, appears to be lost on most Israeli politicians--and not just those on the political right. When some of these same politicians, lately in Yair Lapid’s government, failed to reassure Israeli Jews on this account, more voters turned to Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

At the Israeli local level, the election outcome represents a failure of the Arab sector to muster its civil-society forces, complemented by a failure of the Zionist left--Meretz and Labor. Yesh Atid’s Lapid, leader of the center-left anti-Bibi bloc, failed crucially to galvanize the bloc by persuading the Arab parties to run together and persuading Meretz and Labor to unite. Lapid could not even persuade these rival parties to agree to share surplus votes. In the end, Yesh Atid drew votes away from Meretz and Labor, to the detriment of all. Yet Lapid will not pay a political price because his own party grew at the expense of the others.

Compare to Netanyahu, who succeeded in uniting all his potential allies on the right. The sole casualty on the political right is Ayelet Shaked, who failed spectacularly to pass the four-mandate threshold and has now been relegated to the right’s political wilderness.

In conclusion, November 1, 2022 is nearly certain to be remembered as a dark day for democracy and the rule of law in Israel. Can the situation be righted by democratic means? Can liberal Israelis and the Arab population of Israel rally to reverse this dynamic? Will we first have to live through the damage to the rule of law, to the separation of powers, to Jewish-Arab coexistence, and to regional and international relations that will be inflicted by Netanyahu and his right-messianic allies?