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What to Watch in Israeli Democracy:
Special Post-Elections Edition

12 April 2019
Elections Box What to Watch in Israeli Democracy

A lot is at stake in Israel’s 2019 election. If you care about democracy, human rights, and social justice in Israel, here are some things to know.

NIF doesn’t support or oppose any candidate or political party for election; we look at the big picture and share the most important stories about issues that affect Israelis from all walks of life.

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A Final Note from Michal Sella: 5 Key Takeaways from the Election

photo of Michal SellaAnalysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change

Israel’s elections end when all the votes are counted. The Central Elections Committee is still examining irregularities in the results that may alter the map of Knesset seats slightly. But even before the final tally, there are several important takeaways from these elections with major implications for the challenges we Israelis will face in the coming years.

1) Center-Left and Right Blocs Stay Stable, Despite Internal Shifts

There is not an enormous numerical difference in the size of the left and right blocs since the last election. But there is a huge qualitative difference because of their specific party makeup. Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Benny Gantz (Blue and White) received roughly the same number of mandates — approximately 35 Knesset seats. (In the final count, Likud received 36 seats). In Israeli elections, the largest party is not necessarily the one to form the government, but rather the party most able to form a coalition government composed of a majority, or 61 seats. The right-wing bloc, which includes the ultra-Orthodox parties, now includes 65 seats. The center-left bloc, counting the Arab parties, includes 55. It appears that the right-wing bloc is the only bloc capable of creating a stable coalition. In light of these results, Gantz conceded defeat to his opponent Benjamin Netanyahu and took up his place in the opposition.

Trends in Haredi Politics
While the balance between the blocs have remained relatively stable since the last elections, if we look closer, we can see that the composition of each of the blocs has changed. One key change: the ultra-Orthodox are included in the right-wing bloc automatically. This has never before been so taken for granted. Because Yair Lapid, co-leader of the , Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) List, made expanding the military draft a centerpiece of his political agenda, the ultra-Orthodox parties ruled out sitting with Kachol Lavan altogether. They are attracted to Netanyahu in part because they fear that their base, an increasingly right-wing electorate would defect to the Likud if they decided not to go into a Netanyahu government. This is new: Haredi voters choosing ‘national’ political commitments over identitarian ones. Historically, the ultra-Orthodox were considered kingmakers who could sit in any coalition, who prioritized sectoral interests over national ideologies. They sat with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and with other Labor governments. The choice of the ultra-Orthodox to rule out sitting with Gantz’s Kachol Lavan, which achieved parity with Netanyahu’s Likud – was one factor which foreclosed the possibility of a center-left coalition. For the center-left, the question is whether, and on what basis it can create an opening for political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, so that they do not automatically sort into the right-wing bloc in future elections.

2) Jewish Arab Political Partnership is an Imperative for the Center-Left

These elections demonstrated unequivocally that Jewish-Arab political partnership is inevitable and essential precondition for a center-left return to power. The center-left bloc has historically been unwilling overtly cooperate with Arab political parties. In these elections Kachol Lavan which was accused by the right of being synonymous with a vote for the Arab parties (“Bibi or Tibi”) took the bait and categorically refused political participation. Instead of normalizing the idea that Jewish and Arab proponents of democracy share common values and interests, Gantz’s party only reaffirmed the taboo. For their part, Arab parties have their own challenges seeing themselves joining a center-left coalition, especially in navigating ideological differences with Zionist parties.

However, if the center-left made Jewish-Arab political cooperation the centerpiece of their strategy, the picture for a possible center left coalition would be different. Indeed, without the ultra-Orthodox parties, counting on Israel’s Arab voters is, mathematically speaking, the only path to a center-left coalition. It is fair to conclude that the only future for a progressive Israel is one depends on a political partnership with between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

3) A Blow to the Religious Right

The national religious right and the settler lobby suffered a significant blow in these election, with the failure of two major spokespeople and advocates to clear the minimal threshold to enter the next Knesset. The New Right party of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet, suffered a similar fate as Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (Identity) party in their failure to clear the electoral threshold (as of the latest counting). With Shaked and Bennet and Feiglin’s fading fortunes, the settler right has dropped from 12 Knesset seats in 2015 to about 5 mandates. This was surprising, since the extreme right was represented in these election by three parties, all of which were projected to pass the threshold. Only one did in the end, the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Bennett and Shaked, the former Ministers of Education and Justice, were two influential ministers in the previous government. In 2019, their gambit to breakaway and form their own party to compete with Netanyahu and the other right wing parties fizzled. This is a defeat for the extreme right, which, largely due to Benjamin Netanyahu’s appeals to right wing voters in the final days of the campaign which cannibalized the smaller right wing parties, was swallowed up within the Likud Party. With Shaked and Bennet’s exit from the political equation, the extreme right has lost 4-5 seats, depending on the final tally. While this effectively removed from the halls of power two of the most pointed advocates for annexation, the risk that the next Netanyahu government will make efforts to annex territories is still worryingly high. Netanyahu relied on the same religious right base that would otherwise have voted for Bennet and Shaked. And in the place of Shaked and Bennet, the Union of Right-Wing Parties is hoping its leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz,will receive the portfolios of justice minister and education minister in the next government.

4) The Zionist Left at Historic Low Point

The founding ideology of the State of Israel, the Zionist left, represented by the Labor Party of Avi Gabbai and the Meretz party, under the leadership of Tamar Zandberg, suffered a historic defeat. The Labor Party dropped to a historic low of 6 seats, and is now the fifth largest party in the Knesset. This reflects not a defection of Labor party voters to the right, but rather the cannibalization of the left in a consolidated center-left bloc lead by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Sensing an opportunity to replace Netanyahu, left wing voters cast their votes in favor of a centrist candidate with the best chances of challenging the prime minister. The result, is that the political power of Israel’s left wing in the next Knesset is at historic lows. As in the past, this will likely lead to a renewal of the party leadership in both the Labor and Meretz parties.

It seems that the Meretz party was the only party that realized early on the imperative of Jewish-Arab political partnership. With two high-profile Arab members in the top-5 of their list, Meretz managed to galvanize the Arab vote and add at least one mandate as a result. In an election where Arab voter turnout saw a significant drop, this result is an important signifier of what might be possible if the center-left adopted a partnership approach going forward.

5) Netanyahu Will Do Anything to Stay in Power – And Protect Himself

It’s important to recall that in part, these elections were called in an effort by Netanyahu to place himself in a position of maximal strength to face his unprecedented legal challenges. The campaign has showed us that Netanyahu will do anything to stay out of jail. One can expect that the first agenda item in the next Netanyahu government will be aimed at precisely this: insulating Netanyahu from his legal liabilities. In order to do so, he is expected to attempt to pass two controversial laws. One designed to make the indictment of a sitting prime minister on criminal charges impossible or extremely difficult. The second is a measure to prevent the High Court from revoking such a law. Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition will depend in part on the readiness of his putative coalition partners to assist him in this struggle. Therefore, despite Netanyahu’s emergence at the head of a consolidated Likud party, which wields far greater electoral strength than any potential coalition partner, he is still reliant on small parties which, due to his legal vulnerability, retain bargaining power.

Now, as is the case after every election, we enter the waiting period. There is no way to know what the next Netanyahu government will look like. But as coalition negotiations proceed, the contours of the next government will become clearer.

What can we expect?
There is reasonable chance to think that the next government will not be drastically different from the previous one. However, that is also cause for concern: there is a joint interest by Netanyahu and the settler right, to continue to weaken the rule of law in Israel and to attempt to shackle the power of the Supreme Court. We can expect a government that will continue to advance anti-democratic legislation whose sole purpose is to weaken the legal system and the system of checks and balances between the branches of government. And we have every reason to fear that Netanyahu, in exchange for satisfying his needs to insulate himself from legal trouble, may agree to make good on his campaign promise and extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank – likely without granting full political and civil rights to the Palestinian inhabitants of that territory.

In the face of this wave of anti-democratic legislation, we can also expect considerable resistance in the Knesset from a consolidated opposition. The opposition is not a weak minority — but 47 percent of the Israeli population, an Israeli public strengthened by civil society that is committed to Israel’s democratic system. The opposition is also made up of quite a few freshmen MKs, including the head of the opposition himself, Benny Gantz. They need to learn the hard work of legislating, and they need guidance and direction about where to fall on the various issues. I plan to be there every step of the way to offer NIF’s broad perspective on policy as part of their education – whether they’ve invited me or not.

If these elections brought anything to the fore, it sharpened the central challenge facing the Israeli public: the struggle for democracy itself. I will be here to keep you informed as we head into the next Knesset.