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worse and worse

Netanyahu Is Back, but the Real Winner in Israel Makes Bibi Look Timid

The showing by Itamar Ben-Gvir’s racist, nationalist party portends a hard-right turn. And meanwhile, on the left …

Emmanuel Dunnand/Getty Images

There’s no other way to put it: This week’s Israeli election, the fifth in less than four years, was a wipeout for the “coalition of change”—the left, center, and right that joined forces last year to defeat former Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid has acknowledged as much and has already begun the transition process.

The big winner, by contrast, was the Religious Zionism Party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, which won far more votes than the polls had suggested and now becomes the third-largest party in the Knesset. It is really an amalgam of three parties, one more racist and backward-looking than the other. They are anti-modernity and all expressions of liberalism.

Famously known for his youthful embrace of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein (who murdered 25 worshippers in a mosque in Hebron in 1994), Ben-Gvir is the hideous face of a festering 55-year-old occupation. A leader of a network of feral, hard-right activists, he once bragged of pulling a frontpiece off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, adding to the incitement that led to Rabin’s murder. Just a week before the election, he showed up at a demonstration in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to harass Palestinian residents by pulling his pistol from his belt holster. Significant violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is inevitable as settlers take back control of the levers of government and Jewish expansion into the West Bank thickens exponentially at a time when the Palestinian Authority is severely weakened.

While liberal Israeli Jews ignored the occupation, which was barely a blip in this and the previous four elections, extremist settlers like Ben-Gvir were planning their takeover not only of Hebron, home to Ben-Gvir, but of secular, free-flowing Tel Aviv. The occupation has smashed straight into the Tel Aviv beachfront. The idyllic lifestyle and Tel Aviv tech bubble was defeated at the polls by a hard-right coalition not only of Ben-Gvir but of ultra-Orthodox parties whose numbers rose too. So now, for instance, an active debate about public transportation on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, will not only disappear (there won’t be public transportation), but these extreme parties will likely also challenge other freedoms that Tel Avivians have come to take for granted like LGBTQ rights. Even women’s reproductive rights may be on the table. Abortion has been long legal in Israel, but the right wing there has already expressed an interest in going where the United States has regressed as a nation on reproductive rights. And, finally, the occupation that was pretty much ignored by these same liberal souls in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel will become front-page news again—mostly because of incitement that will no doubt emanate from this newly empowered Jewish right wing, whose leaders are themselves some of the most extreme of the settlers.

Gary Brenner, a veteran Israeli peace activist, put it this way: “Israel pretended for 50+ years that she can ‘manage’ an occupation and be a democracy at the same time. The result is Ben-Gvir and an endangered democracy. Two former commanders-in-chief (Benjamin Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, whose party came in fourth) have less value to the voters of Israel than Ben-Gvir. The myth of Tzahal [Israel’s army] is over. The bubble is broken.”

Israeli Jewish voters elected a slate of right-wingers—and convicts at that, or at least people in deep legal jeopardy. Netanyahu is on trial for three different serious counts; Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Party supported by Jews from North Africa and Arab countries, resigned from the previous Knesset with a plea deal for tax evasion; and Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, Kahane Chai.

As prime minister, Netanyahu will have to decide how much of Israel’s remaining global credibility he wants to squander. That will determine how truly right-wing and incendiary his government will be. But he needs his newly created Frankenstein, Ben-Gvir, to manipulate the legal system to stop his ongoing criminal trial. Keeping himself prison-free was the sole reason for Bibi’s reelection bid. Ben-Gvir is demanding control of the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the police. That’s like putting a Proud Boy in charge of patrolling America’s Black neighborhoods. Gvir would head up the entire national police force, putting Israel’s Arab citizens and many others at risk. It will be immensely difficult for Netanyahu to control Ben-Gvir, with the latter feeling that he is responsible for Bibi’s return to office.

The only real surprise in this election was the tremendous turnout, in spite of nearly annual elections. Nearly three-quarters of eligible Israeli Jews voted, with 54 percent turnout from the Arab sector. This was significantly higher than expected, due to eleventh-hour get out the vote efforts. The left-wing Arab leader of Hadash, Israel’s Euro-Communist party, literally went into the streets of his home city of Haifa with a megaphone calling people to the polls. Yet the split from a combined list of four Arab parties to three different lists adversely diluted the Arab vote. The decision by the Labor Party not to merge in the race with Meretz resulted in a weakening of both parties such that Meretz, the party of the struggling Israeli peace camp, didn’t even clear the voting threshold for Knesset seats (this could change when the final tally is announced on Friday).

So now what? Once the election is called on Friday, the president of Israel and former leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, will call on the largest party to first try to assemble a government. This means that he will ask Bibi to assemble a 61-seat Knesset majority. It is possible, though unlikely, that Herzog will suggest that Bibi try to assemble a “unity” government that would consist of his Likud party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid party along with some of the smaller ones, excluding Ben-Gvir and his guys, for the good of the nation. But this would mean that Bibi’s own goal, of self-salvation, wouldn’t be realized. So it’s difficult to imagine him saying yes.

Assuming then that Bibi will form his right-wing government, his next step will be to dole out ministerial positions, which will go to everyone he feels he needs to get something from in return. Bibi, as was noted in the Israeli press during the election campaign, has no governing agenda except to wreck the court system and change the law to simulate French law, where a sitting prime minister can’t be convicted while in office. His allies in the Likud have also expressed interest in firing the attorney general, who, in Israel, is an independent actor outside of politics. This would be as chilling an occurrence as has ever threatened Israeli democracy—but it would be part of their broader agenda to politicize the courts and the legal system.

Bibi’s allies, and soon his ministers, have multiple agendas, from instituting more settlement growth, allocating more funds to the Haredi ultra-Orthodox sector, stopping any laws that privilege the nonfundamentalist Jewish population, letting go of core curriculum for Yeshivas, and more. It’s likely that there will be a call to formally announce an end to the dormant two-state peace process between Israel and Palestine, though that could come up against some opposition from the newly allied Gulf States that have formed the Abraham Accords. (The accords themselves, as well as Israel’s treaties with Jordan and Egypt, could be jeopardized if there is significant turmoil within Palestinian territories.)

As for the left … “The feeling is that we got kicked in the guts. Today, we took the day off, like sitting shiva. But tomorrow we will be back to work,” an exhausted Noam Vidan told me. Vidan is the CEO of IDEA, a relatively new think tank promoting liberal democracy in Israel. But its job will not be easy. Israel’s center and left are split among small parties and within ideologies. Furthermore, there is no consensus between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel on how to work together, especially among the Jewish centrists, but even in many left-wing circles. Add to that the traditionally liberal, free-market, religious but not fanatical right (I almost wrote Romney Republicans here, because that’s the comparison) that is searching for a landing spot, and the puzzle gets more complex. “For many years, the left and the center worked totally separately, and now we need to create an option for how to work together as a camp. Populism won. We need to bring together the left, center, and liberal right. This is our time to build an option for our camp. Jewish Israelis and Palestinians,” Vidan stressed.

One thing that this election has once again proven is that the Jewish left (and center) in Israel simply can’t win without Arab citizens of Israel joining in, not just for voting; not as an afterthought, but in leadership positions with a platform that promotes shared society and equality. This is not only pragmatic politics but must be the value of a democratic movement. These modifications are also the only hope that the center-left in Israel has to rebuild a sustainable leadership.

It’s no accident that Netanyahu used the canard of the Arab vote to compel his voting base to the polls. As always, Bibi ran on incitement against the 21 percent of citizens who are Arab. His attacks on the very notion that an Arab party could serve in government, in response to the first-time inclusion of the Ra’am Islamic party in the Lapid government, no doubt fueled larger nationalist Jewish turnout. (No matter that he had also negotiated with Ra’am to join a coalition.)

There is a burgeoning combined young left of Jewish and Arab activists. In fact, a leading group, called Standing Together, was sued by Bibi’s Likud party for its get-out-the-vote efforts in an attempt to suppress Arab turnout. But the court ruled in favor of Standing Together, which sent canvassers to Arab communities. This is the court system over which Bibi and his new ministers hope to take control by changing judicial selection and much more.

Finally, Israelis have a choice. They can head toward increased inequality and racial polarization with constant conflict inside and outside their borders. Or they can enhance their democracy by moving from a “Jewish state” to a homeland for the Jewish people with equality for all its citizens, a new formulation of Israel that not only ensures security for the Jewish people but creates a more equal society for all Israelis that promotes openness and liberal values. This will not be easy. But without a clear and growing alliance between progressive Israeli Jews and Israel’s Arab citizens, the Israeli center-left can’t sustain a stable coalition—or act as an impactful opposition. There can be no hedging. For Israeli democracy to survive, there must be a reckoning and a repositioning.