This Q&A is adapted from one of four public conversations about the future of Israel being held every Wednesday at noon ET in a collaboration between JTA and the Israel Democracy Institute in the lead-up to Israel’s March 23 elections. The program is being funded by the Marcus Foundation. To register for the March 17 session, please sign up here.
Israel is about to hold its fourth elections in just two years, a sign of political instability. Yet in each of the six national elections over the last 12 years, the result at the top has been the same: Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Meanwhile, the Israeli left has gradually disappeared.
What does this mean for Israel’s political future? And is there a way out of Israel’s political stalemate?
The Q&A below, which has been condensed and lightly edited, was adapted from a recent public Zoom conversation featuring Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, and Ron Kampeas, JTA’s Washington bureau chief.
JTA: Why is Israel holding a fourth election in just two years, and can it avoid a fifth election?
Plesner: We are heading to a fourth election because Mr. Netanyahu was not able to achieve the majority he needed both to become prime minister and put in place the judicial changes that would enable him to subvert, undermine and suspend the legal process he is facing. On the other hand, no one else had the majority to form an alternative stable government. As long as there is no decisive outcome, we might end up going to cycle number five and six, as absurd and sad as it sounds.
So he’s got the wherewithal to get elected but not the wherewithal to protect himself from legal prosecution?
We’re two years into Israel’s worst political crisis in its history: virtually no legislation. No budget. No reforms. Very few key appointments of top civil servants. Decision-making has been suspended for two years, and for the last year we’ve had the worst economic crisis in a decade resulting from the COVID crisis.
Why aren’t the Israeli people taking our fate into our hands? Our prime minister is under indictment, but he’s using his personal clout and political savvy to address his legal needs. And there are inherent weaknesses in our electoral system, our constitutional system – the fact that we don’t have a constitution – and some loopholes in our legislation, for example the fact that even if you’re indicted you can continue to serve as prime minister. The outcome is virtual paralysis for the last two years.
Does the Israeli judicial system offer any exit from this deadlock — for example, forcing Netanyahu out if he’s convicted?
Not for the foreseeable future. Because even if there is a conviction in district court, there are Supreme Court appeals, and the legal processes take years.
How is this affecting voting patterns and the general discourse?
For Mr. Netanyahu, his key interest is no longer serving as the prime minister of everybody. His primary political goal is to hold onto his base, so he speaks to his base and his key political allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties. This brings about far more divisive rhetoric and political dynamics. He has a very solid base of about a quarter of Israelis that believe in his leadership capabilities and are persuaded that the indictment is politically motivated and can be overlooked.
On the eve of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu made a divisive comment about “Arabs coming to the polls in droves” that stirred outrage overseas. Now he’s making those kinds of comments all the time, warning of an invasion of Black converts from Africa, disparaging Reform Jews. It seems like he just doesn’t care.
Netanyahu’s perspective toward the Arab minority has changed, in a very interesting development. The strategic imperative of Netanyahu’s premiership, even since his first premiership in the 1990s, was to nurture, preserve and strengthen the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and delegitimize the participation of representatives of the Arab minority. It was a decades-long project that secured his grip on power. This project peaked in the 2015 statement about Arabs being bused in droves to the polls. Even in September 2019, the main theme of the election was ‘The Arabs are going to steal the election.’ This project was successful: When the Blue and White party had a majority to form a government with the Arab Joint List, the alliance was perceived as insufficiently legitimate in the eyes of the broad Israeli public and this is why it wasn’t formed.
Now Netanyahu is changing his strategy and trying to lure votes of Arab citizens because he sees the numbers and the potential. We’re no longer in a campaign of Likud voters confronting Arab voters. This actually has an effect on public opinion. A record number of Jewish Israelis support and think it’s legitimate to have the Arab Joint List as part of a coalition. This is quite a dramatic change.
With respect to the Reform movement, this is a group that is persecuted in a repulsive manner by ultra-Orthodox representatives in a way that is completely un-Zionist and un-Jewish and uninclusive. Netanyahu is so dependent on the ultra-Orthodox that he basically granted them a monopoly on domestic issues, especially issues of religion and state.
Could the Arabs parties join a Likud-led government without discrediting themselves?
About 85% of Israeli Arabs – who comprise 20% of Israel’s population – want their elected Knesset representatives to be part of a coalition government. This is a break from the past, when being part of a Zionist coalition was perceived as illegitimate. Now it’s different. Israeli Arabs increasingly want to be part of the state, and they understand this is their fate, future and fortune. Their representatives are responding accordingly.
On the one hand, if the center-left wants to be in power, they need some kind of an alliance with the Arab minority. On the other hand, it’s illegitimate in the eyes of many Jewish Israelis. Yair Lapid [leader of the Yesh Atid party] understood this complexity. He played a dual game. He said he wouldn’t ally with the Arab Joint List before the March 2020 elections and then he went all out to build this alliance in the post-election. Now Lapid changed his stance. He constantly says, “I think it’s legitimate, and I have all intention if need be to form a coalition with them.”
An exciting dramatic twist is the Islamist element of the Joint List, Raam. Not only would they agree to join a coalition with the center-left, but they’ve said they’re game for any coalition, including a Netanyahu-led coalition. He has his interests and Raam has its interests. It’s transactional politics.
Would Netanyahu ally with Raam? He will do whatever is necessary to stay in power. That’s the difference between a politician who brings victory and a politician who offers excuses.
What are the possible scenarios to come out of the March 23 elections?
One, Netanyahu achieves an absolute majority in the Knesset – at least 61 out of 120 seats – with his natural allies: the ultra-Orthodox parties, Likud, Naftali Bennett [leader of the Yamina party], Bezalel Smotrich [leader of the Religious Zionist party].
Two, Netanyahu does not achieve 61 and there’s some kind of broad right-left-and-center coalition of the Zionist parties that do not support Netanyahu: former Likud member Gidon Saar [New Hope party], Avigdor Liberman [Israel Beiteinu party], Bennett, Lapid, Meretz, Labor and Blue and White. All of those parties together form some kind of broad coalition. It could be a very short-lived coalition if differences within it break it up.
Three, continued deadlock: Neither side achieves 61. Netanyahu continues to lead an interim government and in September 2021 we’ll be talking about a fifth election.
Over the last 20 years there’s been a dramatic diminishing of the Israeli left. Is that going to continue?
The long-term trend is a decline in the share of Israelis that self-identify as left-wing, now about 15% of Israelis. There’s been a dramatic increase in the last 20 years of those who define themselves as center, now 25-30%. And about 55% define themselves as right wing, roughly divided into one-third center-right, one-third right wing and one-third far right. Plus there’s the Arab minority.
Within the right-wing camp, about half are religious. The ultra-Orthodox, who comprise about 11% of Israel’s population, is almost 100% right wing and mostly far-right. There’s quite a significant correlation between level of religiosity and political behavior and identification.
The political changes over the last 20 years largely have to do with demography (natural growth of the Israeli right) and the second intifada. The second intifada, and to some extent the perception of the outcome of Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, led to the demise of the left and rise of the center.
Meanwhile, the whole definition of what it means to be right, left and center is undergoing a radical transformation due to the unique Netanyahu situation. For example, how do you count Saar’s voters? They are right wing, but right wingers who will never go with Netanyahu. And on questions of religion and state, the views of those voters overlap with the liberal views of those in the center left. The same goes for Liberman: a staunch right-winger who represents the secular right and has much criticism for Netanyahu’s capitulation to ultra-Orthodox demands.
Netanyahu closely identified with the Trump administration. How might this affect his relations with the Biden administration?
Netanyahu has built a reputation within the Israeli public as a diplomatic heavyweight. Although he doesn’t have the same level of coziness with President Biden, it doesn’t mean Israelis consider him a lightweight in foreign policy.
Beyond the election, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is way more than a relationship between two leaders. If Mr. Biden decides to move forward on the Palestinian issue in a way that Israelis would object to – something I don’t really think would happen – Netanyahu would have the benefit of being seen as standing up to the U.S. administration and preserving the national interest.
The main issue that will define the relationship between the two administrations is Iran. There we expect real decisions to be made, and real interests are going to be affected. It’s not only politics, it’s real life. It’s too early to say because we still don’t know what will be the American policy, how the Iranians will respond and what will be the view in Israel – not only of the prime minister but also of the professional defense establishment.
What are the repercussions of Israel not having had a budget since 2019?
We do not have a budget for political reasons. Back in May 2020, when the prime minister formed the national unity government with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, he realized that if he passes a budget he will have no way out of the agreement and will have to transfer the premiership to Mr. Gantz a year and a half later. Netanyahu had no intention of doing that and therefore did not pass a budget.
This has huge implications. The budget is basically the government’s work plan. When there’s no budget and no legislation, it means total paralysis: no reforms, no resource allocation, no supplementary allocations for infrastructure investment, for example.
We failed to use this crisis to put in place fundamental reforms in government, economy and society, to invest in human capital or physical capital, to account for how the post-COVID era will look and ensure that Israel adapts to it. Especially for the weaker echelons of society, the government wasn’t there for them.
There are also some positives. The fundamentals of Israel’s economy are strong. Israel’s high-tech sector is a great exporter and strong producer, and it brought in record levels of foreign investment and provided record levels of services during the pandemic. This meant that the overall impact on the Israeli economy was relatively mild. The overall decline in GDP in 2020 was about 2.4%. The shekel got stronger. Our credit rating is high.
Is there concern about the possible effects Netanyahu’s reelection would have on democratic institutions in Israel, particularly the attacks he and some of his Cabinet members have made on judicial institutions?
We know what Netanyahu and his allies would like to achieve with respect to the independence of the Israeli judiciary: There’s a package of legislation waiting to be introduced into the Knesset. If he has the majority with his ultra-Orthodox allies, the outcome would be not far from an overhaul of our democratic regime as we know it. It would basically strip the authority of the Supreme Court, of judicial review over Knesset legislation, of judicial review over government administrative decisions. It would politicize the system of appointment of judges.
Unlike the American system, where a constitution limits the powers of the executive branch, in Israel we do not have a constitution. So a simple coalition majority of 61 can completely overhaul our Basic Laws. Now there’s an attempt to politicize the appointment of judges, of the attorney general – to turn him into a consigliere of the prime minister.
It’s a major change in the system of checks and balances in Israel and an attempt to concentrate all power and decision-making with the political majority. If that happens, there will be far-reaching implications on matters of religion and state. There will be no courts to protect the rights of individuals or individual groups like the Reform movement or women.
As someone who heads an institution that sees itself as a guardian of Israel’s constitutional traditions and institutions and values, we very much view with concern those motivations and hope that even if such a coalition emerges, it will not carry out the initiatives on the table.
Is there any hope for the once-dominant Labor Party, which until very recently was in danger of extinction?
The Labor Party was near zero in the polls and split up, and then [party leader] Merav Michaeli brought them back to life. It’s no longer the central party in Israel’s political system but a party that can win some six seats out of 120, according to polls.
But Michaeli has positioned the party with a very left-leaning list that competes with Meretz for the same shrinking pool of voters. That means Meretz is now fighting for its life. That could shove the Meretz party into the grave along with the hopes of the center-left to end Netanyahu’s rule. Because if one of these parties fails to achieve the threshold necessary to enter the Knesset, the votes for that party effectively will be wasted, further weakening opposition to Netanyahu.
Does continued Netanyahu rule threaten the relationship between Israel and American Jews?
Assuming Netanyahu builds a coalition with his natural allies, something that in the past he always was very wary of doing. In 2009, rather than bringing in the far right he brought in Labor. In 2013, he built a coalition with Lapid. In 2015, he had Moshe Kahlon [leader of the now-defunct Kulanu party] as a moderating force within his government. Now Netanyahu’s options are limited. His only option, if he has enough votes, will be a coalition with the far right and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
This has implications for Israel-Diaspora relations because the ultra-Orthodox parties will call the shots on domestic affairs and on religion and state, and their vulgar, aggressive, repulsive approach toward the non-Orthodox streams might unfortunately become formal Israeli policy. And Netanyahu’s power to restrain the ultra-Orthodox is virtually nonexistent. If such a coalition emerges, it won’t be good news for Israel-Diaspora relations.
But then again the Jewish people are strong. Of the more than 15 million Jews worldwide, a majority believe in liberal democratic values.
Even if the Netanyahu-Orthodox coalition happens, I don’t advise anyone to see it as the end of Israel-Diaspora relations but as a chapter that we will have to overcome in order to ensure our future.