Lost Tribes

The Israeli election on Jan 22 is not about Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. It is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election that will take identity politics to a new level and may accelerate Israel's journey towards hegemonic nationalism.  

Israelis will go to the polls on Jan. 22 to elect a new parliament and, by extension, government – an event that has so far attracted relatively little international attention. Understandably so: Benjamin Netanyahu just came closer than any Israeli prime minister in more than two decades to serving out a full parliamentary term, and nobody expects him to lose. His putative challengers from the center have been unable to find, coalesce around, or attract enough support for a credible alternative candidate.

If this election does have a headline, it is the coming of age of Israel's new right, encapsulated by the candidacy of Naftali Bennett, 40, the new leader of Habayit Hayehudi, the “Jewish Home” Party, which is storming to third place in the polls, having shared the honor of being the smallest party in the outgoing Knesset. Bennett, a former advisor to Netanyahu, is an interesting character: A dot-com millionaire of American parentage, he served in the military's elite Sayeret Matkal unit, wears a kippa, and is deeply rooted in the national religious movement. Bennett's soft-spoken style often obscures his hard-line views: He is radically pro-settler and even annexationist in his position on the territories. Israel's most popular political satire show, Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”), has caricatured him as a new software app: the iBennett, a modern version of the old settler model — “no beard, no crazy-mystical gaze, smaller kippa” — but with occasional glitches (the spoof iBennett character recognises there are other nations in God's promised land, sounding reasonable, but then reverts to type by claiming “God will strike them with a plague of frogs”).

Alongside Bennett's rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election – taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies.

Indeed, with all the personal rivalries, splits, mergers, and divisions within the four major tribes, it's remarkable how little this campaign has been about the serious issues facing Israel. There is precious little substantive policy debate, even by Israeli and general Western standards. Iran, for instance, has barely featured at all in this campaign season. The race has also not really been about the Palestinians. Bennett may have produced a plan for annexing 60 percent of the occupied West Bank and formalising an apartheid system, but in election rallies, ads, and interviews, his party emphasises social issues, military service, and his version of Jewish values, de-emphasising not only his annexation plan but also the settler radicalism of his list.

This theme of “don't mention the Palestinians” is also a driving motif for the centrist leaders of the Labor Party and Yesh Atid (a new party led by TV personality Yair Lapid), with their focus on domestic issues. Only Tzipi Livni, who broke from Kadima to found her own Hatnuah Party, and the left-wing Meretz Party emphasize the two-state option and the conflict, but Livni's prescriptions convey a decidedly stale feel. They are irresponsive to the changing regional realities and growing strength of Hamas, and elicit something of a “been there; tried that” reaction from the public. All of which allows Netanyahu's message of staying the course to go largely unchallenged.

The left's efforts to recreate 2011's mobilisation around social and economic issues have largely fallen flat, despite the efforts of Shelly Yachimovich, the new Labor Party leader. Yachimovich seemed to believe she could ignore national security issues and set an agenda of “it's the economy, stupid.” It was a naïve strategy, one that has marginalised Labor by placing it outside the national security conversation, and has led to Labor's declining popularity during the campaign. By failing to establish herself as a credible rival to Netanyahu across the gamut of national issues, Yachimovich has also made her economic platform less relevant. Even the secular-religious fights of yesteryear and the question of universal military conscription lack a cutting edge and passion this time around.

What remains is a tribal contest between Israel's four major political – electoral camps: Netanyahu's Zionist right (including the far right and national religious right), Livni's Zionist center (only Meretz still defines itself as Zionist left), the ultra-Orthodox bloc, and the bloc overwhelmingly representing Palestinian Arab citizens. But it's not much of a contest, as the latest polls show each tribe winning roughly the same number of seats it holds in the outgoing Knesset: respectively, around 50, low to mid 40s, high teens, and just over 10. In other words, an alliance of the right and ultra-Orthodox continues to hold a majority of the 120-seat body.

The real fluidity, and it is considerable, is in the movement of votes and seats within the major tribes, and especially the largest two — the right and center. A note of caution is in order: Polls are only polls, and elections can surprise – there are suggestions that up to one in five voters may be undecided, and that the polls may be overemphasising calls to fixed landline telephones. But few observers expect the final results to change much.

The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Palestinian Arab blocs show the least fluctuation. The Haredi parties – both Shas, made up of Sephardim, or Jews of Middle Eastern origin, and United Torah Judaism, made up of Ashkenazim, or Jews hailing from Central and Eastern Europe – have had to contend with uncharacteristic internal dissent and breakaway factions. Yet the polls show they are likely to retain their strength (around 10 to 12 and five to six seats respectively). Likewise, the largely Palestinian Arab parties – the more Islamist United Arab List, nationalist Balad, and communist and coexistence-oriented Hadash – are set to retain their almost equally divided share of 10 to 11 seats, although lower voter turnout among Palestinian Arabs could push this number down. The politics of this bloc continues to be shaped by their exclusion, including by the centrist Zionist parties, as potential legitimate coalition allies (or even opposition allies) and the right's efforts to ban their participation in elections. These efforts were recently squashed again by the Supreme Court. But if a more extreme Knesset continues to push a ban and succeeds in its judicial reforms, then Palestinian Arabs' non-participation cannot be ruled out. That would be a huge game-changer for Israeli democracy.

Much has been made of the center bloc's disarray. In the last elections, the Zionist center bloc was represented by two parties – Kadima and Labor – that secured a combined total of 41 seats (28 and 13 respectively). A side story in this election will be Kadima's (near?) disappearance, mainly due to defections as well as a poor performance in opposition and a brief period serving in Netanyahu's coalition last summer. Yet, in polling, the center bloc maintains almost the exact same number of seats, with Labor now in the mid to high teens, Livni's Hatnuah and Lapid's Yesh Atid both scoring around 10 seats, and Kadima perhaps scraping back in with two. The remaining margin is likely to go to Meretz, up one or two seats in polls from its existing three. As noted, the early promise of a dramatic Labor resurgence under Yachimovich and her socioeconomic platform has largely fizzled out. Nevertheless, the center bloc in parliament will now be less rightist. Kadima's dwindling faction included a number of settlers and their sympathisers, as well as initiators and supporters of harsh anti-democratic legislation. A strengthened Labor will include a more prominent core of progressives. Livni's new party list will also be characterized by a more consistently liberal-democratic orientation than the hodgepodge that was Kadima, while Yesh Atid is least predictable, defined by little more than its leader's attractive TV persona.

The most significant and potentially consequential shifts are taking place within the right-wing bloc. Netanyahu kicked off this election season by creating a unified list between his Likud Party and the Yisrael Beiteinu Party of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — the Likud-Beiteinu list. That combination had 42 seats (27 + 15) in the outgoing Knesset, but is predicted to drop to the low- to mid-thirties. Overall, the non-Haredi rightist bloc seems to be holding at about the 50-seat mark. Given the way the joint Likud-Beiteinu list is composed, Likud looks to become a rump faction of only about 22 members. Almost all those lost votes seem to have shifted one step rightwards to Bennett's Jewish Home — overtly Jewish-chauvinist and territorially expansionist. A party even further to the right, Otzma LeYisrael(“Strength to Israel”), may also cross the threshold and receive two or more seats. (Elements of these two parties had seven seats combined in the last Knesset, a number that looks likely to more than double.) It should not go unmentioned that the Likud list is itself more hard-line, having upgraded a cohort of politicians who overtly advocate a greater Israel annexationist policy and having purged the handful of members considered defenders of Western-style democracy (notably, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan, and Benny Begin). 

In the Haredi bloc, the main story is a breakaway faction challenging Shas (with ex-MK Haim Amsalem having formed his own more integrationist party) and the apparent failure to receive any perceptible boost from the return of former leader Aryeh Deri from a prison-induced absence or from the weakening of the Sephardi appeal of the new Likud-Beiteinu joint list.

Overall, the center is shifting a little leftwards and the right is lurching toward its radical extremes.Netanyahu will almost certainly be back for another term. Given how little change there is among the four major tribes, and how few real issues are on the table, you might think these elections don't matter very much. You would be wrong.

For one thing, Netanyahu will have to form a new government — and this one could be perceptibly different in character than the last. There is unlikely to be an Ehud Barak to sound reasonable at home and abroad, particularly in Washington. It will be very hard to exclude the large group of settler radicals that constitutes Bennett's Jewish Home, the Likud faction will be smaller and itself more extreme, the ultra-Orthodox and newly-strengthened national-religious will make for less easy bedfellows, and Lieberman himself may have reasons to force elections relatively early in the term of the new Knesset (he is being indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust and if convicted but not imprisoned would have to sit-out the remainder of the Knesset term, hence his possible interest in an early dissolution of parliament). Moreover, while none of the centrist parties can be definitively ruled out as potential coalition partners, Yachimovich is on record as saying no, Livni has been the most pointed in campaigning against the area of Netanyahu's policies least likely to change (national security), and while Lapid seems most keen to join, he offers Netanyahu the most meager moderating cover at home and abroad and is an untested quantity in general.

Meanwhile, all of the policy issues that have gone ignored during the election campaign – Iran, the Palestinians, internal democracy, and state-religion – will soon come roaring back. Assuming Netanyahu assembles a rightist coalition, the most intriguing question will be the ways in which the enhanced radicalism of the parliament and government will find expression. The outgoing Knesset has already contributed to a democratic recession in Israel (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel have documented the anti-democratic and discriminatory laws passed), an impasse in peace efforts, a frenzy of settlement activity that has produced unprecedented European frustration and condemnation, discomfort in the U.S.-Israel relationship (albeit with Netanyahu maintaining the upper hand), and glimpses of Palestinian diplomatic and grassroots activism, notably at the United Nations and in unarmed protests. Israel has also climbed quite high up a tree in threatening to strike Iran.

But the Palestinians are not going anywhere – at least not of their own volition. The next coalition will likely find it even harder to pretend to the world that a 2009 Netanyahu speech in which the phrase “two states” was uttered is a genuine policy commitment. Two states was never formally adopted as government or Likud policy, it does not appear in the campaign of the Likud-Beiteinu party (in fact, it has been disavowed by Likud candidates and is considered to be a key reason there is no party platform), and it is safe to predict that it will also not be adopted by Netanyahu's next government.

The defining fault line of the new coalition will be less about two states or not, and more focused on the struggle between proactive annexationists and status quo merchants, meaning yet more deepening and entrenching of occupation. In the old Israeli political map, those considered “solutionists” were the two-staters. In the emerging Israeli political map, the “new solutionists” advocating action now are Greater Israel annexationists (a significant cohort of the Likud-Beiteinu and Jewish Home lists). One can still expect the status-quo camp to carry the day, and international reaction to yet more violations of international law to still be plodding and rhetorical rather than meaningful, but two connected factors should not be underestimated — what Israeli overreach toward the Palestinians (settlement radicalism, collapsing the Palestinian Authority) could unleash, and the possibility of a more challenging Palestinian counterstrategy eventually emerging, especially in the new regional environment.

The empowered ultra-nationalist camp will also look for gratification inside the green line, continuing (possibly with greater success) its pursuit of anti-democratic and discriminatory legislation, its aggressive provocations toward Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, and its impressive record of securing appointments for its camp in key governmental agencies while ousting the remaining islands of liberalism, with a notable target being the composition and competences of the Supreme Court — what many consider to be the last remaining firewall for Israeli democracy. All of which will take place in a more restricted, more overtly partisan, and less pluralist media environment. Without wishing to be too alarmist, should the ultra-nationalists succeed, especially on judicial reform and appointment issues, Israel may enter uncharted territory in its long journey of divorce from democratic principles.

Finally, the domestic front also carries the seeds of trouble for Netanyahu. To an outsider, the differences between the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox may appear to revolve around rather opaque definitions of religious practice, degrees of acceptance of modernization, and even choices of garments and head-covering. There are fundamental disagreements, however, that are much more likely to come to the fore in a parliament and coalition in which there is almost an equity of power between the national-religious (traditionally Zionist) and the Haredi (traditionally non-Zionist). The massively emboldened national-religious Jewish Home Party has, in its campaign, been touching the rawest nerves in relations between the two religious sectors and in how they view the state, not least military service. There will be potentially explosive divisions over this issue as well as control of religious councils, and funding priorities that could get to the core of their competing interpretations of how Jewish law views the very existence of the state of Israel — a supreme value for religious nationalist Zionists versus a reality of dubious religious legitimacy for the Haredi non-Zionists. Issues that have been swept under the carpet and that have allowed for a relatively easy coexistence might now surface in unpredictable ways. Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has already threatened that his community will leave the country if attempts are made to draft them into the army.

The main bright spot for a new Netanyahu administration – and it could be very bright indeed by the second half of a full Knesset term – is the economic impact of a gas-revenues generated windfall, expected to start coming online within the next two years from the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas fields. Analysts estimate the gas could add a 12 billion shekel windfall to Israel's economy in 2013, or as much as 1 percent of GDP.

This notwithstanding, the right's troubles should create fertile ground for a revival of the center left and a return to the politics of serious contestation next time elections come around. Netanyahu has made several mistakes in this campaign that could come back to haunt him, including the alliance with Lieberman's party and his clumsy attacks on Bennett, which have served only to strengthen the latter. In so doing, Netanyahu has also reminded everyone how susceptible he is to pressure.

The clarity offered by hard-liners on the right and their potential overreach should encourage a rethinking, a rebranding, and a proffering of a genuine alternative by the opposition. The cohort of new lawmakers is set to include some overtly progressive rising stars (notably highly-placed women on the Labor list, such as fourth-placed Merav Michaeli and eighth-placed Stav Shaffir) alongside a possible strengthening of Meretz. Prospective fallout between the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist-Orthodox camp could also be utilized to build new coalitions if the center-left is able to overcome its anti-Haredi animosity.

Any prospect of a return to genuinely competitive elections, however, would require four ingredients that are glaringly missing from the opposition as Jan. 22 approaches: a credible leader, a degree of unity, a substantive alternative vision for Israel, and an ability to make common cause with fellow citizens who are Arab Palestinian, not Jewish or Zionist. These are serious obstacles indeed.

For now, however, this election will likely mark an acceleration of Israel's long-predicted (not least by former Israeli leaders Ehud Olmert and Barak) journey toward a hegemonic nationalism resembling apartheid-era South Africa. The remaining question is whether the next Knesset also manages to produce a genuinely democratic and fighting alternative.

The article first appeared on ForeignPolicy.com

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

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