Defense In Depth
Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
At the end of May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked Israel by calling for new national elections after he failed to form a governing coalition. Commentators dubbed the unprecedented new poll “Mo’ed B,” literally, a second scheduled date. The term also implies a second chance at success.
Despite failing to win a majority in the April elections, Israeli opposition parties of the center and the left didn’t seem to want a re-run; most of their lawmakers voted against the new elections. Ironically, it was the right-wing parties, who won a comfortable 65 seats (out of a total of 120), that voted themselves out of office. They clearly think they can do better. They may be right.
For over a decade, polling has repeatedly shown that center and left-wing voters make up less than half of the Israeli electorate. In a survey conducted just before the April elections, 41 percent of all voters identified as centrist or left wing, while 50 percent identified as right wing. This includes Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population and vote mostly for Arab or left-wing Jewish parties, but who turn out at significantly lower rates than Jews. Election results therefore generally reflect the more right-wing tilt of Jewish Israeli voters.
In short, there are not enough centrists and left-wingers to replace Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Even a small wave of activity among the opposition camp—the recent return to politics of former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, primary elections that brought new leaders to both the Labor party and the left-wing Meretz, and the re-unification of two Arab parties—will mean little if voters just shift within the left and center. What happens in the next election will depend primarily on right-wing voters.
But predicting what they’ll do is tricky. Israeli elections routinely prompt parties to emerge, merge, split, and collapse, generating too many uncertainties to forecast anything reliably before the August 2 deadline for finalizing party lists. The best place to start instead is to map the dilemmas of right wing voters and parties.
The right’s first dilemma is strategic. A sprawling 59 percent of Jewish adults identify as right wing. High demand spurred high supply in April, when eight different right-wing parties competed in the elections. Four of them were explicitly religious: two ultra-orthodox (Haredi) parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and two parties representing the non-Haredi religious voters, the United Right and the New Right. The latter was established by two popular erstwhile ministers from Netanyahu’s government, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who broke from one of the factions within the United Right. (Netanyahu fired both of them from his interim government shortly after calling new elections.) Less religious right-wingers had three options: Netanyahu’s Likud; Kulanu, established by former Minister of Finance Moshe Kachlon in 2015 (Kulanu also attracted centrists); and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israeli Beitenu, a secular right-wing party that depends on a shrinking base of older Soviet immigrants. The eighth party, Zehut, was established by the eccentric Moshe Feiglin, who supported marijuana legalization, libertarian social policies, and an ultra-religious-nationalist plan to move the government to the Temple Mount, the most contested religious site in the region.
Right-wing Israelis of all stripes now bemoan political fragmentation and many expect the smaller parties to unite by August 2.
The presence of all these choices failed to increase the size of the total right-wing bloc in April, when it lost two seats from the previous election. A clear plurality of right-wing voters supported Likud, which won 35 seats, five more than in 2015. Zehut and the New Right both failed to meet the 3.25 percent electoral threshold for entering the Knesset, each wasting well over 100,000 votes, or seven to eight seats combined. Had other right-wing parties won them instead, Netanyahu would have had a much easier path to forming a coalition.
Right-wing Israelis of all stripes now bemoan that fragmentation and many expect the smaller parties to unite by August 2. Whether that will happen is less clear; the only change so far is further fragmentation, as one faction of three-party United Right list has pulled out of the group (for now). Putting aside personal ambition for the sake of a more beneficial overall strategy is not most politicians’ forte.
But elections also reflect issues, or at least they ought to. What do right-wing voters want for Israel, and how do they expect their politicians to lead?
Here, the right-wing is far from homogenous. In polls, the camp breaks down almost evenly between self-identified firm and moderate right. Moderates are more likely to identify as secular and are somewhat more committed to liberal democratic values, such as the separation of religion and state, although to a lesser extent than the center and the left. The firm and moderate right are more aligned on security and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: broad majorities of right-wingers reject a two-state solution and support settlements.
Lieberman brought down the coalition negotiations by insisting on a law that would have drafted the ultra-orthodox into the army, after they have enjoyed essentially a blanket exemption for decades. The issue has come to symbolize the desire of many Israelis to break the grip of the Haredim, and Jewish religious institutions, on public life. Lieberman is counting on the issue to win him votes from secular right-wingers, beyond his dwindling core of aging Russian-speakers. Lieberman’s problem is that few believe he made his stand out of true ideological commitment, assuming instead some inscrutable political calculation. Netanyahu has fought back with his own nod to secular right-wingers by appointing an openly gay interim Justice Minister. That marked a first in Israel and was a snub for a prominent leader of the United Right, Betzalel Smotrich, who had coveted the position. (Had he been appointed, Smotrich, who once described himself as “a proud homophobe,” would have represented a blow to the LGBT community, an issue that represents another emerging divide within the right.)
Right-wingers—like all Israelis—also care about the economy and the cost of living. Despite high levels of inequality, Netanyahu’s voters, even those who are struggling personally, take pride in the country’s strong economic indicators. In the new campaign, Likud has re-incorporated Kulanu, its main competitor from the right wing bloc on economic themes. Now Netanyahu can hammer home both his economic achievements and his unrivaled foreign policy reputation to rally right-wing voters yet again.
Netanyahu’s imminent indictment on corruption charges might be expected to overshadow everything. But for right-wing voters, the point is largely moot. According to the 2018 Israeli Democracy Index, right-wing supporters are less concerned about corruption than all other voters. Opinion leaders on the right argue relentlessly that the (putatively) left-wing media and judiciary are persecuting Netanyahu and the right-wing government since they cannot win at the ballot box. Judicial activism is under fire; a majority of right-wing voters support abolishing the courts’ power of judicial review, for example, a move that the center and the left consider disastrous. Still, the issue does divide the right’s firm and moderate camps. The latter are more committed to checks and balances, and a survey I conducted for the human rights organization Btselem found that they are about twice as favorable to the courts as the firm right. The left and the center, hoping to peel off moderate right-wingers, would be wise to make a strong stand in support of Israel’s legal institutions.
That leaves the perennial issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, the right wing is having a completely different conversation than centrist and left-wing Israelis (and the rest of the world). The two-state solution is a non-starter; annexation is their vision for conflict resolution. Days before the April elections, Netanyahu declared his intention to annex all settlements—appealing to the voters of far right parties that have legitimized Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank for years. As the struggle deepens between the national religious parties—all of them closely associated with the settler movement—Netanyahu’s desperation to scrape votes from all corners will likely accelerate the rhetorical race towards annexation.
There’s little question that Netanyahu is more vulnerable than ever before, following his spectacular failure to form a government and the looming indictments. Yet he remains the man to beat. Given the flurry of recent activity on the center and left, opposition parties could yet shake up the political structure and re-align voters in their favor, but the odds start out against them. Netanyahu, the master of Israeli politics, could still eke out one more victory. But even then, his legal woes—or further coalition bargaining surprises—might ensure that it is short-lived.