Netanyahu perseveres, confounds his critics, and wins a huge and decisive victory, placing him well on his way to an unprecedented fifth government under his leadership
Yesterday’s Israeli elections were characterized by several important markers that demonstrate the generational change that is taking place in the Jewish state and paint a clear picture for its near-term future. A total of 4,082,709 were counted so far. Outstanding are 1,500 votes that were marked for further review and just over 200,000 votes cast by active duty soldiers who are allowed to vote by submitting envelopes through the chain of command rather than appearing in person at the polling station as all other citizens must do. These votes will be counted by end of day Thursday and official results are expected before Sabbath eve on Friday morning. Total voter participation now stands at 69.7%
The way things stand now, the Likud headed by incumbent PM Benjamin Netanyahu will get 35 (out of 120) seats in the next Knesset and so will the center-left Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz. These results can only be characterized as a historic victory for Benjamin Netanyahu personally, for his Likud party, and for the Israeli nationalist right in general. We must go back 16 years all the way to the 2003 election to find a similar number of Likud Knesset members.
The soldiers’ votes, when counted, are expected to add to the right and detract from the left, because under the Israeli parliamentary system, the “value” or the number of votes that equals one Knesset seat is only calculated when the full total of votes cast is known. For example, in the 2015 elections a total of 4,210,884 was cast, making one Knesset seat equal 35,090 votes. The four seat minimum thus meant that just over 140,000 votes were needed for a party to have any representation in the Knesset.
At this point, the second largest Arab party is hovering just above the four seat minimum, while the New Yamin (New Right) party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked is hovering just below it. Since Israeli military substantially does not include Arabs and since soldiers tend to vote more right than left, the soldiers’ votes may well push the Arab party under the threshold and the New Right party above it, further strengthening Netanyahu’s right wing coalition government.
As things stand this morning, the right bloc has a stable majority of 65 seats, while the center left has 55, out of which ten belong to the two Arab parties. This means that out of the 110 Jewish members of the Knesset, 65, or 59% belong to the right, while 41% belong to the center and the left. While Benny Gantz’s accomplishment as a neophyte politician cannot be ignored, his ability to garner 35 Knesset seats came entirely from demolishing the two truly left wing parties: Labor and Meretz. Gantz’s Blue and White party is not distinguished from the Likud by its platform; it is highly security oriented, it does not advocate for significant territorial compromises, and since most of its voters are middle to upper middle class high-tech workers, it certainly does not advocate for higher taxes and the expansion of the welfare state.
Blue and White is a coalition of forces that are Ashkenazi, secular, and most of all, anti-Netanyahu. These voters are akin to the Republican Never Trumpers of America; they object much more to Netanyahu and his family personally than to his policies or record of achievement. If there is a significant platform difference, it lies in the battle royal between the religious and the secular sectors of Israeli society, a battle that has been raging without respite for 71 years. In this battle, the religious and ultra-religious forces gained last night a significant victory. The Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties gained a total of sixteen Knesset seats and reinforced their status as the linchpin of any right wing coalition government. Add to this total, five seats from the religious-Zionist unified right party and we get 21 Knesset seats, fully 20% of the Jewish members in the new Knesset, a ratio that may well grow once the soldiers’ votes are counted. In contrast, the two parties representing the true Jewish left, both vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and in terms of economic policy combine for only ten seats, or a meager 9% of the Jewish Knesset. It would not be an exaggeration to say then that the Israeli Jewish Left was annihilated in this election cycle.
The broad strokes of the Israeli ruling coalition were brought into sharp focus by this election. It is comprised of the following components:
- Sephardi Jews ranging from traditional to ultra-Orthodox who are represented by the Likud and Shas parties.
- Repatriates from ex-Soviet Union who are represented by Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party and the Likud.
- Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews who are represented by Torah Judaism party
- “Religious Lite” and religious-Zionists who are represented by the unified right wing party and possibly (depending if they cross the four seat threshold) by the New Right Party
- Lower to middle-class Ashkenazi Jews who form (together with their Sephardi counterparts) the broad base of the Likud party.
Israeli opposition (excluding the Arabs, who oppose the entire concept of Israel) is made up entirely of middle to upper middle class Ashkenazi Jews who want Israel to be “more like Europe”, meaning more secular and who are willing to go to far-reaching concessions towards the Palestinians because they do not have an ideological attachment to Judea and Samaria and even to Jerusalem. What they are no longer willing to do, however, is engage in wishful thinking from the early days of the Oslo agreement, days of exploding buses and pizzerias. These people want to lead safe and prosperous lives and will do what it takes to make that happen. They form the backbone of the Israeli hi-tech economy and disproportionately contribute to tax revenues and military service alike, both of which they are keenly aware of. Their disdain for the “uncivilized” Sephardi Israelis and the “parasite” religious sector drives much of their politics.
The Israeli voter has spoken. Israel is more Jewish, more patriarchal, more religious, and more nationalist than it has ever been. Israeli Arab citizens, while completely engaged in every aspect of Israeli economic life, seem to be disengaging from its political life, a phenomenon that is highlighted by their lower than ever participation in the last election. This is fully in line with the role Israel expects them to play; that of equal citizens on the personal level, but unequal on the political and national levels.
This Israel will find itself progressively more alienated from diaspora Jewry, especially the North American one. There is simply not much in common anymore between a Jewish Israeli and a Jewish American. Judaism as it is practiced in Israel is very different from the Judaism that is practiced in America and so is the Israelis’ understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Whether we like it or not, for the vast world out there their perception of Israel will grow more and more synonymous with their perception of Jews. Any attempts by progressive America Jewry to carve out a separate existence for itself and present an alternative picture of what it means to be Jewish are doomed to failure.
Today more than ever, Israel is a global brand that many, including China and India are trying to emulate. There is a reason for this; Israel is the global leader in combining the benefits of high technology and innovation with a traditional, nationalist, patriarchal, sustainable, HUMAN way of living. Those American Jews who do not wish to be consigned to the dustbin of history in their own lifetimes had better jump on the Israel train.