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Power is up for grabs in Israel – but does anyone except Netanyahu want it?

As yet another election looms, years of discrimination and racism have fragmented Israeli politics, leading voters to turn inward.

Shir Hever
19 March 2021, 12.01am
Elections banner depicting Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv
REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo . All rights reserved

On 23 March, for the fourth time in two years, Israelis will vote in national elections and choose their parliament, the Knesset, from which a coalition government must seek majority support.

As always, only nine million Israeli citizens have a vote, out of a population of fourteen million people living under Israeli control, if we include the West Bank and Gaza. (Here, 972 magazine explains the argument for including these territories in the total.)

On the face of it, the competing parties distinguish themselves from one another according to traditional battle lines: left against right, which in the Israeli context means the “peace camp”, which argues for an accommodation with Palestinians, versus supporters of the occupation and annexation of Palestinian land. Meanwhile, a furious argument rages on about whether prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is corrupt and must step down, or whether he is the victim of a left-wing conspiracy to accuse him of crimes he never committed.

Netanyahu has been prime minister for longer than any other in Israel’s history, yet since 2019, he has held no majority in the Knesset. He manages to stay in power by pulling tricks out of his sleeve – by turning his opponents against one another, or by rhetorically attacking Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, the courts, the police and the media. One after the other, political parties that swore to never sit in Netanyahu’s government have split, as factions break off to join his coalition, despite the damage to their credibility with voters.

Election fatigue

Netanyahu’s opponents argue that his tricks are a sign of desperation. The prime minister is facing trial for alleged corruption and refuses to resign – as previous prime ministers have under similar conditions – because, according to his critics, he is afraid of going to prison.

When challenged, Netanyahu responds with thinly-veiled threats: no one but me can keep Israelis safe. Whether it’s Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, Hezbollah missiles or Hamas rockets – only Netanyahu can maintain security. Any other prime minister, even one from the right, will bring death.

The Israeli public is exhausted from the frequent elections. The consensus is that regardless of how they vote, it will result in another fragile, ad-hoc coalition led by Netanyahu

Most recently, Netanyahu has been boasting that Israel is carrying out the fastest COVID-19 vaccination drive in the world (counting, of course, only the privileged Israeli citizens and not their Palestinian subjects in the West Bank and Gaza). He promises to import 36 million vaccine doses and glosses over the fact that over 6,000 Israelis – again, Israeli citizens only – have died of COVID-19.

Additionally, there is a deep divide between religious and secular parties. The scapegoating of Haredi Jews for the spread of COVID-19 has tightened the ranks among parties that largely represent their communities, and unleashed hate speech from parties led by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu).

By now, the Israeli public is exhausted from the frequent elections. The consensus is that regardless of how they vote, it will result in another fragile, ad-hoc coalition led by Netanyahu.


Pre-election polls reflect this exhaustion: the largest single party will probably be Netanyahu’s Likud, a right-wing grouping that tends towards religious conservatism. Parties that oppose Netanyahu are likely to gain the majority of Knesset seats, but will fail to form a coalition because of their differences.

Polls also indicate that this election will see more parties fail to make it past the minimum hurdle of 3.25% required to enter the Knesset. Historically, voters tended to opt for large or medium-sized parties to minimise the risk of wasting their vote, but support has fragmented. When the results seem predetermined, voters gravitate towards parties that represent their specific identities rather than ideology.

The disintegration of Israeli politics has occurred as a result of decades of racism and discrimination

One such casualty might be the left-wing Zionist party Meretz, whose liberal, secular European middle-class voters are a vanishing minority. Despite this, Meretz and the centre-left Labor Party have refused to make an election alliance, fearing the loss of their distinct identities. Similarly, the nationalist religious right is split between the economically neoliberal Yamina and the far-right, anti-LGBT Hatzionut Hadatit.

Even the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority parties referred to pejoratively as “the Arab list” by racist Israeli politicians, has split. Ra’am, an Islamic party, refuses to be associated with the left and will not rule out supporting Netanyahu. Ironically, the split has actually demonstrated that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not vote as a block and have as much variety to their opinions as Jewish citizens.

The disintegration of Israeli politics has occurred as a result of decades of racism and discrimination, which have undermined Zionism’s collectivist-nationalist vision. When Israel’s largest human rights organization, B’tselem, published a report in January explaining that it was legitimate to describe Israel as an apartheid state, because of discrimination against Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as rights denied to Palestinians in territories under Israel’s de facto control, the report was received mostly with indifference. Israelis know that there are no equal rights to all citizens in a so-called “Jewish state.”

Even parties on the left, as well as those in the Joint List, are focused less on promoting a democratic and inclusive vision for Israel, and more on carving out a niche to protect the remaining privileges of their constituents.

Issues ignored

In this context, it is not surprising that global and regional developments are hardly addressed. The Palestinians in the West Bank, and more so in Gaza, have been almost completely forgotten. The fact that upcoming Palestinian national elections, to be held in three stages between May and August, could undermine Israel’s “divide and conquer” strategy and create a legitimate leadership for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, does not seem to worry any of the candidates. They remain silent about what their plans for responding to a unified Palestinian leadership would be.

Similarly, candidates do not discuss the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS), which supports Palestinian rights; a special ministry set up to counter BDS is even set to be dissolved. An ongoing ecological disaster along Israel’s coast, most likely caused by the botched sabotage of a tanker delivering Iranian oil to Syria, has been subject to an official gag order.

Not even the decision of the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in the occupied territories has made a dent on the election campaign. Only one politician has mentioned that he might find himself facing charges in the Hague. The Israeli government pays for ads claiming that the ICC has no jurisdiction, but no political party has set out its plan for a legal defence.

Israel has recently made unprecedented peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, but these are only referred to by Netanyahu’s campaign. Most parties prefer to talk about the economic impact of COVID-19, the unemployment crisis and the bankruptcy of thousands of small businesses.

Whatever the result, Israel’s next government will face an unenviable situation: a growing global boycott, a more unified Palestinian resistance, a war crimes investigation and a devastated economy, made worse by two years of populist election-driven spending. Judging by the insipid campaign, it appears that nobody but Netanyahu really wants the responsibility.

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