For the vast majority of readers who tune into Israel every so often but are not obsessive about it, the country’s election on Tuesday appears to have delivered a rare moment of mild encouragement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deservedly cast as a peace rejectionist, has been weakened and the overall right-wing bloc unexpectedly lost seats, creating the narrowest margin of victory of the right over the non-right of 61–59 (down from 65–55 in the previous Knesset), when polls had predicted the margin to grow further (although describing the split this way is not a helpful guide, of which more later).
Moderate Israel has also found itself a new champion in the staggering success of newbie centrist party leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party claimed nineteen seats. If one counts Labor as being left (despite its protestations to the contrary), then the Meretz-Labor left camp has scored an impressive revival, from sixteen to twenty-one seats. By this accounting, Israel’s rightward march appears to have been stalled, at least for the time being, itself quite a feat given Israeli demographic trends (higher ultra-Orthodox and national-religious birthrates) and the debilitating disunity among the non-rightist opposition, which failed to agree on an alternative candidate to Netanyahu in this election.
This is where a pause from breathless optimism (or a read of Max Blumenthal’s take on the election) is very much in order. First of all, the right may have shrunk slightly, but the remaining and significant cohort has veered appreciably rightward. Far more of the Knesset’s now forty-three Zionist-right MKs take an overtly anti-democratic approach toward Israel’s non-Jewish minority and dissenting voices, prioritize settlement expansion and support annexation of a large part or all of the occupied territories. These views are represented in both the much-enlarged national religious Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, and within the Likud faction itself.
More important still, it is the Zionist right that will form the next government and be a clear majority of Netanyahu’s next coalition—yes, that Netanyahu. He will still be PM. But if the Zionist right is again not a majority and has lost seats, and the non-right beats the right by forty-eight seats to forty-three, why is it that a non-right government is so inconceivable?
At this point, a word of explanation is required regarding Israel’s political camps. In addition to the Zionist right and the non-right, the remaining seats needed to form a governing majority are split between the other two blocs in Israeli politics: the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim (Knesset seats: eighteen), and the largely Palestinian Arab parties (eleven).
The ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) make for more natural partners of the Zionist right—a discourse of universal rights is alien to them, certainly as applied to Palestinians, and they are socially very conservative. But the ultra-Orthodox can also switch sides. Their economic outlook more approximates that of the left—they see a role for government and social safety nets, and their greatest focus is financial benefits and allowances and a degree of autonomy for their own community (for instance, running their own education system). Anyone willing to pay that price is a potential ally. The ultra-Urthodox parties are also, strictly speaking, not Zionist. Their interpretation of Jewish law makes for an uneasy relationship with the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in pre-messianic times; this is partly why their rabbinical leaders vehemently oppose military service for their community. Other than a (not unproblematic) tendency toward intolerance and racism, and the fact that the two largest settlements (Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit) provide cheap housing near Jerusalem for the ultra-Orthodox, ideologically they are not really part of the settlements and Greater Israel camp. Territorial pragmatism and peace overtures have been justified by Haredi rabbinical authorities in the past—mostly predicated on the command to save lives and even on the need to avoid confrontation with the world—and there’s no reason why they couldn’t do so in the future.
From the perspective of centrist Zionist Israeli Jews, the non-Zionism of Israel’s Palestinian citizens is apparently much harder to accept than the non-Zionism of the ultra-Orthodox. Yair Lapid, the new face of moderate Israel, used his first post-election appearance in front of the TV cameras to rule out forming any kind of parliamentary bloc with the Arab parties, even one that might put him in the prime minister’s seat. This reality of exclusion also helps suppress Palestinian voter turnout (up to 15 percent lower than turnout among Israeli Jews), another factor that, if it were to change, could add a handful of seats to the non-right camp.
Rabin was indeed the last Israeli prime minister to achieve overall progress with the Palestinian leadership (then led by Yasir Arafat’s PLO) and to advance equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel—and his premiership was the last time Israel was governed from the center-left. Rabin led by forming a blocking alliance with the non-Zionist Palestinian parties and a governing coalition with the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox of Shas. It was Rabin’s government, of course, that produced the 1993 Oslo Accords with the PLO. There have been negotiations since then, but never a government of the non-right that produced and implemented peace deals (the Lebanon and Gaza withdrawals, under Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ariel Sharon in 2005, respectively, were both unilateral); that governed without a strong pro-settler coalition presence; that avoided bouts of war and harsh military escalations; and that addressed domestic inequality in a serious way.
First, the ideological change. The fact that other than the small and proudly leftist (and growing) Meretz party, the non-right parties (Yesh Atid, Labor, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and the now-shrunken Kadima, led by Shaul Mofaz) all insist on defining themselves as center parties, not left, and have ruled out adopting a new branding—progressive or liberal or democratic—already hints at the problem. The Zionist center too often sounds and acts like a less vicious, more huggable version of the Zionist right, bereft of its own vision or beliefs, still undemocratic for its non-Jewish citizens, and still indulgent of settlements, occupation and injustices vis-à-vis the Palestinians beyond the Green Line. It should not be surprising, for example, that Kadima MKs supported anti-democratic legislation in the outgoing Knesset.
And finally, one cannot absolve the United States, Europe and other outside powers from their responsibility for having pursued policies that indulge Israeli violations of international law and that fuel Israeli escapism. Handwringing in Western capitals about continued pro-settlement Israeli policies is an evasion. Alongside the failures of the Israeli non-right, the other key reason the right has been winning the argument in Israel is because there have been no negative consequences for the steady expansion of Israel’s grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If Yair Lapid—and the large centrist, urban-based middle-class sector that he represents—is to make the switch and escapist Israel is to wake up, it will be the result of smart and targeted international pressure and the fear of international isolation. Western signals of impunity and indulgence toward the occupation are the oxygen of escapism, and the off-switch for that oxygen needs to be found rather urgently.