The Israeli political map is not characterized by a left-right divide but a great conversion toward the center.
Many observers have concluded that Israel’s recent election (its third vote within one year!) did not eliminate the political divide in Israel between right and left wings. However, this is an erroneous and superficial understanding of Israeli politics and society.
Israel is no longer truly characterized by a left-right divide but a great conversion toward the center on most major issues. This month’s election results clearly demonstrate this, despite the bitter rhetoric of the campaign.
This is how the Israeli political spectrum looks: Likud is right of center. Blue & White is left of center, but not “leftist.” The glue holding together the new Blue & White multi-party coalition is only one thing: the desire to topple Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But on most major defense, foreign policy, economic and social issues, Blue & White is not that different from Likud. Some of its prominent members served in positions very close to Netanyahu, like Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel.
At the fringes of the political spectrum there are small parties of the hard left (Labor and Meretz), and the hard right (Yamina), which garnered only six to seven seats each. The other Israeli political parties are purely sectorial.
The Ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism and Shas) do not have a national agenda. They focus primarily on funding of their educational institutions and the Orthodox rabbinical establishment (a source for many jobs). Their alliance with Likud is transactional, despite the right-of-center tendencies of their rank and file. Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Israel Beiteinu, is a Russian immigrant sectorial faction, with generally right-of-center views. (It won seven seats in Knesset). However, Lieberman is on a personal vendetta against Netanyahu. The Arab United List (15 seats in Knesset, a significant gain) also represents an ethnic minority, and it is estranged from the Zionist ethos and not a full participant in the Israeli political game.
The upshot of this political mapping is that there is an overwhelming Israeli center, comprising Likud (36 seats) and Blue & White (33 seats). The depiction of Israel as a divided society is patently wrong. The current political deadlock is not the result of disagreements on major policy issues between Likud and Blue & White, but because of disagreement over the personal political fate and the personality of Netanyahu.
This extraordinary prime minister, an extremely gifted leader and a figure of international stature with remarkable achievements, has elicited over the years much animosity among many Israelis. The visceral dislike for Netanyahu in some quarters borders on the psychiatric.
Netanyahu’s recent indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust has added to this baggage. While some legal authorities dismiss the charges as groundless, Netanyahu’s legal problems and his fierce attacks on the judicial system have given ammunition to his detractors. In some circles, he is considered unfit to lead the country. In short, the March 2020 elections were about Netanyahu, not about the Trump Plan or Iran or the economy.
Despite this, the voting public largely ignored the indictments, and Netanyahu succeeded in restoring Likud to the position of the largest party in parliament. But Netanyahu failed to reach the magic number of 61 Knesset members needed for a majority coalition with him as prime minister. Similarly, the attempt of Blue & White to form a minority government supported by the United List, representing the Arab minority (a violation of a political taboo and a campaign promise) failed.
This political impasse and the prospect for an embarrassing fourth election within 18 months revives the option of a national unity government initially under Netanyahu and a rotation arrangement for the PM position. This is what most Israeli Jews seem to prefer.
The coronavirus crisis underscores the need for a stable and legitimate government increasing domestic pressure for a grand coalition between the two centrist parties. Blue & White might feel the “responsibility of the moment” and overcome its enmity to Netanyahu. New elections, after the unpopular attempts to court the Joint Arab List, are not an enticing prospect.
Moreover, the political stalemate kept Likud in power from election to election. Interim governments (such as Israel has had for more than a year) are not the best arrangement for Israel, but it is better for Likud MKs and ministers than occupying seats in the opposition. And in the meantime, Netanyahu has a steady hand on the helm of state.
Finally, it is important to note that the three recent elections demonstrate that Israeli democracy is alive and healthy. Israeli voters have not shown any election fatigue. They turned out to vote in great numbers. This bodes well for the future of democracy in Israel.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This column is presented by Schottenstein Stores Corp.