2019 Israeli election analysis: More of the same path for Israeli right; challenge and opportunity for left
Progressive and left-leaning Israelis, American Jews, and pundits were, to say the least, unhappy with Tuesday’s election results in Israel. Sadly, though, Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent victory does not actually change the realities on the ground compared to what has been in Israel/Palestine for much of the last decade. What is cause for more serious alarm – and opportunity – is how the Zionist left fared in this election.
The New York Times wrote on Wednesday that Bibi and the right’s victory “attests to a starkly conservative vision of the Jewish state and its people about where they are and where they are headed.” Israel’s movement to the right since Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister a decade ago should concern anyone who would like to see the rule of law, human rights, and social democratic values and norms upheld in the region. That said, this election will not immediately cause a quantum leap forward in a process that has been, and continues to be, already unfolding.
Bibi will continue to make opportunistic alliances to save himself, just as he has done for years. He will align with the far right in an attempt to limit the Supreme Court’s power. This alliance would enable the far right to more easily achieve its nationalist aspirations and liberate Bibi of his legal entanglements. It would test Israel’s democratic institutions, similarly to what has happened in the United States with the Trump administration, but I believe Israel’s institutions are strong enough to withstand such challenges.
What about the threat of annexation? The normalization of the annexation debate in Israeli public discourse is concerning in that it demonstrates the successful positioning of an anti-democratic agenda into the mainstream. And yet, this too is just another example of Bibi’s opportunism. Bibi’s direct appeal to Israel’s far right went unchecked by the Trump administration, breaking with decades of U.S. Middle East policy. But de-facto annexation has been happening in the West Bank for the better part of the last decade (and before that). While it may seem that Bibi will now be newly emboldened to take more extreme actions, a centrist government may have likely taken those same actions. That is because any action that further limits the freedoms of Palestinians in the West Bank and widens Israeli presence on the ground cannot be attributed to an individual Israeli leader, but rather is the natural progression of 50 years of occupation. In the absence of a powerful opposition, we are on this train with Bibi or without him.
The real alarming result of this election was the further erosion of a powerful opposition. The Zionist left suffered a massive blow. The once-powerful Labor party and Meretz, together, will hold between 10-11 seats in the upcoming Knesset, depending on the final vote count – a meager 8%. Labor shrank significantly because of the emergence of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but more importantly, because of its refusal to form true partnership with Palestinian citizens of Israel. Chairman Avi Gabbay has stated in the past that the Labor party will never sit in a coalition with Arab parties.
Interestingly, Meretz, which was slated for a massive loss, actually ended up with 5 seats according to Thursday morning’s vote count, maintaining its current size. Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg credited Arab voters with saving Meretz, voting for the party in higher numbers than in previous elections. Meretz reached out to Arab voters and kept its seats, as opposed to the Labor party that shunned them and lost half its seats.
Meretz still has a lot of work to do to shed its elitist, white, Ashkenazi, Tel Avivi reputation. In order to grow in numbers and gain influence in the future, it will have to build genuine intersectional coalitions not only with Arabs, but with other marginalized groups in Israel such as Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopians (who were effectively ignored in this election despite mass protests just three months ago that shut down a major highway in Tel Aviv), Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and other socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Labor needs to do the same if it wants to avoid fading into total irrelevance.
There is not enough of a Jewish Zionist left in Israel. The numbers simply don’t add up. The only way for Israel to maintain any semblance of democracy is by forming true intersectional coalitions, with a Jewish-Arab partnership at their center. Part of that process includes the Zionist left’s reckoning with its own complicity in the subjugation of Arab citizens of Israel and in the occupation. Israeli civil society is doing this work already. The chance that it could trickle into the political sphere is what gives me hope moving forward.