Tight Election Shows Israel’s Left Is on the Rise

When the polls in Israel closed Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his thanks to his supporters for carrying his Likud Party and the Israeli right to an “overwhelming victory under my leadership.” The only problem with the tweet was that it was patently false.

Surprisingly, Netanyahu actually lost ground, with Likud dropping to 30 seats from the 36 held under the short-lived coalition government formed last March. More ominously for the prime minister, the entire right-wing bloc garnered only 52 seats (of the 61 needed for a simple majority), while the anti-Bibi bloc got 57. The right is in the minority. 

Many observers of Israel are under a very different impression. Partly because of Netanyahu’s bromance with President Donald Trump, it has become commonplace to argue that Israel is “moving inexorably right.” But is that true?

Those who say “yes” will note that among those elected this week were the Noam Party’s Avi Maoz, an unabashed homophobe, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the Jewish Power Party. Ben-Gvir is an acolyte of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a racist who was banned from Israeli politics by the Supreme Court. Ben-Gvir is not the first Kahanist to be elected to the Knesset, but should Netanyahu manage to cobble together a coalition, he will need the religious Zionist parties, likely making Ben-Gvir the first Kahanist to be part of a government.

That does look like a rightward move, but there is also evidence to the contrary. Netanyahu called these elections, the fourth in two years, largely to stay out of jail. As long as he is prime minister, he contends, he cannot be convicted in any of the corruption cases he now faces. So when pollsters suggested late last year that he could go from his 36 seats to something in the low 40’s, he decided to strengthen his position with the wind at his back.

And indeed, his numbers should have improved. Israel has (for now) defeated Covid-19. Infection and hospitalization rates are plummeting. Restaurants, theaters, schools, gyms and universities are reopening; all thanks to Israel’s leading the world in vaccinations per person, for which even his most bitter critics give Netanyahu full credit. Pfizer Inc. chief executive Albert Bourla reported that Netanyahu was “obsessive” about getting Israel the vaccine, and personally called him “30 times.”

But the center-left bloc emerged stronger; with 57 seats, it needs only four to put it over the line. And who has them to offer? Four seats is precisely what the Islamist, anti-Zionist Arab party, Raam, got. Though Netanyahu has been courting Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas, for months, far-right parties have vowed they will never serve with him. Abbas has countered that he will not serve with them. So Raam may not help Netanyahu much. (Mansour Abbas is not to be confused with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.)

That the center-left performed so strongly, even against the seemingly unbeatable Netanyahu, signals an enormous opportunity. If Israeli Arab parties were to declare that they are comfortable with being a sizable minority in a Jewish State (while continuing to fight for more funding for their communities, better police protection and the rest of their agendas) and urge their Palestinian brethren across the border to get with that program, objections to serving with them would probably disappear among not just Israelis in the center, but on the moderate right as well.

The Arabs’ power could be enormous. After all, they haven’t yet taken such steps, and are nonetheless now poised to be kingmakers.

Rebranding would serve Israel’s Jewish left and center no less. Ever since the disastrous Yom Kippur War under Golda Meir, the signing and then collapse of the Oslo Accords under Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak’s calamitous attempt to make peace with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat (which unleashed the second intifada), the left has been tainted as naive, as soft on security. To call someone a “leftist” in Israel today is akin to what calling someone a Communist once was in the U.S. — if the accusation sticks, you’re done.

That is why Israel’s center and left need to unabashedly confront that label, reminding Israelis that today’s left is not yesterday’s. Support for the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations with Gulf Arab states, was wall to wall. No serious party is willing to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. No one has called out the government for Israel’s relentless bombing of Iranian assets in Syria. Almost no one is willing to talk about a return to the 1967 borders; the Palestinian question, which was not at all a campaign issue this time, isn’t nearly as divisive as it used to be. Yes, there are divisive matters such as annexation, but that is a toxic issue even among some on the right.

The election of a few horrendously offensive Knesset members notwithstanding, this week’s election results prove that Israel’s center is holding strong. With changed rhetoric and priorities from Arab politicians and Jewish centrists, Israel’s political landscape could look very different, very soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

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