Your Guide to What the Hell Just Happened in Israeli Politics
On Sunday, June 13th, after months of deliberation and negotiation, Israel finally swore in a new government. This body, centered solely on dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu, is unlike anything Israel has ever seen, and is unparalleled in its ideological scope and diversity of opinion.
The so-called “Change Bloc” is four elections and nearly three years in the making. In November of 2018, the Russian center-right Yisrael Beiteinu party left the ruling coalition over disputes about military action in Gaza. The resulting election in April of 2019 failed to produce a coalition of 61, so new elections were held in September of 2019. This election, too, failed to form a government, so new elections were scheduled for March 2020. This time, incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu, facing the COVID-19 Pandemic, succeeded in forming a government. However, he was only able to do so on the condition that he allow his rival, Benny Gantz, the center-left leader of the Kahol Lavan party, to take power several months down the line. This agreement was short-lived. Netanyahu’s coalition opted to dissolve in November of 2020, before Gantz was set to become prime minister, forcing this most recent round of elections in March 2021. This level of governmental instability is unprecedented in Israeli politics.
Unlike previous elections, which at least were ostensibly about the issues, the most recent election was almost entirely about one question: “Should Benjamin Netanyahu stay in power?” As such, parties in this election cycle divided themselves into two groups — pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu.
The Change Bloc: 62 members of Knesset — only one more than the number needed for a majority — have banded together from all across the political spectrum to oust Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett, the leader of a secular, right wing party is the prime minister, with centrist politician Yair Lapid set to take over later down the line.
Yamina: Yamina (literally “rightward” in Hebrew), is as far right as Israeli non-religious parties get. Yamina comprises a union of right wing parties, headed by former top Netanyahu aide, tech millionaire and Sayeret Matkal fighter Naftali Bennett. The number two member of the party, Former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, outlined Yamina’s core positions in 2019, stressing a need for aggressive foreign policy and stronger measures against Israel’s enemies. Along with various domestic reforms, Shaked promised “the end of the military government and the application of Israeli sovereignty” in the West Bank, as well as measures to fight terror with “determination and without compromise.” Naftali Bennett’s statements and views are in line with these rightist positions. The idea of a two-state solution, touted by many in the international community as the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a fantasy in Bennett’s eyes. “The idea that a Palestinian state will be formed in the land of Israel has come to a dead end,” said Bennett in 2018. “Never in the annals of Israel have so many people expended so much energy on something so futile.” Neither time nor power have softened Bennett’s ideas on the topic. More inclined to seek Israeli protection and strength over peace, Bennett declared recently that “As long as I have any power and control, I won’t hand over one centimeter of land of the Land of Israel” in exchange for diplomatic concessions.
However, despite strong positions from Bennett, Shaked and Yamina, this government will be seriously hindered by liberal elements of the coalition. Those that would prefer a two-state solution have the ability to dissolve this pluralistic coalition, so Bennett will need to moderate his actions to appease those factions. Bennett also has a troubling history of offensive comments regarding Arabs. In a televised debate, Bennett told an Arab Israeli Knesset member “When you were still swinging from trees, we had a Jewish state here.” Bennett has also been one of the lone voices advocating for the death penalty for terrorists, reportedly once stating that “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life — and there’s no problem with that.” Bennett has long harbored prime ministerial ambitions, famously declaring in 2018, to some ridicule, that “after the era of Netanyahu, I intend to be the prime minister of Israel.” Three years later, Bennett’s dream has been realized.
Yesh Atid: Yesh Atid is a centrist party and the 2nd largest party in the Knesset, behind Netanyahu’s Likud. Led by Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid has painted itself as a sober alternative to much of the nationalism that is becoming increasingly prominent in many Israeli parties. Yesh Atid’s platform emphasizes “equality before the law,” and focuses on the values of a “Jewish and Democratic state.” Under the newly signed coalition deal, Lapid is set to become prime minister after Bennett through a rotation system, although the coalition may not last long enough for this switch to take effect.
Kahol Lavan: The center-left Kahol Lavan, Hebrew for “Blue and White,” is a shell of its former self. Founded in 2019, Kahol Lavan was meant to be the main opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu, and, for a time, shined in that role. Kahol Lavan’s leader, Benny Gantz, is a retired Israeli General who promised good governance without the strife and drama of Netanyahu’s regime. Above all, Gantz provided hope to a base that wanted Netanyahu out of office, no matter what. In March 2020, in the face of a burgeoning pandemic, Gantz disappointed his voters by supporting Netanyahu as prime minister, with an agreement that Gantz would become prime minister in 18 months. Netanyahu agreed, but broke the deal some months later, leaving Gantz out in the cold. Broken and without credibility, the opposition to Netanyahu lost their most viable and popular leader. Kahol Lavan, which held 33 seats this time last year, now holds only seven. Benny Gantz will serve as Minister of Defense in the new government.
Yisrael Beiteinu: Founded in 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu is a center-right party that represents primarily Russian Jews and emphasizes secular values. Led by Avigdor Lieberman, they have placed themselves in opposition to both Netanyahu and the growing influence of religious orthodoxy in Israel. Orthodox Jews in Israel enjoy exemptions from mandatory military service and have significant control over civil institutions (see this IPS article about Israeli marriage for more information on this topic). Yisrael Beiteinu squarely opposes these privileges.
Labor: After governing the country for the first thirty years of the nation’s existence, the Left-wing Labor Party has seen a precipitous decline in influence. Labor and the Labor predecessor party held between 28 and 49 seats in every election from the founding of the state to 1996. Since the start of the millennium, however, Labor has failed to capture more than 19 seats. In the last four elections, Labor controlled between 3 and 7 seats, a dismal performance for a once-great party as Israeli politics continue to move rightward. However, inclusion in this coalition will allow Labor to exert some influence for the first time in years.
New Hope: Founded by Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of the Likud Party, New Hope promised to be a right-wing party without Netanyahu. Sa’ar’s policy positions mirror many of the ideas put forth by Likud, with only minor changes. New Hope’s existence and opposition to Likud shows the extent to which this election is about Netanyahu’s fitness to govern.
Meretz: Meretz is the furthest left of the non-Arab-oriented parties. They are the only non-Arab party to vocally support a Palestinian state. Other policy positions include increased secularity and broad social programs. Their leader, Nitzan Horowitz, is Israel’s first openly gay party leader in Knesset.
United Arab List (UAL or Ra’am): The UAL is one of two parties designed to benefit Arab-Israelis. Led by Mansour Abbas (not to be confused with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority), the importance UAL’s decision to join the governing coalition is hard to overstate: they served as the so-called “kingmaker,” the final party to grant the government a majority. UAL’s accession to power also marks the first time an Arab party has left the opposition since the 1990s. Central to the UAL platform are the needs of Bedouin and other Arab-Israeli communities in Israel’s south. They also strongly oppose LGBT rights.
The Pro-Netanyahu Bloc
Likud: Likud is the largest party in Knesset and is led by longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Founded in 1973, Likud first rose to power in 1977 under Menachem Begin, with Netanyahu beginning a term as prime minister in 1996. Although Likud was defeated in 1999, Netanyahu regained power in 2009 and has served as Israel’s leader up until Sunday. Netanyahu is a lightning rod for controversy, and is one of the most unique personalities in modern politics. Harvard and MIT educated, even the former prime minister’s staunchest critics conceded that he was a brilliant politician with a talent for self-preservation. Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, is a legendary war hero, the only soldier to lose his life in the hostage rescue operation in Entebbe in 1976. By contrast, Netanyahu’s son and wife are widely disliked, even among many Likud supporters.The former PM has been criticized by many for overly hawkish positions on Palestinian issues and adherence to the wishes of the religious right. Netanyahu is also currently being indicted on fraud and bribery charges for allegedly accepting money and gifts from businesspeople and promising favorable policies to a newspaper in exchange for more positive coverage. While he was able to evade prosecution while in power, Netanyahu is much more vulnerable without the majority of the legislature on his side. Despite these scandals, many voters have been impressed with Netanyahu’s track record of diplomacy and choose to discount his personal failings. Under Netanyahu’s governance, Israel has known relative peace and sports a strong economy that remained largely untouched by the 2008 recession.
Shas: Shas is one of two right-wing parties serving the interests of ultra-Orthodox Jews. There are tensions between Israeli Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Shas represents religious members of the latter group. Shas’s political platform centers on maintaining the exemption of religious Jews from military service and increasing presence in the disputed West Bank territory. Their leader, Aryeh Deri, served a 22 month prison sentence for bribery in the early 2000s. After a suspension from political involvement, Deri returned to lead his party in 2012, although he is currently facing indictment for tax evasion.
United Torah Judaism (UTJ): UTJ is the other side of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi coin, representing the desires of ultra-Orthodox of European origin. They have similar policies as Shas, and are made up of two smaller Ashkenazi parties. UTJ is led by Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman.
Religious Zionism (RZP): RZP party is considered by many to be the most dangerous in the Knesset and its power highlights a flaw in parliamentary government. RZP is a new party, formed out of the union of Noam, the anti-LGBT party, and Otzma Yehudit, a party grown out of an ideology of Kahanism, an idea many have compared to “Jewish supremacy.” Noam leaders have made shocking remarks about LGBT Israelis. Prominent Noam politicians have called gay men “perverts” and “disgusting people,” while lamenting that Israeli politics is supposedly “tainted” by homosexuals. Noam’s platform of hatred failed to secure sufficient votes to gain seats in Knesset in previous elections, but they found their ideological mate in Otzma Yehudit. No proponent of LGBT rights themselves, Otzma Yehudit points the majority of their hatred towards Arab-Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Otzma Yehudit advocates for the “emigration” of Arabs from the state of Israel. Party leaders have claimed that “the majority” of Arab citizens of Israel are enemies of the state and that the Palestinian territory of Gaza “should be levelled.” Otzma Yehudit comes from the ideas of a Rabbi named Meir Kahane, who infamously argued for the expulsion of Arabs from the state of Israel. Otzma Yehudit glorifies a terrorist and follower of Rabbi Kahane named Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. The proximity of this reprehensible party to Netanyahu highlights the power extremist parties can wield in parliamentary government. Other than ousting Netanyahu, one of the main draws of the change bloc is the distancing of the RZP from the levers of power. Extremism in parliamentary systems is often unavoidable, and RZP is a scary reminder of what that can mean.
Anti-Netanyahu, Anti-Change Bloc
Joint List: Joint List represents UAL’s rival for the Arab vote, consisting of a conglomeration of smaller parties that banded together to cross the necessary threshold of votes to enter Knesset. Unlike the UAL, the Joint List tends to be more accepting of the LGBT community than their Islamist counterpart. While the Joint List is staunchly opposed to Netanyahu, they did not join the change bloc, and remain in opposition to the government. The smaller Arab parties that comprise the Joint List range from communist-leftist to capitalist-conservative, making the Joint List historically unstable. Their priorities include stopping violence against Arab-Israelis and addressing the housing crisis in Arab communities.