Facing the 2019 elections, Israel’s society is split more than ever. We see a polarization between two camps, similar to those we see in other Western democracies, like the US, Britain or elsewhere. For the first time Israel society perceives the split between the left (-center-arab) block and the right as the most severe societal tension. The left-right dichotomy has grown beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and embraces a whole series of aspects: most importantly, they are split regarding the question if democracy is in “grave danger” or is on the right path; and if the right abolishes principles of liberal democracy or the left has established structures of a “deep state”. A similar dichotomy can be observed on the question, if Israel should annex parts or the whole of the West Bank.
Depending on the outcome of the elections, Israel might face a profound change in terms of its democratic make up and politics towards the Palestinian territories.
Main Topics of the Electoral campaign
The main challenger of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, stresses in his election campaign the need to halt this polarization and attributes it primarily to the right: he criticizes their attacks on the Supreme Court and charges them with the undermining of the rule of law. He focusses especially on Netanyahu being unfit to run as prime minister, due to his looming indictment for corruption. Netanyahu would run the country like a king standing above the law, Gantz maintains. In contrast, Gantz promises a “statist government” (memshala mamlachtit), which would represent the interests of all citizens, uphold the rule of law, stop the attacks on the justice system and even alter the most disputed law of the last legislative period, the so-called Nation-State Law.
Netanyahu on the other hand focusses primarily on his foreign policy successes and security credentials. Especially his close relation with US President Donald Trump is highlighted frequently – the recognition of the Golan Heights needs to be seen as a campaign gift by Trump. Beyond that, Netanyahu stresses that only he and a right-winged government will be able to defend the security and Jewish identity of the state, while a left-winged government would lead to terror attacks and the endangering of the Jewishness of the state. This is permanently distributed in short, catchy slogans: “Bibi or Tibi (referring to the head of the Arab Ta’al, Ahmed Tibi), or “Gantz is left. The left is weak.”
Yet, what is even more important is the development within the right-wing camp beyond Netayanhu, who is – his populism aside – by many accounts one of the more moderate political figures in the right. The right-wing camp sees a further shift to the right on two levels. The first is a strengthening of the far-right. Instead of one party, the “Jewish Home”, representing this political segment, these elections see three parties with serious chances of passing the electoral threshold: the “New Right”, the “Union of Right-Winged Parties” (URWP) and “Zehut”. If the polls are correct, this means roughly twice the number of seats. While the New Right and most of the URWP are based on the former members of the Jewish Home party (with some new members coming in), the real novelty are the other parties: “Otzma Yehudit” (as part of the larger “Union of Right Winged Parties) and Zehut. Both are right-winged extremist parties who opt for the transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank, its annexation, as well as the rebuilding of the ancient Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, where currently the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rocks are located.
As for the second level, we can also observe a major shift of the mainstream right-winged camp further to the right. This can be highlighted by two main aspects. One is the popularization of the pledge to annex at least parts of the West Bank in the next legislative period. Not only the settler far-right parties like the above mentioned do support such a move, but also the vast majority of the Likud: among current Knesset members, 28 of 30 – with the exception of Netanyahu himself and Tzahi Hanegbi – explicitly support annexing at least parts of the West Bank. Yuli Edelstein, Knesset Speaker and No. 2 on the Likud list, has put this succinctly in January 2019: “In the next Knesset we have the big task to declare sovereignty over the settlements in Judea and Samaria. Just a couple of years ago, everyone who talked about that were seen as totally crazy. We turned that in the last years into a mainstream topic.”
Another crucial aspect is an ever growing trend within the right-winged parties to change the nature of Israeli democracy. They attempt to shift it from a liberal to a majoritarian democracy, where the parliamentary majority is not (or hardly) limited by a system of checks and balances. In this regard Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, speaks of the necessity to build “a separation wall between the three branches” and that “one branch cannot intervene in the affairs of the other”. In addition, the powers of the Supreme Court have become target of all parties of the right, ranging from the Likud to Otzma Yehudit. The most far reaching demand among several is the passing of the so-called “override clause” (Piskat HaHitgabrut), which will allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions. This would effectively mean the end of the Supreme Court’s functioning as constitutional court, granting every government through its parliamentary majority de-facto unrestrained legislative power.
Thus a new right-winged government is likely to tackle fundamental issues: the question of Israel’s borders through attempts of annexation; as well as the nature of Israeli democracy through stripping the Supreme Court of central powers. While there are three principle post-election scenarios conceivable, a look at the polls reveals that a pure right-winged coalition is all but improbable.
First, the most unlikely scenario is a coalition formed by Benny Gantz. Even if his party, Kachol Lavan, wins more seats than the Likud, he will probably not be able to form a majority coalition. Since he already expressed that he won’t include Arab parties (Hadash-Ta’al and Ram-Balad), it will be very hard for Gantz to win a majority.
A second option is a center-right government with a continuation of Netanyahu being Prime Minister, but with an inclusion of Kachol Lavan and leaving out the far-right parties. This would certainly be the preferred option by Netanyahu, as he rejects the idea of annexation for diplomatic reasons. Yet, his potential indictment will complicate this: all leaders of the center-left, including Gantz, have already expressed that they won’t join a government with a Prime Minister indicted for corruption.
This leaves, third, a pure right-winged coalition. In such a constellation Netanyahu will find it difficult to moderate the demands of the far-right parties: first of all due to the strong right-ward shift in his own party, the Likud. Secondly, there are several plans to pass a law which would grant Netanyahu immunity. It is not clear if Netanyahu would have a different option, if he wants to escape an actual indictment. While Netanyahu said in the election campaign that he is not inclined to use this option, he did not rule it out. And since several right-winged parties already came out with support for this possibility, and the center-left unanimously has rejected it, Netanyahu might find himself being dependent on the far-right.