Israeli citizens are about to vote in national elections for the second time in six months. But has anything changed since April? Why is no one talking about the occupation? And are we really about to see the end of the Netanyahu era? +972 writers talk about why these elections matter.
Israeli voters will head to the polls for the second time in six months on Tuesday. It has been a short but brutish campaign, in which the racism, rabble-rousing, and mudslinging that have come to dominate Israeli election cycles seem more extreme than ever.
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Benjamin Netanyahu, embattled and paranoid, has issued fraudulent warnings about Palestinians “stealing” the upcoming elections, and claimed last week that Arabs want to “annihilate us all” (his office insists this message was released due to a staffing error) — all part of efforts to suppress the Palestinian vote. Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist party that is running independently after making it into the Knesset in April as part of the United Right list, has had a last-minute bump in support that threatens to carry them over the electoral threshold.
Right-wing activists, among them Likud supporters, have physically assaulted center-left and left-wing activists at campaign rallies. The Blue and White party has become even more indistinguishable from the Likud than it was last time round. And, as has happened in the last few election cycles, the specter of formal West Bank annexation has crept closer than ever, driven — as has become his habit — by a calculating prime minister intent on not being outflanked from the right.
I spoke to several +972 writers in order to get their thoughts on what is, and isn’t, at stake in the upcoming election. All agreed that one of the biggest questions of the second election round of 2019 is whether anything has materially changed since April, or whether it’s just more of the same — albeit worse.
Samah Salaime is unequivocal that the hard-fought reunion of the Joint List has changed the electoral landscape: “Arab voters are on the map again,” she says. Relatedly, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh’s endorsement by Palestinian voters is also significant, she adds: he has set clear conditions for joining the government, including an end to the occupation, and has persisted in “speaking about democracy and equality more than any other leader.”
On the other hand, Salaime continues, Israeli society in general has remained on the same trajectory: “Racism and incitement against Palestinian citizens are the mainstream agenda, while the right is still in control of the government, and is still prepared to ignore Netanyahu’s legal issues.”
Amjad Iraqi also believes that the overall dynamics of Israeli society and its broad voting blocs are essentially unchanged. He points to general voter fatigue, however, which might depress the vote among Jewish and Palestinian citizens alike. Noam Sheizaf flags a similar dynamic, citing “voter indifference” as one of the biggest stories of this election.
For Iraqi, though, there is added uncertainty over the voting intentions of Palestinian citizens, with “broad disillusionment” potentially undermining their impact as a voting bloc. “Most [Palestinian] voters are in a different place from where they were in April,” he says. “A lot of people saw the ugly side of how the Joint List broke up; there were a lot of egos and petty politics, and you can’t just rewind the clock.” In fact, he adds, the Joint List might suffer a double blow: not only from low voter turnout, but also from center-left Zionist parties like Labor and the Democratic Union siphoning off Palestinian voters who might think they’ll have a greater impact on policies relating to socioeconomic issues.
The possibility of Palestinian citizens drifting toward Zionist parties is not as improbable as it might seem, according to political analyst and pollster Dahlia Scheindlin. Opinion polls, she says, have consistently shown that Palestinian citizens’ primary concerns are security and violence in their communities, followed by cost of living — “just like every other Israeli,” she says. Like Sheizaf and Iraqi, however, Scheindlin doesn’t see seismic changes in the electoral horizon from six months ago. “The size of the voting blocs is the same. More people consider themselves right-wing than center and left-wing, and that hasn’t changed in over 10 years,” she adds.
The one factor that has been a slight surprise, Scheindlin continues, is the strength of Avigdor Liberman’s party: Yisrael Beitenu has, since April, been polling at around 10 seats, double its haul in the previous election. Those seats are “probably coming from Likud,” she explains, although adds that this doesn’t affect the size of any potential right-wing bloc — only the amount of trading that will occur between party heads in order to try and form a coalition.
Yet the extent to which such bargaining can occur, and who will be driving it, depends on one man and his legal travails. As with every election over the last 10 years, the fate of Netanyahu — and the fate of the country whether he survives or is finally ousted from office — has been the central point of public conversation. As Sheizaf says, September 17 will, yet again, be “first and foremost a referendum on Netanyahu’s fortune.” If he is able to form a coalition, “it will grant him immunity and another full term in office. Otherwise, he will probably step down — if not right after the elections, then sometime next year.”
There is broad consensus among the writers on the fact that even if the curtain does fall on the Netanyahu era, a different face in the Prime Minister’s Office will not be the panacea that the Israeli center and left insists it will be.
“So much is put on Bibi as an individual, and while there should be attention on him for sure, it shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is part of a much wider movement in Israeli politics since the 1970s,” Iraqi says. “In the 2015 election, almost every head of a major party was once a Likudnik — whether a member, a parliamentary member, a minister, a supporter. Bibi is one engineer out of many who have been driving the right’s vision for Israel and the Palestinian territories for decades,” he continues. “Removing the cult of personality around Bibi will have an effect, but he’s a symptom of all these right-wing turns in Israeli society, not a cause. So while you may not see another Bibi, you will see the echoes of what he stands for.”
“Politics will be very different without Netanyahu,” Sheizaf believes. “But the fundamentals of the conflict will not change: progressives will still have to ask themselves how to become relevant again on the Palestinian issue, and much of the Netanyahu playbook will stay with us. It’s very important not to treat a possible defeat of Netanyahu as a ‘return’ to some better past,” he adds.
Scheindlin also cautions against overemphasizing Netanyahu’s role in increasing the illiberalism of Israeli society and politics over the past decade. Many of the anti-democratic trends observers point to have been “around for decades, if not from the very beginning of the state,” she says. “There have always been flaws, failings, and missing parts from Israeli democracy.”
However, she continues, Netanyahu undoubtedly “amplified many of them for political gain and to quash his rivals, and that does lasting damage.” Scheindlin points particularly to the delegitimization of the judiciary and the mainstreaming of annexationism as two trends that predated Netanyahu, but which have accelerated dramatically during his current tenure as prime minister. The latter, she says, will be especially hard to roll back — not only practically but also “in people’s consciousness.” It’s because of this, Scheindlin adds, that “it’s fair to say the two-state solution died on his watch.”
Salaime, meanwhile, suggests that the eulogies for the Netanyahu may prove premature — as they so often have in the past. “He will do anything to stay in control, including launching a war against Lebanon or Gaza,” she says. And even if he does leave office, she adds, his shoes will be filled — whether by Yamina party head Ayelet Shaked or the Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar.
As much as “day after Netanyahu” speculations have filled the airwaves, talk of the occupation and any kind of peace agreement has been equally conspicuous — for its absence. No one appears surprised by this state of affairs, which was also the case in April.
“It’s not a painful issue for the Jewish public in Israel accept the reality in the West Bank as it is,” says Salaime. Indeed, she continues, it’s only when Israelis are directly affected that Palestinians seem to come into the picture: “The upcoming war on Gaza is at the center of the campaigns led by [Benny] Gantz and Bibi, because there’s so much activity on the southern border which is disturbing Israeli residents in the south,” Salaime explains.
Iraqi strikes a similar note. “In the eyes of Israelis, all the evidence points to the fact that you can ‘manage’ the Palestinians rather than come to a solution, despite sporadic phases of violence.
“On a very rational basis, for Israelis, why would they want to change a policy that seems to be working?” he adds. “The right has brought a relative amount of stability, which no one is really questioning. It’s why the Blue and White party’s approach is almost word-for-word the same as Likud’s. Everyone is in consensus about it, so people move onto more divisive things, for example the extent to which you manage the occupation.”
Scheindlin agrees: “Nobody has any competing views,” she says. “Not everyone agrees with the right — the center-left and Arab parties most obviously disagree — but they know that talking about it isn’t going to win them votes.” She also believes that the Blue and White party’s policies are strikingly similar to the Likud’s: “They’ve poll-tested rhetoric, and they propose what Likud is doing, but they call it separation — by which they mean separation of Israeli-controlled areas, including most of the big settlement blocs, and de facto, more of Area C than they care to admit.”
Sheizaf argues that parties are technically talking about the occupation constantly, although far outside the ‘peace’ framework — a shift he says is facilitated by “the disintegration of the Palestinian national movement.”
These days, Sheizaf says, “the political system views the conflict as a set of independent problems — Gaza, relations with the Palestinian Authority, [Palestinian] prisoners, international pressure, Jerusalem, Palestinian citizens.” Netanyahu’s incitement against Palestinian citizens, he adds, also falls within the spectrum of talking about the conflict — and, as he points out, “Ayman Odeh is more present in Likud posters than in those of his own party.”
Behind the broad sense of fatigue, deterioration on some fronts and stagnation on others, however, +972 writers have pointed to bigger stories that haven’t received the attention they deserved. For Sheizaf, it’s precisely “the elephant in the room” of the occupation that should be on people’s minds — and more specifically, the people who are not allowed to vote. “Israel is the sole sovereign in the entire land between the river and the sea (as we call it), yet millions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (not to mention Gaza) can’t vote or participate in its political system,” he says. This, he adds, is not an anomaly but the status quo as far as Israeli history is concerned.
Iraqi points to the capitulation of the Israeli political scene to the Likud. “What you’re seeing [in this campaign] is different factions of the Likud movement arguing with each other over small differences in policy and which individual will lead the movement.” And this is why it’s so significant that the Blue and White party is Netanyahu’s main opposition, he says: “If people haven’t caught on that the center-left mirrors Likud in many respects, then they’re really missing the big picture. It’s surprising that so many still haven’t understood who Gantz is and what his party represents. It’s basically Likud versus Likud.”
That’s why, he continues, change can only be realized by “a radical politics and vision in opposition to what the majority of Israelis are standing for, and that’s what the Joint List and Palestinian citizens are offering.”
That, for Salaime, also gets to the heart of these elections, and the political horizon they represent. “There was a massive campaign on social media encouraging Arabs to go and vote,” she says. “Coalitions of non-profit organizations and businesses, and Jewish leftists themselves, are praying to Arab voters to ‘do their duty’ and save the Israeli left from near extinction.
“Suddenly it’s now our responsibility to take Bibi down — as second-class citizens, but first-class voters.”