Opponents’ Blunders Led to Netanyahu Victory

In results analogous to how Donald Trump won in the U.S. Electoral College, despite a popular vote deficit of 2.8 million in 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu is returning to power due to an artifact of Israel’s electoral system — the 3.25% minimum threshold required of competing lists to be elected to the Knesset (raised from 2% in 2015).  Two anti-Netanyahu party lists narrowly failed to pass the threshold, according to a Times of Israel article: Meretz with 150,696 votes (3.16%) falling 4,124 ballots short, while Balad received 138,093 votes (2.9% of the total of votes cast).   It is estimated that counting all the votes of the contending lists, that the bloc of parties who declared themselves favoring Netanyahu had a mere 30,000 votes over those opposing Netanyahu. 

If not for the threshold factor (including the failure of one party that had favored Netanyahu), this election would have repeated the deadlock of most of the recent elections that have proceeded in rapid succession.  Balad, an Arab nationalist party, broke away from the two parties that remain in the more moderate Arab Joint List at literally the 11th hour before the deadline for finalizing electoral lists — only to rob itself of at least three Members of Knesset if it had run jointly with the other two parties.

This will be the first time in Israel’s history that a Zionist party to the left of Labor will not serve in the Knesset.  Meretz is in part a direct descendent of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist pioneering movement and its political party, MAPAM (the Hebrew acronym for the United Workers’ Party); MAPAM was the second largest party after Israel’s first national election in 1949, remaining an important presence in most Israeli governments until the first electoral triumph of Likud in 1977.  Meretz was created as a united list of MAPAM and two other parties in 1992, playing a decisive role in the election of Yitzhak Rabin that year and in striving toward peace with the Palestinians during the Oslo era, and afterward as a unified political party that participated in Ehud Barak’s short-lived coalition in 1999-2000 and then in the Bennett-Lapid government that has just been replaced.    

But in most of the last few elections, Meretz has run a “Gevalt campaign,” begging like-minded voters to support them instead of possible alternatives, in order to prevent exactly what has just happened, with over 150,000 votes discarded.  To avoid this eventuality, Meretz attempted to renegotiate a joint list with the Labor Party, a proposal flatly refused by Merav Michaeli, the current leader of Labor, who expressed confidence that both parties would surpass the threshold and in fact win more seats running separately than together — an argument that had some historical substantiation.  Instead, Labor fell precipitously from seven to four seats, while Meretz fell off the threshold cliff after having garnered six seats in 2021. 

Aside from blaming Michaeli for this fiasco, some blame Yair Lapid, the defeated prime minister and head of Yesh Atid, the centrist party that now leads the center-left opposition to the new Netanyahu government.  Although Lapid urged  Labor and Meretz to combine their lists, some say that he did not do so strongly enough, and that he lured support away from Meretz, arguing wrongly that Yesh Atid needed their votes.  This was in contrast to Netanyahu forging together a joint list of the three extreme-right parties (a veritable “basket of deplorables,” to coin a phrase) that ran as “Religious Zionism,” ensuring that votes to his right would count in returning him to power.  Now the three component factions have separated, with the anti-LGBTQ Noam party and the rabidly anti-Arab Jewish Power party breaking away from Religious Zionism to caucus separately in the Knesset. 

As of this writing, Netanyahu is still negotiating with his coalition partners on dividing up the spoils of their election victory with cabinet ministries and other appointments.  We can breathe a sigh of relief that Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism, will not be named Minister of Defense, as he had wanted, which would have made him de facto king of the West Bank, over which the Defense Ministry has enormous discretionary power.   

But Haaretz reports that Netanyahu is on the verge of appointing Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir — a former follower of Meir Kahane and an admirer of Baruch Goldstein (the murderer of 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in Hebron in February 1994) — to become Security Minister, with unprecedented authority over the national police.  In 1995, Ben-Gvir led a group of thugs who surrounded Rabin’s limousine, stating that having gotten his car, they’ll get Rabin next; Rabin was assassinated about three weeks later.  In another Haaretz article, Ben-Gvir is reported as having pulled out a gun during a recent clash in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, declaring “If they throw stones, shoot them.” 

In a recent webinar, pollster Dahlia Scheindlin has outlined the agenda of the incoming government roughly as follows:

  • Roll back reforms to expand access to public transportation on Shabbat, to ease Kashrut restrictions, and to support health measures for LGBTQ individuals
  • Override the power of the Supreme Court to review and nullify legislation with a simple majority vote in the Knesset
  • “Regularize” the expansion of settlements, and nullify part of Sharon’s 2005 “Disengagement” by rebuilding settlements in the northern West Bank (“Samaria”)
  • End the corruption trial against Netanyahu and curtail the independence of the judiciary in general from partisan political control.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism list seems also intent on rolling back gains made in recent years by non-Orthodox Jews, including the legitimacy of conversions carried out under Reform and Conservative auspices.  Taken collectively, this is not the kind of agenda that will further endear most American Jews, let alone world public opinion, to Israel and Zionism.