Editor’s note: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scored a victory for his Likud party in the country’s election. He will now seek to form and lead the next government.
We asked two scholars for their initial reaction to the election and its potential implications.
Short-term gains and long-term shifts
Gershon Shafir, Professor of Sociology, University of California San Diego
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu has pulled an electoral rabbit out of the ballot box at the last possible minute.
He did so by cannibalizing the votes of the other parties of the right-wing, or nationalist, bloc. And herein lays his problem.
He will be able to form a new government, his fourth. This is a significant short-term accomplishment. But long-term trends threaten him and his bloc.
Since 1977, Israel has been electing right-wing governments, with two exceptions: that of Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak who were also generals in a country preoccupied with security. But now, for the first time, a civilian leader from the left, Yitzhak Herzog, presented a credible alternative.
Since the 2011 social protest movement, many Israelis have put their stagnant standard of living and the country’s growing economic polarization – among the highest in the world and comparable to the US – at the forefront of their concerns.
Another social justice candidate, Moshe Kahalon, also did surprisingly well. Netanyahu, by contrast, is focused on Iran, ISIS, Hamas, and other real and imaginary security threats. He remains vulnerable to the social protest camp.
The left bloc has several additional accomplishments to be proud of.
The United Arab Party will be the third largest party in the 20th Knesset and will wield a measure of influence Palestinian Arab citizens never have had before in Israel. It is equally significant that this new Arab party chose to emphasize the wishes of its mostly Arab voters for integration and equality with Jews and not for a separatist-nationalist agenda.
It is also the case that the momentum of several right-wing projects has been thwarted.
Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett who seemed poised to expand outside the Russian immigrant and national-orthodox camps respectively and shape new and more aggressive and religious-light Israeli identities, saw their parties rapidly shrink in these elections.
Finally, a truly troubling alliance of the ultra-orthodox with the most explicitly racist elements of Israeli society didn’t make it into the Knesset.
In the longer run, the recovery of the Labor Party (aka the Zionist Union) and the turning back of right-wing ideological projects, will lead to a different Knesset.
Election may lead to more divided American Jews
*Steven M Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion *
The continuation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in office may well deepen divisions within American Jewry over Israel in the coming months and years.
Over the last two years, Mr. Netanyahu enjoyed the partnership of centrist political allies and personalities (most prominently, the former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni), the aura of seeming to genuinely seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the appearance of a good working relationship with the US President and his Secretary of State.
Going into the next term of office – should he manage to create a coalition featuring his right-wing allies and the ultra-Orthodox – Mr. Netanyahu will have none of these at his disposal.
He alienated (well, fired) his centrist former allies, announced on the day before the election that he would prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state, and partnered with the Republican Congressional leadership in opposition to President Obama.
With the President likely to push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, American Jews – especially liberals – will find themselves torn between their President and an Israeli Prime Minister whose supporters, positions, and actions elicit little enthusiasm in Democratic Washington or European capitals.
In the US, pro-Israel advocates, liberal Zionists, and Palestinian sympathizers will all feel more compelled and more justified to push their agendas forward, sometimes wielding much sharper elbows than in the past – accusing each other of violating Jewish values and endangering the security of Israel and the Jewish People.