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Stark choice for Israel as voters head to polls for fourth time in two years

Israeli election poster showing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Blue and white party Beny Gantz
Election fever: Voters head to the polls on March 23. EPA-EFE/ Abir Sultan

Israel’s voters head to the polls next week for what will be the fourth elections in two years. This might seem surprising, as successive governments led by prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, since his return to power in 2009, have steered Israel through years of relative security and stability.

The country has seen expanding diplomatic and trade ties in Africa and Latin America. And the recent and historic Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration, provided for full normalisation of relations between Israel and Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

Netanyahu’s current unity government, forged between his Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party – led by the Israel Defence Force’s former chief of staff, Benny Ganz – is credited with securing and swiftly rolling out millions of coronavirus vaccines.

But under the veneer of relative stability there is an unprecedented political crisis, fuelled by deep divisions. Netanyahu is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – all of which he denies, dismissing them as a political ploy to oust him by legal means rather than through the ballot box.

Conversely, the prime minister’s rivals accuse him of taking the country to election after election with the sole purpose of clinging to power and fighting his criminal case from the office of prime minister. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, who leads the opposition, has warned that he believes that, if reelected, Netanyahu will move to cancel his trial by pushing through retroactive legislation disallowing the prosecution of a serving prime minister.

Lapid and other opposition members are convinced that the current political crisis will not end until Netanyahu is either replaced or finds a way, via legislation or political manoeuvring, to put his trial on hold or to suspend it altogether.

In a recent interview, Lapid stated that a future Netanyahu government is likely to undermine the rule of law by passing legislation to curb the power of the courts and tilting the delicate balance between the three branches of government firmly towards the executive.

Warring camps

This deep political rift has pitted two camps against each other. On one side is a secular-oriented centrist and left-leaning group of parties which have vowed not to help Netanyahu form a government. On the other a political cluster of ultra nationalist and clerical parties committed to Netanyahu. In the four most recent elections neither of these political blocs obtained the 61 seats required to form a lasting government.

Men hang a large banner showing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid.
Stark choice: the election pits the prime minister’s coalition against a centre-left group headed by Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. EPA-EFE/ Abir Sultan

This standoff is exacerbated by competing visions of the future of Israeli democracy. The parliamentary bloc supporting the prime minister is comprised of ultra-orthodox parties – including Shas and United Torah Judaism, and pro-settler and explicitly racist parties, such as Religious Zionism with whom Likud has signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement.

Vote-sharing agreements are used widely in Israeli elections and allow parties to ensure that any extra votes that they win which do not add up to a Knesset seat, do not go to waste. They allow the transfer of extra votes to another party through a special agreement, typically signed between political and ideological partners.

Religious Zionism is led by Bezalel Smotrich, a vehement pro-settler and anti-gay politician who has stated publicly that he is “a proud homophobe”. Number three on the list, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is often perceived to be a disciple of the late far-right racist rabbi Meir Kahane. The vote-sharing agreement validates Religious Zionism and its blatantly racist anti-Palestinian and homophobic views, as a legitimate force in Israeli politics.

Clashing visions

In contrast, Lapid stated recently he would form a government with the external support of the Joint List, which combines candidates from three Arab parties. This is an unprecedented act from a leading Zionist politician during an election campaign. The contrast between Netanyahu’s illiberal political block, bent on imposing a majoritarian democracy on Israel’s minorities, and the progressive political cluster that would grant them greater representation and recognition, is stark.

The impending elections have once again thrust Israel’s secular-religious divide into the limelight. Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox supporting block is battling to preserve its economic interests and political influence and enhance its religious purist vision for Israel. The anti-Netanyahu camp embodies the deep frustrations felt by many Israelis over the disproportionate power wielded by the religious parties in government and the privileges they afford ultra-orthodox Jews via child-support benefits and exemptions from military service.

An election worker in full body protective clothing stands stands in a booth surrounded by clear screens.
There are special polling stations for people infected with COVID. EPA-EFE/ Abir Sultan

While debates over domestic issues have figured prominently during the campaign, the issue of foreign policy has been somewhat sidelined. Netanyahu’s 12 years has shifted the foreign policy centre ground in Israel. Most of the public backs the historic Abraham Accords and Netanyahu’s hardline stance towards Iran. The toxic mix of a sense of entitlement and denial that Palestinians are occupied have removed the erstwhile debates over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the political agenda.

And yet, as a recent study shows, domestic factors and Israeli foreign policy are entangled. A victory for the pro-Netanyahu bloc is likely to precipitate Israel’s illiberal, populist and anti-democratic turn and deepen the occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank. This would undermine any idea that Israel and its western allies share values of human freedom and democracy.

A government led by the anti-Netanyahu bloc might reverse this ominous development. It would strengthen Israel’s tenuous liberal foundations and the rule of law. It may even seek to relaunch the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What is at stake on March 23 is crystal clear.

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