Alex Kane: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Alex Kane, the Senior Reporter at Jewish Currents and your host today. On November 1, the Israeli electorate delivered a big win to Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition in the fifth Israeli election since 2019. The right-wing bloc won 64 Knesset seats, which will in all likelihood give Netanyahu and allied parties enough votes to form a stable and ideologically coherent coalition government. Netanyahu, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, has been out of power for about a year and a half. He’s currently facing a slew of corruption charges. But his return to power could mean his trial is effectively ended, allowing him and his right-wing allies to push Israel even further to the right than it already is.
Netanyahu’s path to power was paved by the strength of the Religious Zionism coalition, a combination of three of the most extreme elements in Israeli politics, which won 14 seats, the most it has ever gotten. This coalition’s rise has alarmed Israeli liberals and many American Jews because of the views of its top two lawmakers: Bezalel Smotrich who has expressed support for the segregation of Arabs and Jews in Israeli maternity wards, among other extreme views, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, a follower of the far-right ideologue Meir Kahane, who wants to expel Palestinian citizens of Israel from their homes and allow soldiers to kill Palestinians with even more impunity that they are allowed now. Netanyahu’s return to power was also helped along by the poor showings of the Zionist-left parties, Meretz and Labor, as well as the Palestinian-nationalist party Balad not receiving enough votes to make it into the Knesset.
To discuss all of this and more, we have a great group of people. I’m so excited to talk to Jewish Currents Editor at Large, Peter Beinart, Contributing Editor Josh Leifer, and Contributing Writer Elisheva Goldberg. Thanks for joining us. Shev, could you break down exactly what happened in the Israeli elections? Sort of give a summary: What are the most important developments from these elections on the left on the right? And also, could you talk about how these developments were shaped by the rules of the Israeli electoral system?
Elisheva Goldberg: Sure. I’ll just go through the numbers really quick and talk about each of the parties that won. So let’s just start with the Likud’s Likud got 32 seats, and that’s a big win for the Likud. They ran a campaign where, basically, Netanyahu organized his bloc. So it was the right-wing parties, basically, that he organized so that they would be able to have the maximum number of seats. And on the left, you had the top winner as Yesh Atid with 24 seats, but a much less organized bloc. I mean, the third-largest party was this Religious Zionism Party, which got 14 seats, and that’s a combination of three parties that Bibi managed to force together. And they only got to 14 because he did that because they were willing to follow his lead. Without Bibi putting them together, three of those parties would not have passed the electoral threshold. All three of the parties that ran together probably wouldn’t have made it at all in the Knesset and would have wasted a bunch of right-wing votes. So Bibi sort of forced that merger and with their help is going to have a very stable, right-wing government with 62–63, depending–seats in it.
AK: In reading about this, it seems that it’s not as if the right-wing bloc got more total votes. It’s just that, I guess the threshold made it so that a couple parties were not...if you could break that down quickly.
EG: Yeah. So those parties that combined to equal Religious Zionism, which are Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, the Noam party led by Avi Maoz, which is an anti-LGBTQ party, and of course, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party, all had to reach a 3.25% of the vote threshold in order to make it into Knesset. They would not have met that threshold if they had not run together. On the left, Meretz did not make it past that threshold and neither did the Arab party, Balad–the nationalist party Balad. And so, those two parties are left out of the Knesset, and the votes that went towards those parties–which hovered around the 3% number–don’t count. In other words, they don’t actually go into any other version of the left. So many, many votes were wasted on the left and that’s part of why you see such a large bloc on the right.
AK: I think a lot of people are watching these elections and are wondering: How did we get here? How did it come to be that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are part of the third-largest grouping, I guess we should say, in the Knesset? Josh, you wrote a really great piece for us about Itamar Ben-Gvir and what he signifies. How did we get here?
Joshua Leifer: Yeah. I mean, as Shev mentioned, they are the contingencies of the Israeli political system, and part of what enabled them was that they were better organized and had a strategy geared towards the particularities of the electoral threshold. But also, Ben-Gvir was really a viral, populist phenomenon. You could feel it in the streets. I was in Israel for most of the summer, and in August, his supporters and the far right were everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. And I think the main shift that Ben-Gvir managed to do was that he was able to present a far right that didn’t sound so different from where Israeli-mainstream politics are normally, Like Bezalel Smotrich who runs the religious Zionism party, he thinks he’s further to the right than Ben-Gvir for these reasons. He’s much more of a rigorous ideologue, but Ben-Gvir was able to speak a language of brute force and Jewish pride, that even if it was extreme in degree, it was not different in kind from a lot of contemporary expressions of Jewish nationalism.
There are two other elements to Ben-Gvir’s popularity that I think are important. One is that he campaigned as a representative of all of Israeli society. So in general, the right has campaigned as what you would call a sectoral party, and that’s also Bezalel Smotrich’s model, that the votes that they’re going for are the votes of people who are self-identified religious nationalists. But Ben-Gvir–and he said this in his pseudo-victory speech on Tuesday night–he wanted people who weren’t religious nationalists to be on his parliamentary list. And he does, he has a very hawkish, secular Kibbutznik, he has represented the Sephardic traditionalist communities, who are not Haredi but they’re also orthodox in some sense. And he was able to get voters to vote for him who didn’t fit into the old, hard-right sociological grouping.
And then the third one I was gonna say is that Ben-Gvir very successfully identified discontent within Haredi communities over their established parties. So he ran this two-front campaign where he campaigned for secular votes among people who don’t keep Shabbat or anything, and then he campaigned among Haredi voters who are very tired of the conventional orthodox parties that represent them, and especially younger Haredi voters, who are much less inclined to vote for the established parties. And so, he cobbled together this coalition of people who are outside of the secular mainstream and really put together a coalition that we haven’t seen, really, in Israeli politics. I mean, it used to be Likud that was able to do this, and now he filled the political niche that once upon a time Likud was able to fill.
AK: Peter, you’ve written a piece for Jewish Currents. Your piece is about placing the rise of Ben-Gvir in a global context but also talking about the specificities of Ben-Gvir’s rise in Israel and why it might be different than in other countries where we’re seeing similar, authoritarian leaders. So I wanted to invite you to add on to what Josh was saying, but also maybe place what we’re seeing in Israel in a global context.
Peter Beinart: Sure. So the move we’re seeing a lot of people make in saying that Ben-Gvir is the Israeli version of Marine Le Pen–or Giorgia Meloni in Italy, or Donald Trump, or Narendra Modi, or Jair Bolosonaro, or whatever–which by implication means that Yair Lapid, or Benny Gantz, or other centrists would be the equivalent of Joe Biden, let’s say. And the point I made is that I think that misses something really fundamental, which is that Ben-Gvir and Yair Lapid both agree that Israel should be a Jewish-supremacist state, to use perhaps a provocative term, or an ethnocratic state. They both believe that Jews should have rights that Palestinians don’t have. That’s not the crux of their debate. So to the degree that the debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is some version of Donald Trump wants America to be a white, Christian country, and Joe Biden, however imperfectly, wants it to have a civic nationalism where everyone is equal under the law, that’s not the debate between Itamar Ben-Gvir and Yair Lapid. For Yair Lapid, the term “state”–for all its citizens, right, a state that sees all of its citizens as equal–is an epithet in a way that will be hard to imagine it being an epithet for Joe Biden, or even for Emmanuel Macron, or Mario Draghi in Italy, or the Congress Party in India. These are the parties that are fighting against ethnonationalism.
And I think you can see this if you look at the role that immigration plays. In France or Italy, in the US, the signature move for these far-right people is to say, “I’m going to stop immigration to maintain our demographic character, our racial, religious, ethnic identity.” That’s not Ben-Gvir’s signature move. I mean, he is against asylum seekers, but that doesn’t need to be his signature move because Israel already has that immigration policy, and it’s not in dispute. Nobody in the Israeli political mainstream is trying to change it, and it already has a more discriminatory immigration policy than Marine Le Pen would even like for France to have. So the fundamental difference, I argue, is not about immigration. it’s about the idea of deportation. And I think the difference is that Lapid sees Israeli ethnocracy as stable, whereas Ben-Gvir sees it as weak and that it can only be fortified by, if not expelling Palestinians, at least threatening them with the threat of deportation so that they will not challenge the nature of the state. And that’s the disagreement more than an actual disagreement about this fundamental, global divide between equality under the law on the one hand and group supremacy on the other.
AK: The next question is kind of to anyone or all of you, related to what Peter said, which I think is a really important point: If that isn’t the fundamental debate, then that’s the frame in which a new government will come in to say that. That’s a common frame, right? Lapid had that frame, and now Netanyahu has that frame, about privileging Jews over Palestinians including Palestinian citizens of Israel. And there’s a sort of cynical take on the left, where it’s like it doesn’t matter who the coalition is in Israel, they’re all instituting apartheid and occupation. With all of that in mind, should we expect to see any legislative or policy changes from this new government? And if so, which ones? And are they significant in terms of the day-to-day maintenance of the military occupation and discrimination against Palestinian citizens?
EG: I think that what you’re saying, Peter, is extremely true when it comes to the occupation. We’re talking about two different governments that would essentially institute the same policies when it comes to not allowing Palestinians to have rights, period. Inside of Israel, I actually do think that there is a significant difference between what a Ben-Gvir policy-led government and a Lapid-led government would look like. And when I say Ben-Gvir leading, I say he’s the right flank and that means that he’s going to be the one pulling everybody in the direction of the right, which is not a comfortable position for Benjamin Netanyahu, to say the least. But the key thing here is actually, to my mind, not so much Ben-Gvir as it is Smotrich. So again, Ben-Gvir in this grouping with Smotrich and this rabidly anti-LGBTQ party, Noam, which is very small. But Smotrich, he’s coming into the government with Benjamin Netanyahu with a prerequisite, which is a justice platform. And this platform essentially guts the separation of powers in Israel. This is not a platform that any government that Lapid was the head of would allow because it basically takes out the liberal core of democracy, which is that separation of powers or checks and balances work together to protect minority rights, right? Let’s just call that what it is.
Ideally, when a legislature in the United States or anywhere else that calls itself a democracy puts forward a law that is deemed unconstitutional, that harms minority rights–and as I’m saying this it sounds very theoretical, but it’s really not in Israel. Like, there could be laws that are passed that are anti-LGBTQ, that are anti-Arab, certainly. These are real possibilities. The job of the Supreme Court is to say, “No, no, no. That goes against our basic principles, our Constitution, our basic laws,” whatever it is in that case. But in this platform, in this justice platform that Smotrich is demanding be adopted by any government that he joins, he is going to end judicial review. The plan is to include in that platform an override clause, which has been discussed since 2012 but never instituted, that would allow, essentially, the legislature to override and relegislate any law that the judiciary strikes down. And if that’s passed, it means that the Knesset–the legislature, the people’s house–has ultimate, complete, total power. It can legislate anything without fear that will be struck down by the Supreme Court. And that’s an incredibly dangerous and illiberal place to be. So I would say that, yeah, that’s where there’s a significant difference between what this kind of government will look like, likely, and what a Lapid government would look like.
JL: Yeah, I would also add to that, these sorts of policies will flow from the majoritarian revolution that Smotrich wants to implement; an Israeli version, almost, of Orbán’s illiberal democracy. The switch you can think about is like, currently, Israel has, in theory, liberal democracy for Jews within the Green Line and then military dictatorship on the other side of the Green Line. This would be like illiberal democracy for Jews within the Green Line appended to the military dictatorship over the Green Light. But the other thing that I think, talking to people on the ground there over the summer, what people are afraid of is the effect that this will have on civil society. One of the trends in laws that we were able to see towards the end of Netanyahu’s earlier tenures was a bevy of anti-NGO legislation. Some of this ended up being watered down in part because there were constitutional safeguards. So for example, NGOs that take money from foreign governments have to post the governments that they receive funds from on their website. In the beginning, it was that they were going to have to wear badges on their shirts anytime they came into the Knesset. I don’t think it would be impossible for there to be some kind of ban on the activities that anti-occupation and human rights organizations are doing. Even if no legislation is passed, the overall climate will return to one of a climate of intense intimidation, like we saw circa 2016-2017 when there were direct attacks on Breaking the Silence, on B’Tselem. So in addition to the institutional framework of what remains of liberal democracy for Jews, the civil society aspect I think will likely be under threat in a big way.
EG: I just want to say one more thing about Ben-Gvir. I think that this election, as a result of April 2021, riots in mixed towns and cities where Arabs and Jews live together–Ben-Gvir in that moment, in April 2021, really made himself a name in the mainstream as the protector of the Jewish public security. And the conversation that I’ve been hearing in the Israeli media has been about people voting based on what they’re calling personal security–that’s the translation of bitachon ishi, right?–that there’s the sense that we’re not safe. How do we become safe? So I think that the fear that was injected from April 2021 really had echoes in this election, and in Ben-Gvir bringing new people to the polls, and in bringing people from other parties to vote for him, because he put himself out there as like, “Look, I’m no hold barred. I’m going to say what I think, and I’m going to tell you that I think most Arabs are out to get you. And let’s just be honest about this, they have to be stopped.” And so that feeling of terror that he injected into the public consciousness, in addition to, obviously, the things that actually happened in big cities, managed to get votes and get people out as a result. And I think that that’s part of why we see this meteoric rise in his numbers, because Kahanists have been in the Knesset before, but never like this, never in the numbers that we’re seeing here.
PB: One of the things that’s significant about that is it shows just how much further we’ve moved past the idea of a two-state paradigm. There’s an entrenchment of the idea that now you have a far-right leader who’s winning votes, not by saying, “I’m going to keep you safe from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” but as far as you were saying, “I’m going to keep you safe from the Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Because now they represent the posed terrorist threat. And I think that shows the way in which the notion of thinking about these two spaces as politically different is really collapsing.
EG: I think the conversation will be about loyalty and disloyalty, right? Like the idea that you shouldn’t be deporting all Arabs in the country, just those who are “disloyal.” And for him, that could be very broad, but it also will extend likely, as Josh was saying, to Israeli civil society, Jewish civil society.
PB: Right. I mean, his definition of disloyalty seems pretty capacious given that he put up a billboard with probably Israel’s two most prominent Palestinian citizens in the Knesset, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, along with a Jewish member of Hadash, the Jewish party which opposes a Jewish state, under the words, “May they be banished.” So I mean, yeah, if you go by that–
AK: I wanted to get to the foreign policy ramifications of this, particularly with a focus on the United States. After it became clear that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, their grouping would be part of the coalition, there was a report by Barak Ravid in Axios and Walla that US officials are saying that they’re not going to meet with Ben-Gvir as the head of the Israeli Ministry. So what does this mean or not mean for the US-Israel relationship? What does it mean if the Biden administration doesn’t meet with Ben-Gvir but they meet with Netanyahu, which of course they’re going to do because he’s the Prime Minister?
PB: I think it means virtually nothing. I mean, the harsh reality is that if Ben-Gvir got 25 seats and became the Foreign Minister, they would meet with him them. Ultimately, their bedrock position is no rupture with Israel, no pressure on Israel, no conditionality of aid. If they can avoid the unpleasantness of Ben-Gvir they will, but remember, the US banned Narendra Modi when he was governor of Gujarat from entering the United States, but once he became Prime Minister of India that went by the wayside. So, basically, unless American politics shift because the Democratic Party shifts in some significant direction, the structure of the way that the Biden administration and most Democrats respond, like most Jewish organizations respond, is wherever Israel goes, you adapt with essentially blank-check support. And there’s no prospect of that changing in the near term.
AK: Right. I mean, it’s not like Ben-Gvir’s rise is going to lead to any significant changes in US military aid to Israel, or the US abandoning Israel at the UN or protecting Israel from ICC investigations into war crimes. I guess I’m curious how should we assess the American Jewish establishment’s response to this and their potential complicity in what’s going on right now in Israel.
EG: If this government is stable–which it looks like it will be because Bibi has more than 61. It’s not such a precarious coalition. If this continues to be the case, if it continues to be the case that there are Kahanists in the Knesset for the next three-to-five years, I do think that the American Jewish community is going to have to take a really good look at itself and say something like, “This isn’t what we want to see from a country that claims to represent us.” And I think we’re going to only see more polarization. That seems likely because there is, of course, as Peter said, going to be those double down and say, “Yeah, look, it’s Israel. We love it, no matter what,” and there are going to be those that say, “Hey, we cannot abide this.” In other words, now that the political echelon is infested with Kahanists and is really a place where the worst political dreck that Israel could invent is now on the surface, I think that there needs to be a recognition that the place to go is the grassroots. And there needs to be a reinvestment in all of the organizations that are doing work on the ground to ensure that this can be reversed in some way. I mean, not just the political, but also, obviously, the occupation, that there’s a future for this country that is not just sad.
AK: The last thing that I wanted to touch on was: What should we be paying attention to as the coalition negotiations develop and as the new government is formed? Is it a sure thing that Netanyahu is going to bring the far-right into his coalition? Because it seems like it, but I’ve seen some talk that maybe he would trade Ben-Gvir’s party for another party because he might not want to be dragged down by Ben-Gvir. I have no idea about whether that’s actually going to happen, but is this coalition–this far-right coalition–a sure thing? What should we be looking out for?
EG: So I think there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Israeli politics. So yeah, like Benjamin Netanyahu could try and cobble together a very different-looking government and the one that we’re expecting, the one that we’re expecting being the ultra-orthodox parties, who also cleaned up really nicely in this election–he will almost inevitably need those parties, which means that he will not include other parties that would not sit with them. So that’s going to be complicated, but he definitely needs those guys. Religious Zionism, this party that got 14 seats, represents the most obvious of what people call his natural allies. And when he ran his election campaign, he basically said this, “I’m going to form a government of my natural allies.” He organized the bloc so that he would form a government of his natural allies. He wants a far-right government. It’s easier for him. It also provides him with a potential Get Out of Jail Free card, because those parties want annul a law that would basically annul breach of trust, which is something that’s been hanging over his head in his trial for years now and that will continue to hang over his head unless it’s annulled. So there’s a lot of incentive for Netanyahu and a lot of setup for him to form a government with the far right. But you never, never know.
JL: I would add two things. One in Israel/Palestine and one back home in the US. The first, in Israel/Palestine, being because Meretz failed to make the electoral threshold, their future, I think, is very much in doubt. And I think what remains of the Zionist left will have to come up with a new political strategy, whether that means finally creating a joint-Jewish Arab party that is going to compete for the space between Meretz and Balad. Because there were a lot of votes that fell below the threshold, that in some framework–it’s very hard to imagine. Those are very different parties and I don’t want to be naive and say I think that’s there’s a party that would be able to encompass them, but I think that there are some people who voted for those parties in either way, who could if there was the right kind of framework, be part of a joint-Jewish Arab party that might be able to reconfigure the Israeli political map.
And then, in the United States, I think that while I agree with Shev about the importance of supporting groups that are fighting for equality and human rights on the ground, in the reporting that I’ve been doing over the last year, I’ve been very struck by how many young, American Jews would like to disavow and tune out of the conversation about Israel, who want to build a Jewish identity that has nothing to do with Israel. And I think that that trend will only accelerate as Israel continues to be a country that no young, progressive person could ever look to as a moral beacon. In some ways, that threatens, I think, the existential mission of a place like Jewish Currents, where we want people to be engaged but in a critical way. At a certain point, despair over the state of Israel/Palestine can work against us in that people no longer want to be invested and they think there are other pressing issues. Which there are I mean, there’s climate change, there’s democracy in the United States. I’m not saying people should tune out from those either, but I think I have just been very struck by how many people who maybe once would have been in a Jewish, anti-occupation, Palestine solidarity space have turned away towards something else that’s a little bit different, that’s about building a Jewish identity that’s either diasporous or just totally disengaged from Israel. So, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see what the next four years hold in that regard.
PB: I agree. You can also see the fact that the coverage of the Israeli election has just gotten less attention than it would have in past years. I think the Ben-Gvir story would have been bigger in the past, but it’s been overwhelmed by all of the crises that Americans are dealing with at home. I think Josh’s point is exactly right. I think the wildcard, though, is it’s one thing to be able to ignore it when it’s really not a big story United States because things are relatively quiet and the only people who are dying are Palestinians every few days. It’s another thing if there’s an Intifada, and then it’s like we’re going to [official?] like we were last spring. Then I think perhaps some of those people who would like to ignore it because they feel it’s indefensible, actually feel like it’s coming to them in a certain way, and they may be forced to feel like they have to react.
AK: Well, that was our show. Thank you so much to Peter, Josh, and Shev for joining us. You’ve been listening to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to visit Jewish Currents at JewishCurrents.org. We’ll see you next time.