Right-wing parties won a resounding majority in Israel’s November 1 elections, securing a parliamentary majority of more than 70 out of 120 seats. The ideological and political right will dominate the Knesset even if the next Israeli government is unstable, since not all of the right-wing parties will agree to join a coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
The latest election was Israel’s fifth over the last four years. The coalition math suggests that Israel’s period of political instability might end, at least temporarily, as Netanyahu is poised to have a 65-seat majority (out of 120) for coalition building. Still, political divisions around Netanyahu, who is standing trial for corruption, mean that even that new government might not be stable. But the overall trend among Israel’s Jewish voters continues to move rightward, with distressing implications for Palestinian rights, any meaningful peace process, and even democratic Israeli institutions.
Century International fellow Dahlia Scheindlin for years has chronicled the erosion of democratic institutions in Israel, and the right’s systematic attack on the judiciary. Her 2021 report for Century made the case that the attack on the judiciary would make Israel less democratic, more religious, and ultimately accelerate the drive to annex more occupied territory. Writing this week in The New York Times, she argued that a Netanyahu victory would further politicize the judiciary and erode rights.
Century International director Thanassis Cambanis asked Dahlia about some of the most important implications of the elections.
Thanassis: You had cautioned against expecting serious strides toward peace from the supposedly more centrist Lapid–Bennett government that just lost the elections. What does the success of Bibi and the right herald, long-term, for peace and Palestinian rights? Should we conclude that the Israeli electorate has embraced a maximalist view and is no longer interested in considering any form of equal rights for Palestinians, or any end to occupation of Palestinian territory?
Dahlia: I think we have to look at this result as part of a continuum. It’s not a paradigm shift, but a continuation of forces in play for a decade, maybe longer. Armed conflict has escalated in recent years, not only in Gaza and other occupied territories, but inside Israel’s Green Line, in its sovereign territory before the 1967 war. Conflict and violence are not good for democracy. Israelis have for decades prioritized nationalism and security. Then in recent years the country has added a populist–nationalist dimension akin to trends in other countries. The only question now is how far to the right the next government will be.
Thanassi: How would you describe the prevailing mindset?
Dahlia: We should think of it as people who are ultra-nationalists, territorial maximalists, and annexationists. And they have authoritarian illiberal tendencies and values. This is the populist–nationalist version of Israel’s existing right-wing camp, which is a majority of the electorate.
This goes beyond a Netanyahu worldview. People make a mistake when they view Israeli politics and this election cycle as being exclusively about Netanyahu, or if they think about the rise of the far-right party mainly in terms of helping Netanyahu get off the hook from his corruption charges. Anyone who cares about democracy in Israel should not be distracted by Netanyahu. He is the great convener and facilitator of far-right forces, but the issue is bigger than Netanyahu.
For the far right, which is now dominant in Israeli politics, the rule of law is dispensable. Over time, the commitment to an independent judiciary, and a society that values the rule of law, limits on the power of government, and the protection of political and national minorities—these things are incompatible with protracted war and occupation.
For the far right, which is now dominant in Israeli politics, the rule of law is dispensable.
Thanassis: Are Israeli politics in a state of long-term imbalance? Can we expect many more long years to come of frequent elections, unstable coalition governments, and yo-yo policy shifts? Or is this election the sign that the country is moving toward a stable, decisive, right-wing majority that tilts even to the right of Netanyahu when he last was in charge?
Dahlia: Netanyahu himself is headed for a coalition majority, but the right wing, broadly speaking, is ascendant and bigger than Netanyahu’s coalition. The majority of the Israeli population self-identifies as right wing, easily over 50 percent. The percentage of Jews who identify as right wing is as high as 64 percent. That’s an important distinction, because Arab Palestinian citizens are only about 17 percent of the voting population. And even if turnout was higher than expected among these citizens, still it looks like only around half of Arabs in Israel voted; so the vast majority of Israelis who actually voted reflect the Jewish ideological breakdown much more.
When the right wing talks about rule of law, they mean cracking down on minorities to keep them in a subservient position. On election night, Itmar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, told his followers that “we are the masters of the house.” The mob chanted “Death to Arabs” and “death to terrorists.” For them, Arabs are terrorists. I feel like I was watching a rally of brownshirts.
What does it mean to be right wing? Does Ben-Gvir represent what most right-wingers believe? The right still has a chance to save itself from depravity. The only hope from a democratic perspective is that there might be a reaction from within the right wing against what the extreme right wing stands for. We know from surveys that the extreme and moderate right hold some distinctly different attitudes, and the question remains whether the moderate camp will take a stand.
Thanassis: Unfortunately I don’t foresee the United States making any serious course correction to distance itself from the most egregious rights-stripping and maximalism of the Israeli right. But, I know you have a lot of ideas about what the United States ought to be doing differently. Now we’re about to see the return of an unrepentant right, probably led by Netanyahu, who has blatantly politicized his relationship with the United States, siding with one party in domestic U.S. politics. What do you think is the most important thing for the United States to do now?
The United States could use policy to encourage Israel to return to negotiations and to view Palestinian economic development not as an end to itself but as a path back toward conflict resolution.
Dahlia: I don’t think America can do very much about the ideological direction Israel has taken or what kind of government it establishes. America can focus on policy. I think that the United States is definitely not going to take significant steps to pressure Israel on policy, even though the United States does have leverage and could do more. However, Israeli politicians are sensitive when they perceive discontent from their most important source of international support and American leaders should express that discontent when it comes to Israel abandoning democratic values even at home. The United States could use policy to encourage Israel to return to negotiations and to view Palestinian economic development not as an end to itself but as a path back toward conflict resolution.
Header photo: Former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu cast their vote in the Israeli general election on November 1, 2022 in Israel. (Source: Amir Levy/Getty Images)