Sometime after Israel holds its elections on September 17—its second national election in 2019—the country will have a government again. After nearly a year of asking who will win, Israelis can instead begin asking what the new government will do.
But given the most likely results for a new government, based on the expected electoral outcomes, changes in policy on the towering issues of Israeli society will only be a matter of degree. On the biggest issue defining Israel’s future—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a close look at the contrasting rhetoric of the two main parties belies striking similarity.
This election year for Israel has been particularly tumultuous. In December 2018, the Israeli parliament disbanded and elections were held in April, but the winning Likud party failed to form a coalition. A small, right-wing party headed by Avigdor Lieberman—acting as a “kingmaker”—made tough demands in exchange for its support, causing coalition negotiations to collapse, and in late May the whole process began again.
Polls now show voters preparing to repeat a similar pattern from April, when the right-wing parties together won a majority of 65 parliamentary seats out of 120. A dramatic change of heart by the electorate looks unlikely, not only based on horse-race polls: in surveys I’ve conducted, voters’ self-identification with the left, right, or center hasn’t changed in over a decade. In other words, the electoral drama might make a big difference to the fortunes of Israel’s individual politicians and parties, but the country is not undergoing a sea change. The next government is unlikely to produce significant shifts in some of Israel’s most important policy areas.
Can Israel’s Political Elite Change Course?
What kind of government emerges after September 17 therefore depends on what political elites will do following the vote. The options are limited: most likely, Israel will get either a firm-right coalition, or a center–right unity government. Both are possible: the mercurial Avigdor Lieberman now says he will push for a unity coalition between Likud and the centrist challenging party, Blue and White. Polls show him doubling seats under his control from five to ten, and so far no poll shows the right-wing bloc earning sufficient seats to form a hard-right coalition without Lieberman. Furthermore, Benjamin Netanyahu’s advanced-stage legal troubles give him less leverage than in the past.
There is hardly any path to a center–left coalition. The parties of the center and the left together simply don’t have the numbers in surveys or in a decade of election results to win a majority. Furthermore, some of those parties may boycott one another. The newly reconstituted Joint List, merging several parties representing Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel have helpfully, and historically, offered to join a center–left government led by Blue and White. With Joint List slated to win 11–12 seats, this could have been a meaningful option—but was almost reflexively rejected by Blue and White, which prefers to prove its credibility to moderate right-wing voters. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has aptly called a center–left coalition “Sweet dreams/pie in the sky.”
The last dramatic question is whether Netanyahu’s long reign as prime minister finally ends. He could be indicted within months after the elections. Several parties have sworn they will not join a coalition if he remains in office. At the very least, Netanyahu might be pressured into sharing a rotation of the top job with other leaders. There are numerous scenarios in which he does not continue as prime minister, or at least not for long.
But the expectation that a center–right government, even without Netanyahu, will yield a major change of direction is misguided. Israel’s direction over the past decade cannot be attributed exclusively to Netanyahu. Many of the trends that have shaped Israel’s trajectory began well before him and only accelerated under his terms. Some will continue without him.
The expectation that a center–right government, even without Netanyahu, will yield a major change of direction is misguided.
The deepest division in Israel is the question of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Neither party contending for the leadership has proclaimed a negotiated two-state final status agreement as its goal.
Likud has not published a written platform in a decade, but its policies over that time speak for themselves. Since taking power in 2009, physical de facto annexation of the West Bank has expanded. There were nearly 290,000 Israeli Jewish settlers in the West Bank in 2009, and at present there are about 413,000. Settlement neighborhoods have cropped up in strategic locations that break up territorial contiguity in the West Bank. Likud leaders have announced their intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts or all of the West Bank, and the prime minister famously announced his support for extending Israeli sovereignty over all settlements, which are spread throughout Area C—over 60 percent of the West Bank.
Blue and White says little, but tries to contrast its vision of “separation” from the Palestinian, to Likud’s annexation. Yet their written platform states: “We will strengthen the blocs of settlements and allow normal life in every place where Israelis live. The Jordan Valley will be the eastern security border of Israel. We will allow accelerated economic development in Palestinian Authority areas, and leave the horizon open to a future diplomatic accord. United Jerusalem will be the eternal capital of Israel.” [author’s translation]
Like Likud, there is no mention of a Palestinian state or a two-state solution. The cryptic phrase “normal life everywhere Israelis live,” is unclear, but could be interpreted as a euphemism for extension of regular Israeli civil law to all settlers even outside the large settlement blocs (these outlying settlements are the biggest impediment to a future Palestinian state). Extending Israeli law, in turn, is a euphemism for sovereignty, itself a synonym of annexation. That’s what Netanyahu promised in April.
Strengthening the large settlement blocs, normalizing life for Israeli settlers outside the blocs, and maintaining Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley translates to permanent Israeli control over Area C. The territory of Area C forms a thick band around the any remaining Palestinian territory in the West Bank, criss-crossing the region and bottling up the Palestinians left inside. Both parties are laying the groundwork for irreversible Israeli control in this area—and an end to a future Palestinian state.
Little New Policy Thinking
In fact, Blue & White’s platform dealing with security issues is not primarily about the Palestinians. The very first country mentioned other than Israel is Iran. The platform is indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s leadership: Iran presents the greatest existential threat; Iran has armed and threatened non-state actors around Israel’s borders, and of course clings to its nuclear program. What should be done? According to the party’s platform, the answer is:
Preserve the ongoing mission against Iran establishing itself on the northern front, prevent the arming of Hezbollah, and prepare for the possibility of war. Strengthen the ongoing actions against Iran and Hezbollah, alongside ongoing diplomacy with Russia, to help distance Iran and its proxies from Syrian lands. [Author’s translation.]
Needless to say, the Golan Heights will remain Israeli sovereign territory and is not up for discussion—this merits a single, terse line.
Beyond foreign affairs, two of the most prominent issues that will define Israel in the future are religion and state, and Israel’s democratic institutions. The role of the judiciary and the Supreme Court has become a particularly increasingly contentious issue.
Again, the range of difference between a firm right or center–right coalition is more limited than observers—and voters—might realize. The coalition negotiations in April collapsed over the outlines of a law to draft the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), following decades of historic exemptions for this group. But attempts at a draft law stretch back nearly twenty years, spanning various types of governments, and invariably spark political strife. A right–center coalition government from 2013 to 2015 without ultra-orthodox parties passed a draft law that was never implemented. There is simply no overnight solution; any draft law will advance incrementally, like the incrementally rising Haredi draft rate itself, and the only difference is how strict such a law will be. Real social integration needs to go beyond the IDF and it requires holistic solutions.
A unity government could differ in advancing greater secular freedoms, such as expanding public transportation and commercial activity on Sabbath. Maybe—again slowly, painfully—Israel will begin allowing civil authorities to govern family law rather than hardline religious bodies.
The fate of the judiciary is the newest issue in the last two election cycles, relative to these long-term problems. In recent years, the right wing has waged a campaign to weaken and delegitimize the judiciary. The Supreme Court bears the brunt of their rage: Netanyahu’s last government appointed a committed warrior against judicial activism, Ayelet Shaked, as justice minister. In both campaigns of 2019, far-right-wing parties have sworn to end the “dictatorship” of the Supreme Court.
Sidelining the Courts
One nexus of the current debate is the “override clause,” legislation that would allow the Knesset to overrule judicial review. Right-wing governments have sought this power, on and off, for several years. More recently, the override issue has been fused with Netanyahu’s desire to evade prosecution: many expect the next government to advance legislation giving him immunity. The override law would then fortify an immunity law from a Supreme Court ruling against such protection. Opposition parties have warned of an “immunity coalition.” All this makes it tempting to reduce the argument over the judiciary to a fight by and for Netanyahu.
But the assault on the judiciary pre-dates Netanyahu; it emerges from earlier rifts in Isareli society. The backlash against judicial activism began in the late 2000s, under justice minister Daniel Friedmann. He was appointed by the centrist prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose party governed together with Labor—a center–left coalition. Friedmann sought to annul judicial review, limit the terms of the chief justice, and boost political representation on judicial appointment committees (today, four out of nine members of the committee are politicians). The controversy has gathered vitriol over the last decade; any right-wing government will likely maintain the assault.
Will a center–right coalition do better? Blue and White’s platform does promise—in anodyne language—to “prevent injury to the status of the Supreme Court and the law enforcement system,” as well as advance legislation to formalize the relationship between the legislature and the judiciary. Shaked, the recent former justice minister, now heads the right-wing party Yemina, which will surely join a right-wing coalition. But she could also join a unity coalition with Blue and White, or any other coalition led by the latter. Since three of the prominent figures in Blue and White are themselves former senior officials in Netanyahu’s governments, they may harbor secret sympathy for the cause of restraining the courts. A center–right coalition of these elements does not guarantee an about-face in support of Israel’s judiciary, though they may hold back the specter of immunity for Netanyahu.
A right-wing government will stay the course of the last decade. In the event of a coalition between Likud and Blue and White, the policy gaps are not large. This may be good news for governance and coalition stability; but it does not herald a significant shift of course for Israel.
cover photo: A likud party note with the photo of Israel’s Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu is left on the floor after an after vote event in Tel Aviv, Israel. Source: Amir Levy/Getty Image