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Video: Israel’s Election – The Follow-Through

David M. Weinberg

“The sky is not falling” as a result of Israel’s most recent election—the fifth in less than four years—says Israeli political analyst David Weinberg. Disappointing the Israeli left, “and some diaspora Jews, as a matter of fact,” the vote appears to give former prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud the opportunity to form a 64-seat coalition with three smaller, religious nationalist parties in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament), Weinberg said.

Israelis voted primarily on issues of personal and national security and Israel’s national identity, not Jewish religious orthodoxy, Weinberg told a Jewish Policy Center webinar on November 7. “Civil rights remain strong” and Israel will continue to be a source of Middle East regional security, he asserted.

A columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom newspapers and senior fellow at Israel’s Kohelet Forum and at Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum, Weinberg said “we can almost say the Israel left lost as much as the right won.” Outgoing care-taker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz “barely managed to expand” the votes their center-left parties received in 2021, Weinberg noted.

Their coalition—a left-center-right spectrum that included the Israeli Arab Ra’am Party—ended Netanyahu’s previous 12 consecutive years as prime minister. It presented itself internationally as moderate and stable, Weinberg said. “But it never managed at home to convince Israelis it was tough enough to push back on Israel’s adversaries successfully.”

Riots in mixed Arab-Jewish Israeli cities during the 11-day Israel-Hamas war in May, 2021 saw Arab Israelis attack Jewish Israelis. Increasing crime and violence in Arab towns in northern Israel and “mayhem” in Bedouin settlements in the southern Negev, and rising Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and around Jerusalem “nudged the position of the Israeli electorate to the right,” Weinberg said. Voters looked for parties “to push back on Arab violence without apology.”

Though “political analysts will tell you Netanyahu’s preference always has been a wide government so he sits more or less in the center,” he will be unlikely to do that this time, according to Weinberg. His potential coalition partners are the “ultra-Orthodox” United Torah Judaism and Shas parties plus Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism and Bezalel Smotrich’s Otzma Yehudit parties.

A follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach Party was outlawed as racist, Ben-Gvir was convicted of anti-Arab incitement in 2007. In building the Jewish nationalist Religious Zionism party, Ben-Gvir reportedly has moderated his rhetoric if not his suspicion of Israeli Arabs. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have pledged to enter a coalition only as a team.

“How is it possible so many Israelis voted for a man who seems radical and dangerous,” making his the third-largest party in the incoming Knesset? Weinberg asked. “It’s important to understand why many non-racist, rational Israelis” did. The answer begins with security and Israel’s Jewish national identity.

When an Arab Israeli politician called five Palestinian terrorists killed by the Israel Defense Forces “martyrs” and wept for them not long before the latest vote, she epitomized for many Jewish Israelis what they oppose. Hence, said Weinberg, the trend that has reduced the two leading Zionist parties of the center-left and left, Labor and Meretz, from 56 seats in 1992 to four seats today, and successor smaller parties to 38.

“Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to meet all the demands of his right-wing partners,” Weinberg forecast. These demands include rebalancing the judicial system to increase Knesset authority at the expense of the courts; influence over “personal status” issues including religious conversions; and education in secular schools—in which the outgoing government eliminated a matriculation examination in Bible studies, considered a source of Jewish Israeli identity going back to the governments of first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

“The haredi [“ultra-Orthodox”] vote did not get an appreciable boost,” he added. Some support was lost to the more nationalist Religious Zionism faction. “This may be a sign haredim no longer feel the need to vote only for ultra-Orthodox religious parties,” Weinberg said.

Some voters may have backed Ben-Gvir and Smotrich “to keep Netanyahu honest from the right,” he said, given that as finance minister Netanyahu had slashed subsidies for religious institutions, large families and day care. Further, as prime minister, “Bibi” as he’s known, never authorized a surge in settlement building in Judea and Samaria or push for annexation of any of the disputed territories.

Confronting Iran with its nuclear weapons ambition and Hezbollah, Hamas and other surrogates throughout the region and expanding the Abraham Accords by bringing in Saudi Arabia are what really interest Netanyahu, Weinberg said. The Biden administration, on the other hand, has pursued a new Iran nuclear agreement and has been cool toward the Trump administration mediated peace agreements among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.