“The Israel We Knew Is Gone” is how The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman described it, quoting one of his and my favorite political commentators, Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea. Barnea himself headlined his weekend post-election article “The November Revolution.”

We know that Israel and particularly the younger generation has been moving to the right. This is partly due to the failure of all attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “there is no partner” claim made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the failure of the Camp David 2000 Summit; the impact of the violent second intifada on Israeli society; the divisions on the Palestinian side; the relentless promotion of a right-wing annexationist, anti-democratic and racist agenda by well-funded, right-wing organizations and parties which seeped into the media, the educational system, and the army; the impact of violent clashes with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank; growing economic inequality; concerns following the Jewish-Arab confrontations in the mixed cities in May 2021; and an increasing lack of personal security in the outlying areas of the country. And let’s not forget the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 27 years ago by a rightwing Jewish extremist, which was meant (and apparently succeeded) to kill the peace process.

Of course, there is also demography. The right simply has more children than the center-left. This is particularly true of the ultra-Orthodox, who have an average of 8-10 children. And unfortunately, while the national (Zionist) Orthodox were a moderate element in Israeli society before the1967 war — drove them crazy with the “miraculous God-given victory” and the ultra-Orthodox were not particularly involved in political matters other than in defense of their own narrow interests — today both religious communities have become right wing and messianic in their orientation. Forty of the 65 Knesset members of the incoming government are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, including seven members of the Likud. There was just one progressive Reform member of the previous coalition, Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Labor Party (so far the only Reform member of Knesset).

Yet despite these trends, it should be noted that secular Jews, who tend to vote center-left, still make up 41.4% of the Jewish population, followed by the traditional (Masorti) Jews accounting for 38.5% of the population, while 17% are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.

So, was this extreme right-wing victory inevitable? Not at all.

Blinded by the Polls

On the eve of the elections, all the polls indicated that there was a strong possibility of a tie between the parties supporting Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud and all the parties in the “government of change” led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, together with what was left of the Arab Joint List. A tie would have meant that Lapid would continue as interim prime minister until the next elections, together with the eight right, center, and left parties that compose the anti-Netanyahu government.

The final vote tally indicates an almost equal division between those voting for the two blocs. The anti-Netanyahu bloc actually got 30,000 more votes than the pro-Netanyahu bloc! However, the fact that the Zionist-left Meretz party and the Arab nationalist Balad party fell short of the 3.5% voter threshold and did not enter the Knesset meant that all of their votes did not count, and the final result was 64 seats for Netanyahu’s bloc and only 56 seats for those opposed to Netanyahu.

Meretz got 151,000 votes, and lacked only another 3,800 votes to enable it to have four members of Knesset, creating a tie. You can add to this the fact that Balad was also not far from the voter threshold with 138,000 votes, and if they had remained within the Arab Joint List, it would have probably gotten seven or eight members of Knesset.

So, where did those 3,800 votes for Meretz go? 1) The last pre-election polls said that Meretz would get an average of four-five seats, so previous Meretz voters felt secure to vote for alternatives. 2) Some Meretz voters responded to Yair Lapid’s call to make his party the strongest party, to compete with the Likud. 3) The vote for Lapid’s centrist neo-liberal party in kibbutzim reflects perhaps a change in the socio-economic status and self-definition of many kibbutz members who used to vote for Meretz (and Labor). 4) One of the alternatives was to vote for what was left of the Arab Joint List, Hadash-Ta’al, which also appeared to be hovering at the threshold to get into the Knesset and whose leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi made an appeal to left-wing Jewish voters to help save them. In the end, they got five seats in the Knesset. 5) Zehava Galon as the returning leader of the party and Mossi Raz (who before returning to the Knesset was an active member of the PIJ Editorial Board) elected as the first candidate on the Knesset list both placed struggling against the occupation and for peace with the Palestinians as the top priority. But that (sadly) is not a priority for most Israelis, even on the left, so that was not as attractive as it was 30 years ago when the party was founded in 1992. 6) Lapid rejected the proposal by Meretz MKs Mossi Raz and Michal Rozin to lower the voting threshold to enter the Knesset from 3.5% to 2% like it used to be, which had the backing of a majority of the Knesset members, including Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chair of the ‘Israel Is Our Home’ party, who had initiated the raising of the threshold. That would have guaranteed that both Meretz and Balad would have made it into the Knesset, blocking Netanyahu’s return. 7) And finally, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli rejected Lapid’s appeal, which was backed by three former Labor ministers Avraham Shochat, Uzi Baram, and Ophir Pines-Paz and by Galon, to run a joint campaign, which would have guaranteed that both Meretz and Labor together would have gotten at least seven or eight seats. Haaretz published an editorial calling on Michaeli to accept responsibility for what happened and resign.

So, is this “the end of Israel as we know it?” Is Barnea correct when he writes “could this be the beginning of the end of the age of secular, Israeli, liberal Zionism” and that “a new age has been born, which is anti-liberal, ultra-Orthodox/messianic, and belligerent?”

Victory for the Neo-Fascist Right

The alliance between the right-wing Religious Zionist party led by MK Betzalel Smotrich who lives in the Kedumim settlement and the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party led by MK Itamar Ben-Gvir who lives in the Kiryat Arba settlement, both Orthodox Jews, was the clear victor of the elections. These parties rose from six seats in the 2021, 24th Knesset to 14 seats in the 2022, 25th Knesset. Nine settlers will be members of the 25th Knesset. What other country has members of parliament who do not live within the sovereign boundaries of their country?

Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are parallel in their views to the neofascist Giorgia Meloni recently elected prime minister in Italy.

Ben-Gvir, the rabble-rousing “star” of the elections, is a follower of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane and served as the youth coordinator of his Kach party. He did not serve in the Israeli army because of his racist views and his conviction for incitement to racism and terrorism. Ben-Gvir kept a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of 29 Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, hanging in his home until recently, and he speaks at the annual memorial for Kahane. In an attempt to moderate his image, he urges his followers to no longer chant “Death to the Arabs” but rather “Death to terrorists,” and he has said that he is looking for an opportunity to expel the Arabs, “by train” if necessary.

Smotrich, an extreme religious Zionist who was declared persona non grata by the mainstream Board of Deputies of British Jews, would like to turn Israel into a theocratic state like Iran which would be based on halacha (Jewish law). One of his pearls of wisdom is that he wouldn’t want his wife to be in the same ward as an Arab mother when she is giving birth, and he actively opposed the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, organizing a counter “beast parade.”

Both have law degrees and are strong supporters of the settler movement. Smotrich, who delayed service in the army until he was 28 and then only served a shortened period in the operations division of the general staff, would like to hold the defense portfolio, which would put him in charge of developments in the occupied territories. Ben-Gvir, a convicted felon who never served in the army and, as a Knesset member, provocatively waved a pistol around in Sheikh Jarrah would like to be the minister of internal security, in charge of the police!

Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir, the most extreme government in Israel’s history.

What Happened to Netanyahu?

During most of his career, Netanyahu, who is secular and very intelligent, has almost always sought to include moderate, centrist, and even leftist (Labor) parties in his government to create a balance which would enable him to carry out relatively cautious and pragmatic policies.

Today, all of the more liberal, democratic members of the Likud have left the party, sickened by Netanyahu’s lurch to the right and his alliance with Ben-Gvir to save his own skin from the trial he is facing on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The Likud has strayed far from the vision of the ideological fathers of the Revisionist movement, the secular, liberal Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky who believed in the need to respect the rights of both peoples in the land and proposed that “in every (future) cabinet with a Jewish prime minister, there shall be an Arab deputy prime minister, and vice versa,” and Menachem Begin, a prouddefender of democracy who was opposed to the military regime established by Ben-Gurion after the creation of the state to rule over the Palestinian Israeli citizens and very much believed in the independence of the courts and the rule of law.

One of the primary questions we face now is how much of their policies will the new government be able to implement. Netanyahu’s primary goal is to evade conviction and a jail sentence. Smotrich wants to propose a law that would cancel the crime of fraud and breach of trust, two of the major charges in Netanyahu’s trial. An “override law” is also being proposed that would enable a simple majority of 61 members of Knesset to override any decision by the Supreme Court, undermining the separation of powers that is one of the foundations of democracy. These are basic challenges to the very fabric of Israeli democracy (within the Green Line, since there is no democracy in the occupied territories).

The other concern about Netanyahu’s intentions is the perception that he is thinking about his political legacy, since this probably will be his last term in power, and he wants the prevention of Iran from getting nuclear weapons to be at the top of the list. While no Israeli and no Arab country in the region wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, there is a concern that Netanyahu might initiate something rash in this area. Both the responsible Israeli security establishment and the international community have to be on the alert to prevent such a possibility.

Israel Will Not Become a Theocratic State, But…

It is inconceivable that Smotrich will be able to promote his vision of a theocratic society. It would arouse too much opposition, though there will be attempts to reduce the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, which will have to be fought.

The ultra-Orthodox Haredim, who will have 18 seats in the Knesset and senior positions in the government, will primarily be interested in gaining more material benefits for their community at the expense of the general public’s welfare. They will do this without being required to share the burden of military service or include the core subjects of math, science, and English in their curriculum, without which their growing percentage within the Israeli population will not be prepared to contribute constructively to the Israeli economy.

The ultra-Orthodox Haredim, who will have 18 seats in the Knesset and senior positions in the government, will primarily be interested in gaining more material benefits for their community at the expense of the general public’s welfare. They will do this without being required to share the burden of military service or include the core subjects of math, science, and English in their curriculum, without which their growing percentage within the Israeli population will not be prepared to contribute constructively to the Israeli economy.

The “Battle for Area C”

The main issue that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will try to promote, together with their allies in the Likud and among the Haredim, is the expansion of settlements and the occupation and the increased deprivation of Palestinian rights, both in the occupied territories and the inside the State of Israel. Though it is doubtful that they will try to carry out a formal annexation of territory, a major struggle will be directed at what they call “the battle for Area C,” which makes up 60% of the West Bank. The Palestinians, the Israeli human rights groups, and the international community, particularly the EU, should be on the alert and have an important role to play to prevent a further takeover of Area C, which is essential to retain the possibility of a future two-state solution.

One of the major unknowns is how the Palestinians will react to this new government and its intentions toward them. This will be a major challenge, and it is clear that the Palestinians have to try to get their act together to formulate an effective plan with initiatives to counteract the threats that the new government will pose toward them.

The Future of the Democratic Left

As for the democratic left, with Meretz out of the Knesset for the first time since its founding in 1992, and Labor reduced to four seats (in 1992, Labor had 44 seats and Meretz had 12 seats!) rethinking and reorganization about how to proceed is needed. One possibility would be the development of a new social-democratic party based upon the remnants of Labor and Meretz that will try to establish a connection with the underprivileged sections of Israeli society who currently vote for the right through policies that will address the inequalities they suffer from and the need to strengthen a welfare state that will provide better education, social services, and affordable housing.

Another possibility is the development of a much needed joint Jewish- Arab political partnership in Israel, perhaps via a new, joint Jewish-Arab party. The foundation for such a party has already been registered under the name “All Its Citizens.” One of the problems preventing movement in this direction is that MK Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash (former Communist Party), has preferred a primarily Palestinian Israeli coalition, originally the Joint List and now Hadash-Ta’al, to a genuine joint Jewish-Arab venture. MK Mansour Abbas’s Islamist United Arab List, now the largest party representing the Palestinian Israeli citizens and a precedent-setting member of the outgoing “government of change,” is also not a potential partner for a joint Jewish-Arab venture. Except for support for democracy and a Palestinian state, their positions are more in line with the conservative right than the left.

Yet without a Jewish Israeli political partnership with the Palestinian Israelis, who constitute 20% of the citizens of the country, there will be no chance for the democratic forces within Israeli society to regain power. That will also be a key to any possible movement forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I labeled this article “The Election Shock,” and perhaps what we need is shock therapy. Might that come from a third intifada (with all the tragic loss of life on both sides)? Or perhaps from international pressure which, while necessary and desirable, at this moment seems unlikely.

In the coming period, there will be many discussions about how to proceed, and all are welcome to participate in that discussion.