Israel’s fourth election in two years, on March 23, will cause significant damage to the country’s democracy, in four ways. Two have already occurred and two are likely to occur after the elections. The context for it is Benjamin Netanyahu facing an impending corruption trial and fighting for his political life.
First, in order to come within striking distance of the majority mark, Netanyahu has done what has long been considered unthinkable in Israeli politics. He has entered into a pre-poll alliance with far-right parties that openly espouse extremist views. One of them, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), is headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is accused of ratcheting up rhetoric against the Oslo Accords. Otzma Yehudit draws its ideology from Meir Kahane, a racist anti-Arab whose Kach party was banned in Israel and declared a terrorist organization in the US. If pre-election surveys are to be believed, a coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud party together with religious and far-right parties is likely to give Netanyahu 49 seats, leaving him 11 short of the majority mark.
Netanyahu’s pact with the far-right goes well beyond merely giving them a presence in electoral politics. For the first time, Israel’s cabinet could see the inclusion of individuals who once called for the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Any post-election policy promise Netanyahu may have made to the far-right will take Israel in the direction of less democracy, not more.
Second, Netanyahu has deftly maneuvered to cause a split in the Joint Arab List, a coalition of Arab Israeli parties. The United Arab List, or Ra’am as it is known by its Hebrew name, is an Islamist party, which has counter-intuitively professed support for Netanyahu. Yet, it may not cross the 3.25 percent vote threshold required to enter the Knesset. The other three Arab parties – Hadash, Ta’al and Balad – are likely to see a reduction in their seats in the upcoming election. This split in the Arab Israeli coalition will suppress voter turnout among Arab Israelis. In some instances, particularly in the Negev region, it may even cause Arab Israelis to vote directly for Likud, preferring to direct their vote to the party that truly matters. This will give Netanyahu an additional two or three seats.
Netanyahu’s clever ploy of splitting the Arab parties will render them politically irrelevant. Moreover, there is likely to be a low turnout among Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. Beyond allocating a little money to combatting crime or the housing crisis in Arab-majority areas, Netanyahu is unlikely to take any step toward offering Israeli Arabs fuller citizenship. If anything, going by his advocacy of the controversial Nation State Law, and with the inclusion of the far-right in his government, Netanyahu will further chip away at equal citizenship for Arab Israelis.
Next, there is an evolving “anyone but Netanyahu” grouping of political parties that, while not part of a concrete pre-poll coalition, may eventually come together just to keep Netanyahu out of power. Yet, such is the chasm between their political platforms that, sooner rather than later, they will collapse under the weight of their own differences. For example, despite being secular in their outlook, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid parties are poles apart on the issue of national security and policy toward the Palestinians. Similarly, the other two parties in the “anyone but Netanyahu” camp are Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. It is almost impossible to see how these right-wing parties can co-exist in a coalition with the center-left Labor or left-wing Meretz.
Even f they do manage to topple Netanyahu in this election, Israel’s opposition parties will have done Israeli democracy no favors. They have offered voters no common vision for governance beyond their short-term goal of getting rid of Netanyahu. In government, they are likely to squabble among themselves, in effect paralyzing policymaking. Israel could be heading toward its fifth election in under three years. Fundamental questions about the country’s economy, foreign policy and relations with the Palestinians will remain unresolved. This will set the stage for Netanyahu’s comeback or could even enable the future arrival into Israeli politics of a democracy-busting populist strongman.
Finally, should Netanyahu manage to become prime minister again, he will leave no stone unturned to scotch the anti-corruption trials ranged against him. He will do this through convenient appointments to ostensibly impartial institutions or ram an immunity law through parliament. He already attempted the latter last year and may try again. With its independent institutions hollowed out, Israel will remain a mere electoral democracy, where the regular practice of elections will provide a weak veneer for an irretrievably flawed democracy.
Israel’s status as a full democracy has always been in question, not least because of its treatment of the Palestinians. In recent years, the Israeli state’s treatment of its Arab and Black citizens, immigrants and refugees has further called this into question. The election later this month could very well hasten the demise of Israeli democracy.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.