The elections in Israel on April 9 are taking place under extraordinary circumstances. The past few years have seen Israel intensifying its war on the Palestinians on all fronts, with the aid of the United States and other western powers. From the increased number of air raids on Gaza and the brutal attacks on the Great March of Return Protests to recent declarations of intent to make illegal Jewish settlements part of Israel, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been making a concerted effort to crush Palestinian aspirations. This has also been accompanied by a profound right-wing shift in Israel, with many of Netanyahu’s coalition partners and other parties seeking to outdo him in violent rhetoric.
It is amid all this that Netanyahu seeks his fourth term as the prime minister in the Knesset election on April 9, The elections were advanced due to the increasing shakiness of the ruling coalition. Netanyahu is also on the dock on corruption charges and experts say he is hoping to the use the election to bolster his legitimacy. While most opinion polls have declared him the favorite, unlike in the past, Likud has a close contender in the form of former general Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Alliance.
In terms of their policies, the rivals are not much different, especially on the issues of Palestine. The major issues in the election are security and corruption. The race among all the main parties is to look tougher on Arabs. Thus, in the self-proclaimed ‘lone democratic country in the entire Middle East and North Africa,’ it seems like voters do not have any real choice. Irrespective of who the victor is, the status of Palestinians and the Arab-Israelis will remain the same if it not worse.
The Parties and their Agenda
As many as 47 parties will contest for 120 seats. According to Israel’s Basic Law, the Knesset has a proportional representation system where all recognized parties which have more than 3.25% of the vote, get seats in proportion to the number of votes they have got. This is the reason that no party in Israel can get majority of its own. Voters cast their ballots for parties, which subsequently decide who represents them in the Knesset.
The Netanyahu-led Likud party has been in power since 2009. It has 30 members in the current Knesset and is likely to emerge as the single largest party. It is a right-wing party that has pursued neo-liberal economic policies. Netanyahu is also among the most vocal opponents of the two-state solution to the Palestine question. Likud, in its manifesto, wants the annexation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements into all occupied territories. It campaigns for greater military control over Gaza and opposes any extension of equal rights to the Arab citizens of Israel.
In the current elections, Netanyahu has been touting his ‘achievements’ on the security front, such as the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump also moved the US embassy to the city. The US has also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Trump’s rejection of the Iran Deal and re-imposition of sanctions on Iran is also being projected as an achievement of the Netanyahu government. The government also prides itself on getting the Nation-State law passed in the Knesset, which makes Israel a “Jewish State” and turns Arab-Israelis into second-class citizens.
Likud has stronger allies after the merger of the right-wing Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties. This merger was facilitated by Netanyahu to form The Union of Right-Wing Parties Block. Despite the fact that Jewish Home is the party of the followers of Meir Kahane who was declared a terrorist in Israel in the 1980s for his open calls for the murder of Arabs, this block is likely to win a larger number of seats than before following the merger. Other major allies of Likud are United Torah Judaism (a coalition of two right-wing parties; Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael) and Kulanu led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
The other force which might join hands with Netanyahu is Shas led by Aryeh Deri. The party believes in the equality of all Jews. The Jewish community in Israel has a number of sections, with many feeling discriminated against by the dominant Eastern European Jews. Shas represents the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, who are mostly local or come from other regions in Asia.
The New Right (Hayemin Hehadesh) party is a force looking for “secular votes” to establish a “Jewish state” in Israel! Observers have called it an offshoot of the Netanyahu’s alliance because it is led by two former ministers in his government Neftalli Bennet (Education Minister) and Ayelet Shaked (Justice Minister).
Yisrael Beiteinu is led by former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman. It has 5 members in the Knesset. It is also one of the few political parties in Israel which openly calls Arab Israelis as fifth columnists. It is anti-Left, anti-minority and represents the most vocal hyper nationalist sections in Israel.
The strongest rival to Likud in this election is the Israel Resilience Party (Hosen L’Yisrael) headed by General Benny Gantz and General Moshe Ya’alon. Gantz was the Chief of Staff of Netanyahu who oversaw the bombing of Gaza in 2012 and 2014, and takes pride in the destruction of Gaza in his election campaigns. Gantz has been able to form a formidable alliance called Blue and White Alliance (Kahol Lavan) with Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, who served as minister of finance between 2013 and 2014 under Netanyahu. This party has 11 representatives in the current Knesset. While the alliance has been termed centrist due to its more ambivalent view on neoliberalism, its approach to Palestine and the occupied territories is hardly different from that of Likud. For example, Hosen L’Yisrael believes in a more hawkish approach to Gaza. It supports more settlements in the occupied territories and considers the status of Jerusalem non-negotiable. When asked if the party was ready for a post-election alliance with Arab-Israelis groups, such as Hadash Ta’al led by Ayman Odeh, Gantz made it clear that they wanted to form a government with only the votes of Jewish and Zionist allies.
The other players
Apart from these two dominant groupings, there are a couple of smaller players in these elections.
The first group comprises the parties of Arab-Israelis, who have never been part of any government despite having more than 10% of seats in the Knesset. Hadash-Ta’al, led by Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, is an alliance between two parties. The alliance believes in the Palestinian state and wants to split Jerusalem between the future Palestinian state and Israel. It wants full and equal citizenship for all within Israel and is opposed to the Nation-State Law. It is a broader coalition of center-left and anti-occupation Israelis. However, the party’s appeal has remained limited, especially with the growing right- wing sentiment in the country. All the Arab-Israeli parties had 12 representatives in the Knesset on a joint list. This time, they are expected to lose some of those seats due to the division of votes among them.
The second group is made of mostly liberal and some progressive forces. Leading this segment is the Israeli Labour Party which has 18 members in the current Knesset. The Labour Party was once the most significant force in Israeli politics and ruled the state for almost three decades. Now, it is a minor player. The party has failed to mobilize people on the economic situation and against neoliberal policies, and has suffered due to poor leadership. While it continues to support the Two-State solution, under the pressure from the right, it ended up supporting the Nation-State Law, which is against the concept of secularism it once stood for
Slim chances of peace
The elections are thus being held in a situation where no mainstream force presents an alternative to anti-Arab and anti-peace narratives and policies. The situation has been made worse by the arbitrary use of the 1992 Parties Law, which refuses recognition to any party that implicitly or explicitly denies the existence of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State or supports armed struggle of an “enemy state” or a “terrorist organization” against the state of Israel. Many activists who support the Palestinians’ right to self-determination are threatened with this law, thus limiting the possibility of diversity of political positions in the elections.
Meanwhile, the failure of the Oslo Accords has created a strong cynicism among the people of Israel, especially the youth. The idea of a two-state solution and peace with Palestinians still enjoys some kind of popular support (according to Times of Israel, a survey conducted by Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research and Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research at the Tel Aviv University found that more than 43% of the respondents supported the two-state solution in June-July 2018). However, the political mainstream of Israel has been working hard to encourage extremism and make it the norm. The status of Israeli politics can be understood by the fact that Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, resigned in November 2018, alleging that the former was soft on terror as he agreed for a ceasefire with Hamas. The race among the parties is to be seen as ruthless vis-à-vis Palestinians means hopes for peace in the region remain slim even after these elections.