More than a week after the most recent Israeli election, Israelis are still trying to find a way to make sense of what happened—and, no less important, what didn’t happen.
Based on the results, it is reasonable to assume that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be reasonable and will not concede that he cannot form a majority. He will probably drag Israel into another election, the fifth in five years, likely to be held in the summer or early fall.
According to Israeli law, a new Knesset will be sworn in, and the current government will continue as an interim government until a new one is formed—or not—after the next round. However, before these elections recede into the previous ones’ not-so-distant memories, it is worth examining who the winners and the losers are and what this means for Israel society.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most votes: 30, which is significantly more than the second-largest party, Yesh Atid, which garnered only 17 votes. And yet, Netanyahu is the biggest loser in these elections.
Netanyahu did everything he could to win this election; for him, there were no red lines in terms of democracy, decency, ideology or fair play. And yet, his results were still disappointing.
In December 2020, Netanyahu sent the country into elections when he refused to pass the state budget. He did this to avoid handing over the premiership to Benny Gantz, the current Alternate Prime Minister of Israel, as he had solemnly sworn and officially agreed to do because he hoped that a new Knesset would bring him the legislation he needs to put an end to his trial for breach of trust, bribery and fraud, or at least keep him out of jail.
He all but publicly supported then-President Donald Trump in the U.S. elections, posting giant posters throughout the country. He capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox, who refused to obey COVID-19 restrictions, because he needed their votes, thus subordinating the entire country’s health to his political fortunes. He claimed total and sole credit for the economic reopening and successful vaccination campaign, hoping that he could parlay the good mood on election day into a pro-Netanyahu vibe. He helped to promote dissension and division in all center-left parties that ran against him in the previous election, causing them to split from three into six to his electoral benefit.
And perhaps worst of all, he generated a union among Israel’s most racist, homophobic, misogynist, fascist, Kahane-ist parties in the hope that they would support him as prime minister.
And even after all that, under Netanyahu as sole contender for head of his party, the Likud lost nearly one-fifth of the electorate that it had in the previous election. No matter how many contorted rabbits he tries to pull out of his many political hats, Netanyahu cannot make them add up to the 61-seat majority that he needs to form a government.
The pro-Netanyahu bloc has only 52 seats in the current election. That’s only 43 percent. And everyone, including Netanyahu, knows very well that if he were to step aside, another leader from his party could swiftly form a coalition.
Netanyahu has lost his invincibility, his claim that only he can lead Israel. He has lost his mojo, which has long been his most important asset.
The new parliament will be sworn in one day before the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial begins, and Netanyahu will no longer be Israel’s once-and-future prime minister. He will merely be the lame-duck interim head of a party who keeps dragging the country into elections in a vain attempt to keep himself out of jail.
The Arab parties also lost and won. In 2015, in an effort to get his lackluster constituency out to vote, Netanyahu warned that the Arabs were “flocking to the polls in droves.” And as part of his electoral campaign, Netanyahu performed somersaults of doublespeak, saying that he would, and also would not, allow Arabs to be part of his government, making it clear that he hoped that they would never even pass the electoral threshold. But the Ra’am party, which represents the Islamic sector of the Arab public and is more conservative on issues such as women’s and LGBTQ rights, split off from the Joint Arab List, squeezed past the threshold and gained four seats. And now, in an attempt to gain a majority, even members of the Likud are publicly stating that perhaps bringing Ra’am into the only-a-Jewish-majority fold might not be such a bad idea after all.
So ironically, it is the Likud that is providing legitimacy to the Arab parties. It’s a backhanded, begrudged and snide legitimacy, but that is the first step. And that is a win for the Arab parties themselves and all who hope for a more inclusive and democratic Israel.
Overall, however, the low voter turnout in the Arab sector seems to point to fatigue and disaffection, with both the state and the Arab parties and their ability to represent their interests. That must concern us all.
The Zionist left survived. Given how badly it was doing in the polls, that’s a win, even if a slightly pathetic one. Together, the Labor Party and Meretz Party have 14 seats, making them the third-largest faction in the Knesset. If they are wise enough to come together, at least as a bloc, they will wield some real power.
But their win remains tentative and conditional. Meretz only survived because it ran what is popularly called a Gevalt (“Save me!” in Yiddish) campaign. The term refers to a last-ditch effort to convince people that voting for a particular party is the only way to prevent a total disaster. Meretz received a mercy vote, but its leaders must know that they have little to show for their years in Knesset and that even their own constituency considers their leadership to be, at best, lackluster and untrustworthy. If they don’t get their act together, next time, voters might ask if they are worth saving.
Israeli progressive Jews (and most American Jews who value pluralism) won a small but symbolically important victory. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a member of the Reform movement who ran on the Labor ticket, is the first non-Orthodox rabbi to sit in the Knesset. This is a win for anyone who supports breaking the chokehold that the ultra-Orthodox and the Orthodox have on issues of religion and state.
The number of women in the Knesset remains at a dismal 25 percent, and only one party, Labor, is headed by a woman (Merav Michaeli). Yet among the 29 women elected, who represent ten different political parties, some are in high places in their party and are likely to hold significant positions in Knesset committees.
The Religious Zionism party won six seats. There will be six members of the Knesset who are proud successors to Meir Kahane’s Kach party (which was banned from running for office in 1988) and loudly espouse repugnant homophobic, xenophobic and fascist forms of Judaism. Netanyahu’s alliance with the Kahanists didn’t bring him the majority he needed, and it won’t keep him out of jail, but it provided them with a patina of legitimacy that may last long after Netanyahu is little more than an uncomfortable memory. Their win is a loss for all of the rest of us and for Jewish values as understood by a majority of the Jewish people.
The ultra-Orthodox parties lost. Their voters, who once followed their rabbis’ directives and voted for their own parties, defected, followed Netanyahu’s instructions, and voted for the Religious Zionism party, revealing that the ultra-Orthodox public hates the Arabs at least as much as it ostensibly loves the most stringent and narrow interpretations of Jewish law.
Finally, the biggest loser of all: Israeli democracy. Voter participation dropped to 67.2 percent, compared to 71.5 percent a year ago. Like countries from the United States to Hungary, Brazil and India, we are defending Israel from the populist attacks against liberalism and fighting to uphold the values of respect for the individual and their community, dignity in government and humility in the public sphere. But liberals are tired and worn out, viewing the almost-inevitable fifth round of elections within two years with despair, knowing that it is unlikely to bring about any significant change.
I don’t think we’ve lost the battle completely. Actually, as noted above, we can even take comfort in some hopeful gains. But until we generate the leadership that we need to oust Netanyahu and unite us after the years of his polarizing administrations, I fear that we will be doomed to repeated, useless elections.
Voting in the Israeli-Arab town of Jaffa, a mixed city of Christians, Muslims and Jews, on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. (Noam Moskovich/The Israel Project)