Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu comeback brings despair for left-wing parties

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid during a cabinet meeting in July (Gil Cohen-Magen - AP)

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian  /  November 4, 2022

Outgoing coalition suffers poor election result as some parties of the left lose voice in Knesset altogether.

Israel’s left-wing and pro-Palestinian-rights parties have been left licking their wounds in the aftermath of this week’s election. When vote-counting finished on Thursday, the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right partners had won by a comfortable majority.

Last summer a broad coalition succeeded in their mutual desire to kick Netanyahu, leader of Likud, out of office. He is currently standing trial on corruption charges.

The “government of change”, made up of right, left and centrist parties and led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, had made history because it included an independent Palestinian party for the first time. The ambitious experiment, however, was hampered from the start by infighting.

After losing its slim majority the Lapid/Bennett government collapsed just after celebrating its first birthday, triggering Israel’s fifth election in less than four years.

When exit polls predicted a convincing win for the right-wing camp on Tuesday night, owing to the extremist Religious Zionists more than doubling their number of Knesset seats, Israel’s small left wing tried to remain optimistic. But as Netanyahu’s bloc extended its lead those hopes were extinguished, and the mood turned to despair.

“The third largest party in the Knesset is a racist, Kahanist, [referring to a banned right-wing terrorist group], violent party that doesn’t want me or my children here,” Issawi Frej, the country’s second-ever Muslim cabinet minister, wrote on Twitter. “This is no longer a slippery slope. This is the abyss itself.”

Members of the outgoing coalition have already begun trading accusations of blame for their poor showing this week. Polling in the run-up to the election consistently suggested that it would once again be a close call, with both blocs on about 60 seats. Yet despite winning 49.95% of the vote overall, the anti-Netanyahu camp will hold just 50 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Refusals from smaller parties to merge despite polling showing they were in danger of missing the electoral threshold, and a last-minute split in the Palestinian Joint List, are just two of the reasons why votes for the government camp did not translate into seats. Coalition-building is necessary for governing in Israel’s fragmented political spectrum: a more united strategy, or even tiny shifts in voter turnout, could have yielded a completely different result.

Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), said that the government, led first by the right-winger Bennett, and latterly by the centrist Lapid, had also alienated voters fed up with the political instability during its chaotic 18 months in office.

“It was quite clear that public opinion was not with the government. Sixty per cent of this country identifies as right wing, and that goes up to 70% among the young,” she said, citing research from the IDI. “They [the government] displayed hubris going into this election. But the writing was on the wall.”

Many voters going to the polling stations on Tuesday expressed reluctance to vote for the governing coalition but said they would prefer that known entity to Netanyahu’s new alliance with the far right.

“I’ve cast my vote, although it’s for a party that I’m not sure about. Bennett and Lapid didn’t do anything about the rising cost of living. They seem out of touch with normal people and what they care about,” said Ori, a 44-year-old healthcare worker who would not give his last name. “I guess when it comes down to it I’d rather their bloc than the other one.”

Israel’s left wing, already small, has suffered the most at the expense of Netanyahu’s win. Meretz, a small social democratic party that was part of the last government, appears to have just missed the electoral threshold of 3.25%, meaning its voice will be out of the next Knesset altogether. Balad, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, has also lost its only seat.

Hadash-Ta’al, the other pro-Palestinian slate, will have just four seats, down from six, and the once-mighty Israeli Labor party will lose three seats, also putting it on four.

In the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Safafa, a group of friends, all voting for different Palestinian parties, said that the Palestinian list’s break-up into three factions ahead of a highly contested election did not instil confidence in their decision-making ability. The political mainstream was relying on the votes of Israeli Palestinians, who make up 20% of the population, as the main bar against a Netanyahu victory, but many of their ballots were wasted due to the split.

“The Arabs [Palestinians] are just like Bibi,” said Mouawiye Salman, using Netanyahu’s well-known moniker. “They promise to do a lot and then change everything they said.”

One teenager outside a polling station holding a flag with the Islamist United Arab List’s logo said that he did not actually support the party, and that later in the day he would switch to campaigning for Hadash-Ta’al. “That way I’ll get paid double,” he said, to peals of laughter from the group.

The failure of the “government of change” to win re-election is not entirely of its own making. Netanyahu, a consummate politician, engineered a sophisticated campaign to raise turnout among frustrated Likud supporters. The far-right Religious Zionists attracted a new, young, demographic, and was able to pick up votes that would previously have gone to the Yamina alliance, which disbanded before this election.

Several right-wing voters the Guardian spoke to in the past few weeks said their main reason for voting for the Likud, Religious Zionists, and two Ultra-Orthodox parties, was to end the political crisis of the last four years for good by reinstating Netanyahu. Shas, a religious Haredi party, did particularly well, picking up two extra seats.

Miri, 29, from the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, said that the lack of Haredi parties in the last government “made last year very hard for us”.

“I don’t like some of these right-wing ideas … creating more friction with the Arabs [Palestinians]. We are just looking for politicians that respect tradition. Likud does that, but if they didn’t we would be in a coalition with someone else. The last government made us realise how important it was for everyone to come out and vote,” she said.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem