Lessons from the 2022 Israeli elections

Benjamin Netnayahu back in power, thanks to Itamar Ben-Gvir and the ghost of Meir Kahane (Carlos Latuff)

Yoav Haifawi

Mondoweiss  /  November 5, 2022

The racist mobs who lynched Palestinians in May 2021 are now a major political force in Israel. The mask is off for Israeli apartheid.

Four consecutive election campaigns in Israel had been fiercely waged around a single issue – for and against the grotesquely corrupt “King Bibi,” a reference to Benjamin Netanyahu. These elections failed to produce a clear verdict among the divided Israeli Apartheid electorate. Though Palestinians constitute the majority of the population under Israel’s rule, they are prevented from any opportunity to democratically influence their fate. While the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps quarreled, the fate of the Palestinians was completely excluded from the discussion. Even the word “peace”, that used to be mentioned regularly (without any meaning) in previous Israeli elections, is now completely out of fashion.

But it turns out that Netanyahu’s year outside of the government did succeed in changing the agenda for the November 1, 2022 elections. The opposition led by Netanyahu’s Likud party concentrated all its rhetorical firepower into racist incitement against the idea of a government supported by Palestinian parties. In return, the outgoing government coalition led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz tried to make the public forget the experience of their awkward time at the helm which collapsed into endless internal stifle by frightening the public with the rising power of Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the openly fascist ultra-right. This reciprocal campaign of hate and fear succeeded in waking up the public from the election fatigue and raised participation levels among both the Jewish Israeli public and the “48 Palestinians” that have the right to vote.

The results, as most of the world noticed, was that the proudly thuggish Ben-Gvir was the hero of the day, with his Religious Zionist List emerging as the third largest party, and Netanyahu received his long-dreamed of majority. Netanyahu can now ride on the back of the racist puma to escape the prison gates that threatened to close on him. In the 80s the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane used to say to Israelis: “I say what you think”. Now it is Israel’s coming out party. It is time to throw away the masks and declare itself the Apartheid state – based on racism, settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing – that it always was.

What actually happened in the elections ?

The Israeli electorate continued a long one-way journey to the religious racist right. It is a combination of several long-term trends: 

  • The growing orthodox Jewish religious communities and the alliance between the orthodox leadership and the secular right; 
  • The growing number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, where the conflict with the Palestinians is much more violent; 
  • The hijacking of the army and state apparatus by the politically-dynamic settler community with the quiet consent of the apathetic old elites; 
  • And finally, the illusion about the existence of a Zionist-left is slowly but steadily fading.

There was actually no big shift from the voters in this election. In May 2021, one ultra-right party, Yamina (Hebrew for “to the right”), agreed to join the anti-Bibi camp, in return for the appointment of its leader, Naftali Bennett, as prime minister, and the ability to dictate the government’s racist and neo-liberal, anti-social agenda. Now that that government dissolved, Yamina’s voters have returned to their natural place. All the rest of the shifts in the results are due to the self-inflicted injuries from the leaders of the “alternative” camp.

It is all the same old Israeli racist politics, where the Palestinians are not considered a legitimate part of the political game – no thinking about a political solution is allowed, and no Palestinian can share any shade of power. It is a colossal repeat of the fiasco in 2020, when general Benny Gantz ran away from the prospect of leading a government supported by Palestinian Knesset members and agreed to support a Netanyahu government which he had promised to prevent. Now in this election, the whole Lapid government ran away from its own shadow in an effort to avoid the accusation of “leftism” or “relying on Arabs [Palestinians]”, to the point of self-destruction.

After Bennett’s party members deserted him one after the other he finally toppled his own government leaving the helm to Lapid. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, both aspiring to lead the anti-Bibi block, focused their election campaigns on discrediting each other. Each of them tried to burnish his credentials by killing more Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Merav Michaeli, from the disintegrating old Zionist Labor Party, refused to form even a technical block with the similarly decaying Meretz, fearing that her party, that boasts of the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 occupation, would be painted as too leftist. And, finally, Balad claims Lapid conspired with the leaders of the Arab Joint List to throw Balad off the list at the last minute in an attempt to make the list more palatable as partners for a future Zionist coalition. To do this they needed to remove from the Knesset the only voice that dared to speak (in a low voice) about “transforming Israel to a state of all its citizens”. These last two decisions alone, throwing out Meretz and Balad, are directly responsible for the fact that Netanyahu now has a majority and can build his fully right-wing government.

In the ashes after their self-made defeat, all the leaders of this “alternative camp” are blaming each other and destroying whatever remains of their chances to return to power anytime soon.

How dangerous is the new government ?

On November 3, as I write this, Israel’s occupation forces killed four Palestinians in the West Bank, one of them a 14-year-old child. According to a report that was published by the UN on the day of the elections, 2022 witnessed more killings of Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces and settlers than in any other year since the UN started to monitor such killings in 2005. And this took place under a government fiercely supported by the fake “Israeli Left” of Meretz, and that could exist only thanks to the support of an opportunistic Palestinian politician like Mansour Abbas.

Will Netanyahu’s new far-right government kill more? Sure, they might. But it was never Israeli public opinion that limited atrocities against the Palestinians. The basic fact is that Israel needs the support of the United States (and, to a lesser degree, Western Europe) militarily, economically, and politically to ensure its continuing impunity for performing crimes against humanity. The main power that may restrain Israeli war crimes is pressure by western powers, motivated by the fear of backlash by the Arab masses. One encouraging signal is that there were already some warning signals from Israel’s international backers following the election results.

However, me and many others also have personal reasons to be concerned. If Ben-Gvir were to become Minister of Internal Security, as has been reported, he might send the police knocking on my door. This is the additional threat of the fascists, not only the military occupation, but also targeting political opponents. Thinking about this direct threat, I can’t help but remember that the last time they came to take me for Shin Bet interrogation, in April 2021, they didn’t knock on my gate but literally knocked it down. So, political oppression is nothing new either. Maybe under the new government more people will finally understand that “Israeli Democracy” doesn’t exist, and hence can’t be defended or saved.

The real struggle

The struggles for democracy, for human rights, for Palestinian liberation, for the right of return, for the establishment of a free, secular, democratic state in Palestine – all these essential struggles can’t take place within the framework of the Knesset – the Legislative Assembly of Apartheid Israel. The Palestinian struggle was not part of these elections – but the elections happened in the shadow of this struggle.

With the ascendance of the Religious Zionism camp, the settlers and racist mobs who were attacking and lynching Palestinians in the mixed cities in May 2021 gained their recognition and place as a major political force in Israel.

Another echo of May 2021 can be seen in these elections. It is the success of Balad as an independent party. The party, which had just a single deputy in the last Knesset, gained 3% of the vote and could have 3 or 4 members if it was not for the 3.25% minimum barrier for representation. Balad received most of its votes from the young Palestinians that defended their neighborhoods against Ben-Gvir’s thugs (and the Israeli police and border guard) in May 2021. Most of the radical youth would not naturally vote in Knesset elections. And now Balad, in spite of all the support it received, is out of the Knesset also. Could it open the road for the development of a new Palestinian alternative, independent of the Israeli-dictated frameworks?

And finally, a personal word again… In the grassroots movements that I’m a member of, Herak Haifa and Abna al-Balad, we have no illusion that any real change can be achieved through the Knesset. We boycotted the elections as we always do. In these last elections everybody expected that there would be historic gains for the election boycott, with as many as 60% of those Palestinians that are allowed to vote refusing to take part. But the horror campaign had its effect, and Palestinians voted in higher-than-expected numbers, maybe 54%. The boycott movement stayed unusually low-profile. The leaders of the Palestinian Knesset parties and the fake Zionist “left” turned hysterically to the Palestinian voters to save us all from the fascists. If they ever believed their own words, they wouldn’t have destroyed their election chances by their own actions.

Yoav Haifawi is an anti-Zionist activist