'It's Terrifying': Israel's Elections Were a Disaster for the Left

Israel's parliament is now made up almost exclusively of right-wing and far-right parties.
March 25, 2021, 2:08pm
An Israeli protester dressed as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a prisoner costume protests near Jerusalem's district court​.
An Israeli protester dressed as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a prisoner costume protests near Jerusalem's district court. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Left-wing parties in Israel were almost completely wiped out in this week’s parliamentary elections as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiates the most far-right coalition in the country’s history.

With almost 92 percent of votes counted in Israel’s fourth parliamentary vote in two years, the country’s two liberal parties, Labor and Meretz, won just 13 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party looks set to become the largest party, winning 30 seats in parliament. Still, Likud remains short of the 61 seats needed to form a majority coalition. In order to stay in power, Netanyahu will have to rely on the support of other right and far-right groups that make up the new parliament. This includes the Religious Zionist party – an alliance of three far-right parties – whose leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has described himself as a “proud homophobe”. Another key figure in the party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has expressed admiration for Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer in a 1994 mass shooting in the Occupied West Bank.

Whatever the calculations, left-wing parties won’t come close to featuring in the government-building conversations. And for many left-wing activists, the dominance of the right and far-right as both the government and opposition – only distinguishable from each other as being pro- or anti-Netanyahu – is deeply concerning.

“It’s terrifying,” Sam Stein, an activist with the pro–Palestinian rights collective All That’s Left, tells VICE World News from Jerusalem. Groups like his, Stein adds, are looking for a party that can combine fighting “for both ending the occupation and bringing justice and equality for Palestinians, with more broad progressive values like LGBTQ rights, equal marriage, and better separation of church and state.”

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Speaking from Tel Aviv, Yonatan Sharigan, a teacher, agrees. “It’s a little bit scary that [far-right] ideas are becoming normalised within the Israeli political discourse.”

Even with help from far-right parties, Stein believes Netenyahu will struggle to clear the 60-seat threshold, triggering another election. But if the prime minister does manage to cling on to power, it’ll be with the most far-right coalition in history, with even government opposition only coming from other right-wing parties.

“It’s very important that we have a strong opposition,” Reuven Hanan Stone, a left-wing activist based in Jerusalem, says. “I’m not even talking about forming a centre-left government. Unfortunately, I know that isn’t going to happen any time soon, given the majority of the voting population here.”

The election was expected to be a referendum on Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has been in office since 2009 and leader of Likud since 2005, has endured a tumultuous few years – embroiled in a large number of corruption allegations and both condemned and praised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, in the end, Stone and Stein believe that voters bought into the government’s tough-on-crime rhetoric. “There is an illusion perpetrated by political campaigning and reinforced by a pervasive discourse of ‘security first’ that Netanyahu and the policies of a Netanyahu–led government will keep people safe,” Stone says. “This narrative probably grips many voters when they are in the voting booth.”

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“It seems to me that most Israelis want civil marriage, more separation of church and state, and other things like that,” Stein adds. “But it seems to be that they’re willing to put it aside to vote in the interests of what they call security; what I call apartheid.”

The election result looks unlikely to have done anything to end Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank or the blockade of the Gaza strip, which are both considered illegal under international law.

Morriah Kaplan, national spokesperson for the United States Jewish anti-occupation movement IfNotNow, told VICE World News that “the [peace] process" is non-existent at this point. “This week, Israelis elected more politicians opposed to a future Palestinian state than ever, demonstrating that the electorate is satisfied with the fundamentally unjust status quo with the Palestinians,” Kaplan says.

The election did throw up one surprising potential kingmaker. Arab–Israeli Mansour Abbas, whose United Arab List party are expected to gain four seats, campaigned on the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip. Though his pro-Palestine stance would make him an unlikely Netanyahu ally, his socially conservative views mean he’s unlikely to push many of the cultural issues that matter to the left. Abbas has yet to declare his support but has not ruled out entering a Netanyahu-led coalition.

“If it were to happen, it could normalise the idea of Arab participation in government, with an active role in the coalition,” Sharigan says. “I think that has the potential to be really good.”

With such a precarious majority, it looks possible that Israelis may have to head back to the polls to vote on Netanyahu for a fifth time. The left managed to cling on to a few seats this time, but with the radical right gaining support, and little signs of a fundamental shift away from Netanyahu and Likud, the Israeli left and its supporters need to find a solution to their banishment fast.

“This shows how much the left needs more unity,” Stein says. “I hope this election can be a wake-up call.” 

Correction: This story originally attributed the following quote from Reuven Hanan Stone to Yonatan Sharigan: “There is an illusion perpetrated by political campaigning and reinforced by a pervasive discourse of ‘security first’ that Netanyahu and the policies of a Netanyahu–led government will keep people safe. This narrative probably grips many voters when they are in the voting booth.” We regret the error.