The morning after the Israeli electoral circus

Israel is stuck in an electoral groundhog day, with each election producing more of the same.

A man walks his dog by an election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under the slogan 'Back to life' in Ramat Gan, Israel on March 22, 2021 [AP/Oded Balilty]

Israel is about to hold its fourth parliamentary election in two years. Since 2019, it has emerged from one chaotic electoral campaign season only to plunge into another.

But Israeli national elections were not always the electoral whirlwind they are today, where a dozen-plus parties run blitz campaigns, coloured by marketing gimmicks and populist sloganeering and marred by vicious condemnations and personal attacks.

During the first three decades after its independence, Israel held national elections once every four years with Labor Zionists running dull, rigid campaigns against the louder, more extreme revisionist Zionists, with the victory of the former almost always assured in advance.

As the ruling party that controlled most pillars of the state, Labor (then called Mapai) and its junior partners won each time with great margins amid successive wars and a continuous unprecedented immigration influx.

But Labor’s winning streak came to an end in 1977, when the revisionist Likud party won the most seats and formed a government with a broad coalition of new liberals, radicalised Laborites and religious Zionists.

The subsequent political and economic liberalisation in Israel paved the way for the decentralisation of its political party system and the emergence of new parties reflecting the new religious, ethnic and social divides. Generals and radical settlers also managed to secure a bigger role for themselves on the political scene.

The more parties entered the Knesset, the tougher it became for the two main parties – Labor and Likud – to establish and maintain coalition governments. They became hostage to the narrow interests of each coalition partner, be it religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Russian, left, extreme right, or settler-supported.

In 2014, the two parties raised the threshold for entering parliament to 3.25 percent of the vote, in the hope of reducing their dependence on the smaller parties. But the problem of coalition building persisted with the more stubborn medium-sized parties.

With the exception of the 1977 elections that saw a radical switch to Likud under Menachem Begin and the 1992 elections that allowed for a temporary switch back to Labor, under Yitzhak Rabin, most elections produced much chagrin but no change in the main axes driving Israel’s “national security”.

Rabin was assassinated at the hands of a radical Jewish zealot in 1995, in an atmosphere of hatred, bigotry and treachery, whipped up by none other than the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabin’s unforgivable “crime” was to secure a vote on a transitional peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with the help of Palestinian members of the Knesset.

And although, as I explained elsewhere, these accords produced the present-day apartheid reality in Palestine/Israel, the mere fact that Rabin dared to engage in the US-led diplomatic process with only an “Israeli majority” not a solid “Jewish majority” behind him in parliament, meant, well, that he deserved to die.

The Israeli right rewarded Netanyahu’s deadly obstruction by electing him prime minister the following year. But their support dwindled after the mercurial premier signed two transitional peace accords, the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, with the PLO.

The 1999 elections, the first of two direct elections to the premiership, paved the way for the decisive victory of Labor’s candidate and Israel’s most decorated general, Ehud Barak, who basically reprimanded Netanyahu for giving up a lot to the Palestinians without getting much in return.

But soon enough, Barak’s military arrogance got the better of him, as he tried and failed to impose an unfair, “take it or leave it” solution on the Palestinians at the Camp David summit hosted by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

The 1999 election was the last one Labor won. From then on, its popularity dwindled, partly because of the follies of its leaders, partly because Israelis grew even more hawkish, especially after the Second Intifada, and partly because over time, confident and prosperous Israel stopped caring about peace.

I am also pretty sure Labor’s lacklustre performance at the polls has something to do with Netanyahu’s evil genius and his wicked alliance with US President Donald Trump after 2017. The party went from winning 24 seats in 2015 (along with its centre-left partner Hatnuah) to six in 2019; it currently holds just two seats in the Knesset.

Labor, the party that established and ran the state during its first three challenging decades and was once the driver of the “peace camp” in Israel, is now threatened with extinction, as more of its supporters are expected to vote for centre-right parties, like Blue and White.

But even this amalgam of political forces that was established by generals and public figures has imploded, as its gullible leader, General Benny Gantz, despite pledges to the contrary, joined a Netanyahu coalition last year, on the false promise of a future premiership swap.

He was, of course, duped.

And here we are again, at the end of the fourth messy election campaign, during which Israeli leaders doubled down on false promises of new beginnings that are likely to produce more of the same.

That is why the morning after this week’s chaotic elections, like the mornings after the previous six elections, may well produce another groundhog day with Netanyahu, the ultimate deal maker, skillfully dividing the government pie among his potential coalition partners.

If Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges, is not able to form the next coalition government and save himself from going to jail, the alternative is also likely to produce more of the same political arrangements.

It suffices to say that of the four different leaders who could save or inherit Netanyahu’s premiership, two – Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman – were his chiefs of staff, one – Gideon Sa’ar – was his cabinet secretary and one – Yair Lapid – was a minister in his government.

The apple does not fall far from the tree, as they say.

More broadly, however, the morning after this week’s election circus, like most previous elections in the history of Israel, will likely reproduce the same diplomatic deadlock, military aggression, occupation, and threat of a regional war.

The Palestinian Authority may have found centrist Israeli governments less cumbersome and more amenable to deal with diplomatically, but for the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, the Israeli elections have consistently produced more of the same recycled racism-tinged humbug.

For them, there has been little difference between the racism, repression, targeted assassinations, massacres, night raids, war crimes, and outright terrorisation of the civilian population, carried out by the various Israeli coalitions, be it centrist, rightist or national unity governments.

Regardless of who leads what government coalition, their position on the main challenges facing Israel was and remains all too similar and familiar.

That includes enthusiastic support for Jewish immigration and illegal Jewish settlement building on confiscated Arab land and utter rejection of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and freedom to settle in their homeland.

It also includes unconditional bipartisan support for the “sacred” Israeli military, despite its war crimes and hegemonic and colonial practices under the pretext of “national security”.

Regardless of what is said or promised during electoral campaigns, including at the height of the peace process in the 1990s, Israeli leaders have long denied the Palestinians their right to a truly sovereign independent and contiguous state.

And so will the victors of this week’s elections.

If there was a delicate nuance or meaningful difference between the goals of the Laborites and their minions on the left and the Likudniks and their minions on the far and far-far right, it is no longer relevant today, mainly because the centre and centre-left parties are no longer relevant.

In the absence of Arab, American or international pressure, the morning after their victory, Israeli leaders will once again embrace the undemocratic and colonial mantras that have long guided their predecessors.

That is until the next elections, which is sure to come sooner rather than later.