Thoughts from J Street on Israel’s Election Results

March 25, 2021

Israelis went to the polls this week for their fourth round of elections in under two years. While we still await the fully final vote tallies, a few key takeaways are already clear — above all, that Israel remains deeply divided politically, and that this latest election did not produce a clear winner or roadmap for breaking the gridlock.

The key question in Israeli politics at the moment remains the ultimate fate of Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose refusal to relinquish power in the face of a corruption trial and widespread protest has polarized Israel into pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions that don’t fully align with traditional partisan and ideological splits. With both of these camps failing to secure an outright majority and remaining fluid on the margins, this question lingers on, unsettled.

For those concerned about Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people and about ongoing attacks on core liberal values and democratic institutions in the country, this election had both encouraging and concerning signs.

Several parties on the center-left and left, who had been in danger of entirely missing out on the threshold for entering the next Knesset (Meretz, Labor, Blue and White) performed better than expected. On the other hand, the extreme right “Religious Zionism” party, which includes anti-LGBT activists and espouses the virulently racist and terroristic ideology of Kahanism, performed well and will now enter the Knesset — and possibly the next government. Their success is due largely to strong support from Netanyahu, who sees these unapologetic advocates of ethnic cleansing as a key partner in any coalition — and has helped bring their anti-Arab fanaticism into the mainstream. Their entry to the Knesset merits unequivocal opposition and condemnation from US officials, lawmakers and pro-Israel leaders.

Another key political variable, the vote of Arab citizens of Israel, fractured and diminished in this round. The surprising success of the conservative Islamist Ra’am faction in crossing the threshold for entry into the Knesset has put them into an important position of political power, elevating the significance of Arab votes in Israeli politics even as their overall vote share went down.

Despite polls showing that a majority of Israelis oppose Netanyahu’s continued rule, he is likely to remain Prime Minister for the foreseeable future as the country awaits the outcome of his trial and the many months ahead of continued political maneuvering to form a coalition — or even heads to a fifth election.

Under the cover of governmental paralysis, the settlement movement proponents of “Greater Israel” will press forward with their plans for creeping annexation and ever-deepening occupation. Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians campaigned on their intention to demolish and expropriate even more Palestinian communities and land in the occupied West Bank, like Khan al-Ahmar — and now they will likely have the time and opportunity to do so.

In the face of these threats and uncertainties, J Street will continue to stand with our progressive Israeli allies in defending democratic values and institutions and in pushing back against those who promote bigotry and violence. We will push the leaders of the Jewish community and policymakers in Washington to express their forceful opposition to the Kahanists who will be entering the Knesset, and to the “mainstream” politicians who embrace and empower them. We will urge the Biden administration and lawmakers to not only roll back the many harmful policies of President Trump in the region, but to make clear that the United States will stand firmly against destructive actions like settlement expansion and de facto annexation — and impose meaningful consequences for such steps.

In Israel, as in the United States and around the world, the fault lines of division are defined by fundamental questions about democracy, the role of religion in society, race, the rule of law and belief in the equality and worth of every human being. Just as we fight for tolerance, democracy and justice here at home, so will we do all that we can to help them survive and flourish in Israel.