Israeli Elections, October 2022

Published in Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (please note: this is an unoficial and unedited English translation)…

Israel is sometimes called the "only democracy in the Middle East", and in many ways it is. But Israeli democracy is very different from the Swedish one, even though theoretically both have similar parliamentary systems and the same kind of general elections. The differences are more about dynamics than technicalities. One important difference is that governments in Israel very rarely last an entire term, which is why Israelis will be going to the polls again on November 1st in what may seem like a déjà vu.  This is the fifth election campaign in the last four years and the 11th since 2001. In the same period Sweden had only six.

Even though recent years have been unusually unstable in Swedish politics, with weak minority governments and changing political alliances, this is nothing compared to the instability of Israeli politics. This instability combined with unique historical and cultural differences, make the coming up elections very difficult to understand for those who are not locals. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're following the political drama in the land of milk and honey.

There's probably only one global household name in current Israeli politics – the name of Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Netanyahu first became Prime Minister in 1996, he has held the job for 15 years, even more than David Ben-Gurion who's considered to be Israel's founding father. Netanyahu is head of the "Likud" party and currently leads the opposition even though he's standing trial for bribe and fraud charges. But Netanyahu is more than just a candidate. He's the key issue of these elections. He's not a man leading an agenda. He is the agenda itself. In these elections, many Israelis won't be voting because they want to promote their ideology or influence concrete issues, they'll be voting because they love or hate Netanyahu. 

This leads to a misconception of Israeli politics. Since all recent elections ended in a tie between rival blocks, some assume this is a tie in the European style, meaning between left and right. But nothing could be further from the truth. In a European sense the Israeli left makes up 10 to 15 percent of the electorate on a good day. That is if left means socialist or social-democratic ideology combined with progressive values like secularism, civil rights, feminism, LGBT rights and multiculturalism. In Israel the blocks have nothing to do with all that. It's not socialists against capitalists or conservatives against liberals. It's all about Netanyahu. One block supports him, the other wants to get rid of him.

On Netanyahu's side, things are pretty clear – together with Netanyahu's "Likud" party, there's a coalition of Jewish ultra-orthodox parties, nationalist parties and representatives of West-Bank settlers. The other side, however, has no common values, ideas or interests with the exception of one – the idea of replacing Netanyahu. Led by centrist current Prime Minister Yair Lapid, it's a bizarre coalition based on middle class secular Jews supported by left-wing liberals, a variety of Israeli Palestinians (some Islamist, others secular, some nationalists, others old-school communist) and right-wing conservatives who for some reason or another are in conflict with Netanyahu. This is the main reason why the last Israeli government stayed in power for only a year and even during this short period it had to have two heads of government in rotation. If in Swedish politics, the old left-right spectrum became more complicated in recent years and developed into the so-called GAL-TAN spectrum, in Israel the opposite happened, things became simpler – the whole spectrum is reduced to one man.

But where exactly is Netanyahu on a left-right scale? That should be a simple question to answer since Netanyahu is and always has been a self-proclaimed right-wing leader. He's been called an Israeli Trump, an Israeli Orbán and even an Israeli Erdoğan (although they should be called American, Hungarian and Turkish Netanyahus since he assumed office before them). But context is king, and in an Israeli one, Netanyahu may be hated by the left, but that doesn't mean he's as right as it gets. In a social-economic perspective, Netanyahu used to be a Thatcherist, pushing for privatisations, tax cuts and restraining government spending, but it's been years since he spent his political capital on those kinds of issues. Today he leaves the economy in the hands of others. Though he's certainly a hawk and a sceptic when it comes to relations with the Palestinians, he's always been careful with the use of military power and he never went all the way towards Israel's hard core right which supports the annexation of the West Bank and putting an end to the so-called two state solution. In recent years Netanyahu has been mostly concerned with staying in power and avoiding prison. Unlike his potential successors, he's secular, he was raised in the US and has a western education and world view and he's an intellectual. In Israel this means that in many ways he's actually a centrist.

Just for the sake of perspective, the rising star of these elections is the 46-year-old leader of the "Jewish Strength" party, Itamar Ben Gvir, a man who first came to public attention when he threatened the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a few weeks before he was assassinated in 1995. Ben Gvir also supported Baruch Goldstein an American Jew who massacred 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994. The party Ben Gvir is currently part of has the support of 10 percent of the electorate in the latest polls. When it comes to ideology, Netanyahu is a middle of the road pragmatist compared to Ben Gvir and other Israeli nationalist and religious fanatics. The stark opposition he faces is more about his alleged corruption, opportunism and his relentless populist crusade against Israel's judicial system and law enforcement officials.

One of the reasons that Netanyahu's party is supported by over 25% of the voters according to polls is that in Israel many people don't vote according to their opinions. Rather, they vote according to their identity. It's not about what you think, it's about who you are. Arabs vote for Arab parties, religious people vote for religious parties, traditional Jews with an Eastern background vote for the Likud and secular Jews from a western background vote for one of the liberal centrist parties, usually led by ex-Army generals or former media celebrities. These include the Labour Party led by former TV and radio anchor, Merav Michaeli, and the National Unity Party led by Benny Gantz, former army Chief of Staff. To put it in a Swedish context – no one in Israel needs a "Val Kompas", many parties don't even have a party platform. a strong sectorial identity is much mor useful. The comparison may not be entirely fair, but in this aspect, Israeli parties are not very different from "Nyans".

Finally, Swedes may be surprised to know that the Palestinian issue is no longer an important part of the Israeli discourse. Back in the 80s and 90s, the lines of Israeli politics were drawn according to policies towards the Palestinians. The left promoted the two-state solution, the right argued against a Palestinian state. These days, the two-state solution is probably discussed more in Sweden's Foreign Ministry at Gustav Adolfs Torg, than it is in Jerusalem. It seems like both Israelis and Palestinians have lost faith in concepts like negotiations, compromise and peace agreements and a reality of a never ending low-intensity conflict is accepted on both sides. As a result, Israelis will not be voting to stop or to continue the occupation of the West Bank, they'll also not be voting about the threat from Iran, social issues or the economy. Instead, it's a mix of identity politics combined with anger about an eclectic collection of issues which happened to appear in yesterday's papers or social media feeds. When it comes to art and culture, entrepreneurship and industry, history and science, Israel is a beautiful country full of promise and potential. Its political establishment, on the other hand, has lost its way and is deeply divided. The only democracy in the Middle East is stuck in an endless spiral of election campaigns. The result of this fifth round is still unknown, but it may very well simply be nothing more than round number six.


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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