The history of coalition politics in Israel is a familiar story. Since no one party has ever received enough popular votes to constitute a majority, coalition governments need to be formed through what is sometimes a patchwork of deals and compromises which result in shared leadership and governance.
Less than three months before the upcoming parliamentary elections in Israel, the forecast is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party will be far and away the vote-getting winner — attaining perhaps 30 seats in the Knesset, roughly twice as many as the nearest competitor — but substantially short of the 61-seat majority needed for a parliamentary majority. In this scenario, Netanyahu or whoever leads the Likud — Netanyahu is under a legal cloud for corruption — will, like every prime minister designate before him, have to forge a coalition with fractious and often contradictory parties. But this time around, parties on the left and right are dividing, and new untested politicians are announcing runs.
A recent poll found that when Israelis were asked who they would like to lead the country, Netanyahu led former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz by just three points. Other polls showed that Gantz’s new party would take 12-14 seats and be the second-largest party in the Knesset.
But the big news regarding the April elections is that they are expected to show the continued withering of two movements that have played major roles in the ruling coalition during Israel’s first three decades: Labor and religious Zionists. Labor was Israel’s founding party; it steered the growth and security of the state until after the Yom Kippur War. Labor could get as few as eight seats, while Jewish Home, the former home of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the successor to the National Religious Party, could win fewer than four seats, too few to pass the election threshold.
Why are these legacy movements wasting away? According to political analyst Shmuel Rosner, they are the victims of a cultural realignment in Israel. Fifty-five percent of Israelis, Rosner says, subscribe to a “new brand of Judaism,” one that he calls “Jewish-Israeli.”
While fiercely patriotic like their forebears who founded, fought for and led the state under the Labor banner, these new “Jewish-Israelis” have embraced traditional Jewish practice — a marked departure from their secular Zionist forebears. While these “Jewish Israelis” don’t describe themselves as religious, per se, they see traditional religion as part of their lives rather than as an anachronism.
But “Jewish-Israelis,” according to Rosner, are not national religious Zionists either. Bennett, who bailed on Jewish Home to form a new entity eerily, but aptly, called New Right, seems to have understood this.
Ultimately, these are the people that political parties in Israel need to win over: respectful — and somewhat observant — of Jewish traditions, patriotic and less dogmatic than the historic firebrands of the left and the right. In a word, the moderates.
Can this election capture their voice? Only time will tell. JN