Israel’s leftwing and pro-Arab-rights parties have been left licking their wounds in the aftermath of this week’s election. When vote-counting finished on Thursday, the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right partners had won by a comfortable majority.
Last summer a broad coalition succeeded in their mutual desire to kick Netanyahu, leader of Likud, out of office. He is currently standing trial on corruption charges.
The “government of change”, made up of right, left and centrist parties and led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, had made history because it included an independent Arab party for the first time. The ambitious experiment, however, was hampered from the start by infighting.
After losing its slim majority the Lapid/Bennett government collapsed just after celebrating its first birthday, triggering Israel’s fifth election in less than four years.
When exit polls predicted a convincing win for the rightwing camp on Tuesday night, owing to the extremist Religious Zionists more than doubling their number of Knesset seats, Israel’s small left wing tried to remain optimistic. But as Netanyahu’s bloc extended its lead those hopes were extinguished, and the mood turned to despair.
“The third largest party in the Knesset is a racist, Kahanist, [referring to a banned rightwing terrorist group], violent party that doesn’t want me or my children here,” Issawi Frej, the country’s second-ever Muslim cabinet minister, wrote on Twitter. “This is no longer a slippery slope. This is the abyss itself.”
Members of the outgoing coalition have already begun trading accusations of blame for their poor showing this week. Polling in the run-up to the election consistently suggested that it would once again be a close call, with both blocs on about 60 seats. Yet despite winning 49.95% of the vote overall, the anti-Netanyahu camp will hold just 50 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Refusals from smaller parties to merge despite polling showing they were in danger of missing the electoral threshold, and a last-minute split in the Arab Joint List, are just two of the reasons why votes for the government camp did not translate into seats. Coalition-building is necessary for governing in Israel’s fragmented political spectrum: a more united strategy, or even tiny shifts in voter turnout, could have yielded a completely different result.
Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), said that the government, led first by the rightwinger Bennett, and latterly by the centrist Lapid, had also alienated voters fed up with the political instability during its chaotic year in office.
“It was quite clear that public opinion was not with the government. Sixty percent of this country identifies as right wing, and that goes up to 70% among the young,” she said, citing research from the IDI. “They [the government] displayed hubris going into this election. But the writing was on the wall.”