The Israel elections have ended in an effective stalemate that means, in one way or another, the virtual end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power. It’s an event likely to reverberate far beyond Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party secured 31 seats in the Knesset, while the centrist Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz, has 33. That means the next government will be decided by coalition-making; so far, neither party has the 61-seat majority needed to form a government. In a historic first, the bloc of Arab lawmakers, which has never entered parliamentary alliances before, has endorsed Gantz. Netanyahu has the backing of religious parties. The eight-seat Beitenu faction, a secular nationalist party headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is not joining either coalition so far, since Lieberman has issues both with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox backers and with Gantz’s Arab backers.
Gantz is no kumbaya-singing liberal. He’s a former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff who led Israel’s 50-day military operation against Hamas militants in Gaza five years ago — which is why it’s all the more remarkable that he’s been able to win the Arab legislators’ support.
Unlike the Arab faction, Gantz does not call for repeal of the controversial 2018 nation-state law which affirmed that “national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” and downgraded Arabic from its status as a second official language. But he has said that he would “fix” the law, and his party platform calls for ensuring that “the value of equality is enshrined” in national legislation. Blue and White also wants to limit the power of the Orthodox rabbinate and resume peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu, who has been in power for a decade, is increasingly under fire from strong supporters of Israel in the American media. Earlier this year, Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake lambasted him for making a deal with ultranationalist parties he called “Judeofascists” in order to stay in power. And a week ago, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss ripped into Netanyahu in an appearance at New York’s 92nd Street Y to promote her new book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
To a question from the audience, “Is Netanyahu a racist?,” Weiss responded, “Frankly, yes!”
She listed racist things Netanyahu has said and done, from whipping up fears of Arab voting before elections to allying himself with “vile” ultranationalist groups. While Weiss stressed that blaming Israeli policies for anti-Semitism is inexcusable, she also said, “Netanyahu makes it harder to defend Israel.” Weiss’ book also lambastes Netanyahu for his alliances with right-wing populist leaders in Europe, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose flirtations with anti-Semitism he has been willing to overlook in exchange for these leaders' pro-Israel stance.
Orbán’s vision of illiberal democracy, in which majority rule takes precedence over individual rights and freedoms, is very much in line with Netanyahu’s outlook. While Israel remains the freest country in the Middle East, Netanyahu has taken it in a more authoritarian, less open and tolerant direction — a tendency has that mirrored the populist drift in Europe and the United States. (His close relationship with Donald Trump is no accident.)
Whether he is forced to leave office or agree to share power in a unity government, it seems clear that Netanyahu’s hold on leadership is virtually over — especially with the added cloud of pending corruption charges. While Israel’s politics are unique, the country’s turn may yet signal the reversal of nationalist and populist trends in the West.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.