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Israel Goes to the Polls…Again

By Randy Pinsky

Israel is known for several things; its markets, pristine beaches, archaeological wonders…and five elections in less than four years.[2]

The November 2022 elections resulted in a return of former long-ruling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a coalition[3] composed of several right-wing nationalist and ultra-orthodox parties.

What does this imply for the future of Israel? What are the concerns plaguing Jewish communities outside of Israel? Azrieli Institute director Professor Csaba Nikolenyi explored these ideas and more at the Shaare Zion-Beth El synagogue on November 17 in “Results of the Election and What it Means for Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.”

Bibi is Back

After a year and a half out of government on charges of corruption and tax evasion following more than a decade of uninterrupted rule, Netanyahu was asked by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to start a new government.

Netanyahu (or ‘Bibi’ as he is commonly known) had acquired international recognition for placing Israel among the top ten countries in the world for its pandemic response, and for having normalized relations with various Arab countries with the Abraham Accords.

With Netanyahu’s political resurrection, he ushered in the most extreme right-wing, religious and “ideologically homogeneous” government ever before seen in Israel's history.[4]

Proposed Moves

In a December podcast by the Canadian Jewish News (CJN), community leaders Ben Murane (New Israel Fund of Canada), Miriam Pearlman (past president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America Canada), and Shimon Koffler Fogel (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)) shared their concerns on some of the new government’s campaign promises.  

These include firmer border control and security measures (with the panelists expressing fears of a ‘shoot first, ask second’ mentality), and elevating the power of the Knesset (parliament) to be able to overrule Supreme Court decisions.

The new coalition has also pushed for more settlement building and removing Palestinian and Bedouin developments from Judea and Samaria/the West Bank; hostility to territorial concessions for peace (Breaking Defense), and more Jewish prayer time at the Temple Mount, viewed as a holy site by both Jews and Muslims.

All are sensitive trigger points that the Canadian Jewish leaders fear will fuel local tensions, as well as have serious international repercussions. 

Fanning the Flames

There is also issue with some of the politicians due to their extremist views as well as problematic associations. Paramount among them is Itamar Ben-Gvir, convicted for openly inciting violence against Arabs and his affiliations with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who’s Kach party was banned in Israel and outlawed as a terrorist organization in the United States (National Post). Bezalel Smotrich has also been openly anti-Arab and anti-gay and has pushed for more halachic (religious Jewish) law to be implemented at the government level.

Even among right-wingers, they are considered radical. Rabbi Barry Leff of the Share Zion-Beth El synagogue stated that it was akin to “electing white nationalist[s],” with Nikolenyi echoing concern with their tendency to “pull out a gun too often whenever there is an altercation.”

The parties have pushed for increased Torah study in schools, gender segregated beaches, and even less secular studies and English in religious schools. Nor are their beliefs subtle as they worked under an openly anti-diversity and homophobic campaign.

As a result, many Jewish organizations worry that hard-earned democratic rights and freedoms may be undermined and retracted. 

“Foxes Ruling the Henhouse”

Beyond the personal affirmations of these controversial actors, is the fact that they have pushed for positions of power on the very issues around which they have provoked controversy; what some have called a truly twisted Orwellian situation.

Indeed, in spite of having openly incited violence against Arabs, Ben-Gvir is likely to be head of law enforcement and internal security, with Smotrich overseeing West Bank policies and the financing of settlement construction.

Implications for the Diaspora

“This a hair-on-fire moment,” stated Murane of the New Israel Fund of Canada.

As CJN podcast host Ellin Bessner stated, “[the election results are] going to heighten what is already the most divisive issue in the Jewish community today, which is Israel.”

Many prominent Jewish organizations and centers have expressed concern about proposed policies which have little resonance with their own values and which they feel could cause a worrisome backtrack. “There are many ways to be Jewish,” shared Pearlman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America Canada. “If it is our homeland, it has to look like a homeland to all of us.”

How will liberal Jews respond to judgments made about Israel in public, such as on campus? With alarming rates of anti-Semitism, many worry how to reconcile their support for Israel given the new reality, and to not sound like ‘apologetics’ to left wing ‘activists’ with a limited understanding of the Middle East.

Others state that electoral results should not necessarily impact one’s relation with Israel. In fact, Avital Leibovich, director of the American Jewish Committee's office in Jerusalem, wrote, “While it’s fair to criticize, ceasing to support Israel over its elections is in and of itself counter to democratic values” (Jerusalem Post). Historian and McGill University professor Gil Troy agreed, “My preferred candidates may have lost Israel’s election, but my hopes for Israel are not.”

Israel in the International Arena

What about Israel’s political allies? Will shock waves emanating from the elections impact international relations?

In September, Senator Robert Menendez, head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Netanyahu about the political dangers of inviting extremists such as Ben-Gvir in a potential future government. This is particularly as the positions such candidates are vying for would put them in direct contact with the US regarding security and defense.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price pointedly reiterated the hope that officials will continue to “uphold the shared democratic values of the two countries.”

In fact, Amos Gilead, a former top officer in the Israeli military, noted, “I suggest listening to the voices coming out of Washington…indicative of the American reaction to the new Israeli government.” The worry is that extreme policies might harm relations with Israel’s most influential ally, with the risk of prompting a rethinking of traditional domains of support, even defense; “an area usually insulated from political shifts.”

Finally, what of the Arab countries with whom relations have just recently been fostered? As the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s ambassador to the US wrote in a 2020  op-ed to the Israelis, “You can have normalization with the UAE or you can have annexation [of the West Bank], but you can’t have both” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). 

Friedman’s Doom and Gloom

Renowned New York Times writer Thomas Friedman wrote a highly circulated op-ed in November entitled, “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” In it, he expressed how Israel in the aftermath of the election is not one which he recognizes or with which he feels affiliated.

“I have reported from Israel for this newspaper for nearly 40 years…to hear [influential fellow journalist Nahum Barnea] say to me….’we have a different kind of Israel now’ tells me we are truly entering a dark tunnel.” 

Or Are We?

Legitimate concerns aside, is the situation really as dire as that?

“Thomas Friedman’s much-forwarded New York Times lament for Israel’s soul…has demoralized the Jewish world…[but] has gone too far,” argued historian Gil Troy.

For instance, while skeptics criticize the move towards stronger policing, Troy pointed out how Arab attacks on Israelis have led some to believe the government was not doing adequate efforts to deter or effectively address such violence. 

Voters shared how their support of Netanyahu’s coalition was thus often more due to its stronger approach to security, as opposed to endorsing the extremist views which have made headlines.

Similarly, many expressed dissatisfaction with the handling of inter-state deals, such as what some perceived as an unbalanced recent maritime agreement with Lebanon in which relinquished territory was not met with much commitment in return. 

Pessimistic Forecaster or Unwarranted Alarmist? 

In regards to the extremist views, Fogel of CIJA shared that there is a big difference between the rhetoric of campaign and government in practice, contrary to the out-of-control free-for-all catastrophized by Friedman.

According to the CJN, “Netanyahu insists these men will have to walk back some of their more extreme plans.” As an experienced and cautious politician, he is aware of the need for keeping up good relations with allies, especially Washington.

Even on the religious angle, Fogel pointed out that the Haredi communities are not as monolithic as often assumed. In fact, there are local movements for greater integration into mainstream society, accommodations to join the Israeli Defense Force, and an interest in learning secular subjects. 

Israel’s Political Future: Let’s Wait and Watch

“So let’s say to the I-wash-my-hands-of Israel crowd; the Israel we know still lives, with all its flaws and challenges, its greatness and possibilities,” concluded Troy.

So what will Israel look like after this election? 

It remains to be seen.



[1]Research completed prior to the assignment of cabinet positions

[2] Check out the Azrieli Institute’s brief on Israeli elections

[3]For more information on Israel’s political system, check Professor Nikolenyi’s 2-part series found here and the Azrieli Institute’s brief on coalitions.  

[4] Check out the Azrieli Institute’s brief on Israel’s history of elections

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