No one yet knows the final result of the Israeli elections—the country’s second in six months. Attempts to build a governing coalition will likely stretch out for months. But the returns show significant shifts that deserve to be understood.
1. Benny Gantz is a wobbly centrist. But his voters have potential. As of now, the nine-month-old centrist party of Benny Gantz, Blue and White, has received the most votes—and the most seats in the Knesset: 33 versus the Likud’s 31. Unless Netanyahu forces a third election (still likely), Gantz could become prime minister in rotation with someone from the Likud. So who is Benny Gantz? And what do his voters want?
At times, Gantz has spoken of liberal social values, of seeking peace and quiet. At other moments, he has hawkishly vowed to crush Hamas and negotiate only with Israeli parties who are “Zionist or Jewish.” Mostly though, Gantz has kept quiet, posing for pictures that prove him to be tall, secular, and not-Bibi. If prime minister, Gantz could give dangerous cover to military violence in Gaza and entrenched occupation in the West Bank. Still, the ambivalent, searching mood of his supporters—electing someone who says almost nothing—is potentially a sign of political loosening.
Because his voting base is diverse, Gantz keeps half an ear open to progressive pressure: When he organized a rally against Bibi’s attacks on the Supreme Court in May, he originally excluded Arab politicians from the podium. But after receiving hundreds of angry text messages, Gantz reversed his position and invited Ayman Odeh to speak. When Jewish and Arab activists showed up at Gantz’s doorstep to ask him why he discriminated against Arab politicians, he softened and said he would try to include an Arab cabinet member in his government. Since Gantz is basically a crowd-pleaser, his performance will largely depend on local and international pressure.
2. Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned against a TV show. More than annexation, Iran, or even his friendship with Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s campaign was about demonizing and isolating Palestinian-Arab citizens of his own country. He obsessively pressed for surveillance cameras in voting booths in Arab villages, fabricating concerns about voter fraud. Netanyahu kicked off his campaign by railing against the HBO series Our Boys—whose Israeli creative team drew from Jewish and Palestinian talent. Bibi is never idiotic, and his campaign correctly identified a real threat: Both the increase in Arab political engagement and the success of Our Boys are signs of a cultural shift. Small but growing sectors of Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel are ready to work together to oppose him and his platform. When they do, they can be effective.
Even though Netanyahu lost hundreds of thousands of votes, his racist campaign still brought him over 1 million of them, mostly from his loyal base of poor and working-class Mizrahi (i.e., North African and Mediterranean) Jews. Whatever these voters thought of Netanyahu’s tactics, they followed tradition in defining the Likud party as their sociological home. Netanyahu speaks to them through cultural symbols in the way that Trump speaks to West Virginians. To truly weaken the Likud, the Israeli and international left need to reach out to non-elite Israeli Jews and Jews of color. Some, like Amir Peretz of Labor, have tried to do so. Such efforts need to be much more comprehensive and more locally based and to begin much earlier than election season.
3. Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties, will not be sitting on the sidelines. For the first time since Rabin’s election in 1992, Arab parties have recommended a candidate for Israeli prime minister. Odeh and others from the Joint List who supported this decision (three opposed) made clear that this was a pragmatic choice: They recommended Gantz in order to block Netanyahu and his annexation plan, but would not join a Gantz government.
In reality, Odeh and Gantz have been in conversation since August, with Odeh making the first move. He proposed to join (not just to recommend) a hypothetical coalition government if Gantz would commit to: (1) ending the occupation and negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state, (2) annulling the Nation State Law, (3) combating crime within Arab communities, (4) recognizing Arab villages and ceasing their destruction, and (5) providing social justice for all the disenfranchised—Jews and Arabs alike.
Gantz rejected the proposal. Why? Because some in Odeh’s party “do not recognize Israel as a Jewish-Democratic state.” But there was nothing at all anti-Jewish about Odeh’s proposal. In fact, his demands would have enabled the very social improvements so many Jews seek. In short, Odeh’s tactic put the center on notice.
Some predicted that Odeh’s talk of shared Jewish-Arab interests would drive away Palestinian-Arab voters. But, it didn’t. His campaign increased Arab voter turnout by 10 percent. This increase was likely a protest against Netanyahu’s racist incitement. But some also read it as a sign that the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel liked Odeh’s politics. Either way, Odeh’s success could make him leader of the parliamentary opposition, granting him well-earned influence.
4. The secular-versus-ultraorthodox conundrum is key—and it is complex. The immediate reason Netanyahu could not and currently cannot form a majority coalition of right-wing parties is that Avigdor Lieberman, whose small right-wing party represents mostly former-Soviet immigrants, refuses to work with the ultraorthodox. His main complaints are that the ultraorthodox are exempt from army service, deny civil marriages, and want all businesses and transportation closed on Shabbat. In certain respects, the frustrations of Lieberman’s base are justified—if one is able to separate them from Lieberman’s anti-Palestinian racism. Ultraorthodox leaders suppress the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and non-orthodox Jews. They have, for the past several decades, enabled the occupation, while requiring other people’s children to enforce it.
It is entirely legitimate to use this Russian-Hasidic rift for coalition splitting. But it is a tactical and moral mistake to demonize ultraorthodox communities—as some centrists and liberals also do. Since the ultraorthodox care little about territorial expansion, and focus mostly on the piety of their own neighborhoods, they can be pragmatic allies of the left on certain issues. It is unethical to denigrate them for preferring holy texts over guns—so long as everyone else in Israel is granted the same choice. And campaign images that ridicule their sidelocks and black hats come dangerously close to anti-Semitism. Simply put, there is no easy side to take in this culture war. For the long-term, it’s best to appeal to both Russian-speaking and ultraorthodox communities from below, stressing their common need for economic and social improvements.
5. The settler parties came up short. The Kahanist party Jewish Strength did not make it into the parliament. Similarly, the astroturf settler party Rightwards earned only seven seats—and that was after placing the media-friendly, secular woman Ayelet Shaked at its helm. By comparison, the two Jewish-majority leftist parties, the Democratic Union and Labor, jointly earned 11 seats—and both of those parties are constantly belittled for their meager following. The power that the settlers wield over Palestinian and Israeli lives, and thus over world politics, bears no logical relationship to their political strength. They maintain their clout by exploiting the fears, moral confusion, and tribal rivalries of most Israelis, rather than by winning active support for their violent messianism. As highly committed and well-funded ideologues, this group is nothing to scoff at. Still, to effectively oppose them, it is important to recognize that they are a tiny elite.
In short, this is no time for champagne—especially since Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza did not have a say in any of this. But it is a good time to get to work. Alliances are shifting, assumptions are bending. Progressives have a new chance to show ordinary Israelis that they share more interests with each other, and with Palestinians over the Green Line, than with the leaders who have been exploiting them. Leonard Cohen gave us the soundtrack for this moment: “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”