When Merav Michaeli, the leader of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, arrived at the ballot box near her home in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning, she grinned from ear to ear. She poked toddlers in their strollers. Waved to photographers. But her sleepless eyes told a different story. Labor, Israel’s once dominant party—the party of Yitzhak Rabin—was inching toward extinction. So was Meretz, another dovish party to its left. So were three predominantly Arab parties. Israel’s peace camp was imploding. It wasn’t clear whether any of those parties would meet the percentage of votes needed to enter parliament. In the days leading up to the election, politicians from the left were pleading with voters to please, please help save their parties.
In Israel, this has become known as a gevalt campaign—Yiddish for “Help!” There have been positive campaigns. (“Hope.”) There have been negative campaigns. (“Lock her up.”) And then there have been gevalt campaigns, when party leaders vie with one another over their weak showing. In many ways, this election cycle—Israel’s fifth in less than four years—turned out to be the country’s gevalt election.
Still, when I pointed out the dismal predictions for Labor in the most recent polls (predictions that materialized as the day progressed), Michaeli said—a little too quickly—“I’m not worried.” She mentioned the two names on everyone’s mind in Israel: Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the country’s former and longest-serving Prime Minister, of the Likud Party, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the ascendant far-right politician once convicted of supporting a Jewish terrorist organization and inciting violence. Keeping both Netanyahu and Ben Gvir out of power was “a necessary condition,” Michaeli said. “Not sufficient, but we’re fully committed to it.”
Just how necessary became evident that night, when it was announced that Ben Gvir’s Religious Zionist party—an alliance of factions espousing Jewish supremacy, settler expansionism, and homophobia—has emerged as Israel’s third-largest party. That alliance now looks on course to wield more political power in the next parliament than all left-wing and Arab parties combined. “This racist phenomenon, which used to be outside the consensus here—on the margins of the margins—and which used to be opposed by everyone, has become mainstream,” Dan Meridor, a former justice minister from Likud, told me on Wednesday.
The acceptance of Ben Gvir into the Israeli mainstream happened, as the saying goes, gradually, then suddenly. (A few weeks ago, I saw a group of his supporters take over Dizengoff Square, in the liberal bastion of Tel Aviv. They waved flags and chanted. Several soldiers who were slurping iced coffee nearby approached them, and asked to take selfies with them.) Netanyahu bears at least part of the responsibility. In June, he was caught on tape instructing Likud lawmakers on how to justify their embrace of Ben Gvir’s extremism: make it clear to voters that the choice was between “Abbas and Tibi”—Arab politicians—“or Ben Gvir and Bibi,” Netanyahu told them. Later, Netanyahu successfully orchestrated a union between Ben Gvir’s faction and another ultranationalist group led by a rival of Ben Gvir’s. Ben Gvir had previously said he would run alone, and the two men’s bickering had left the Israeli far right fragmented. In past elections, Netanyahu has learned that, without a strong showing for them, he has no right-wing majority. So, after meeting with them in his home in Caesarea earlier this summer, he persuaded them to declare a joint run. (Later, when polls began to indicate that the Religious Zionist alliance was gaining popularity at the expense of Likud, Netanyahu changed tack, urging his voters not to switch sides, and promised them that Ben Gvir would serve as a minister in his next government “regardless.”)
Ben Gvir’s meteoric rise is also a product of the Israeli media, which extensively covered his provocations and shock value—not unlike U.S. cable news after Donald Trump’s début, during the 2src16 Presidential campaign. Earlier this year, amid a flurry of terror attacks this spring in Israel, Ben Gvir received more coverage on Israeli television and radio than any other politician, save for then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, according to Ifat, a media-information company. “I say this with sadness,” Nadav Eyal, a political analyst, said in an impassioned appearance on Channel 13, in September, referring to Ben Gvir. “Even on this channel, where I appear, he has gone through a process of normalization.”
As things stand, Arab citizens of Israel, who make up twenty-one per cent of the population, will have no representation in the next government. This, despite the historic participation of an Islamist party in Israel’s last ruling coalition. “Infighting between the Arab parties has caused great disappointment in the Arab public—a kind of revulsion,” Mohammad Magadli, an analyst for Israel’s Channel 12 and news director for an Arabic-language radio station, told me recently. Women, too, will be scarce: out of a coalition of more than sixty lawmakers, only eight or nine female lawmakers are expected. “For women, that’s a disaster,” Michaeli, Labor’s leader, told me at the ballot box. “If we want to keep control over ourselves, our bodies, our lives, our daughters, and our future, we mustn’t allow them to get back to the government.” And, for the first time in Israel’s history, a likely majority of coalition members hail from the national religious or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) camp. The influence of those lawmakers on Israeli politics risks imperilling the legitimacy and independence of Israel’s Supreme Court, Yossi Verter, a veteran columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote on Wednesday. It could also roll back advancements in gay rights and the country’s already fragile separation between religion and state.
Netanyahu’s triumphant return to power now appears imminent. The roughly eighteen months that he had spent languishing in the opposition, while serving as a defendant in an ongoing corruption trial, appear to have only emboldened him. During that time, he threatened a direct confrontation with Lebanon over a maritime border deal, and his political allies raised the prospect of bringing about the partial or full cancellation of his trial, possibly by firing Israel’s attorney general, or by removing the clause “fraud and breach of trust” from the country’s penal code. (Netanyahu has publicly denied that he is attempting to sabotage his trial, and said that “the cases are crumbling” in court.) His supporters shout, “Yamin o Falestin!” or “The right or Palestine!” They are the only ones who count as Israelis, in other words. Everyone else belongs in Palestine. Everyone else is an enemy.
By Friday, it became clear that Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc had clinched sixty-four seats out of the Knesset’s hundred and twenty. This is its strongest showing out of all previous election cycles since 2src19. Yet—tellingly—this does not translate to a majority of the popular vote. After all votes were counted, the parties in Netanyahu’s bloc taken together had won 49.55 per cent of the vote: a coin flip. That the right and the far-right parties in Israel are headed toward a coalition, while the center-left bloc is in tatters, seems to say more about Netanyahu’s strategic maneuvering—and his bloc members’ discipline—than about where Israeli public sentiment lies.
In the months leading up to the election, liberals had been calling on their parties to band together, as were many Arab citizens. They blamed Michaeli for obstinately rejecting a deal to join forces with the dovish Meretz party—a rejection that now appears to have cost liberals dearly, as Meretz will not be represented in parliament. The center-left bloc remains splintered, battered. There are rumblings that Michaeli will soon be ousted from her role as Labor leader. The headline of Haaretz’s editorial on Friday read: “Merav Michaeli, Go Home!” And it remains unclear whether the interim Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, whose party came in second and who was considered the center-left’s most promising star, will stay on as the leader of the center-left bloc, given its poor showing.
On Election Day, Aryeh Schwarz, a silver-haired voter in blue-rimmed glasses and shorts, said that he had voted for Lapid but was worried about his chances. Schwarz and his wife, Fania, listed their main concerns over a Netanyahu comeback: an overhauling of the courts, the cancellation of his trial. Addressing the prospect that Ben Gvir and other extremists will take up posts in key government ministries, Fania sighed and said, “Don’t they realize there will be a revolution here?” ♦