Report on Israeli General Assembly Elections and Everyday Life

Republikon Instiute

On October 3, 2019, the Republikon Institute held a closed workshop on the 2019 Israeli General Assembly elections. Two panels were organized: an introduction to the Israeli elections and politics, and a report on everyday Israeli experiences.

Csaba Tóth, a political scientist and the former Director of Strategy of Republikon Institute, was the guest of the first panel. He studied Israeli politics last year with the help of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) project, which took a particularly exciting turn following the dissolution of the Israeli National Assembly (Knesset) and the re-election of the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.

In his introduction, Mr Tóth pointed out that “Although the Hungarian-Israeli relationship is not always in the mainstream of political discourse, it is worth paying attention to the relationship of the two governments”.

He argued that the convergence of the two governments is also showing strong convergence in their political strategies.

In addition, significant analogies can be drawn between the Israeli and Hungarian styles of governance. According to Mr Tóth, there are many remotely recognizable similarities:

1) both governments have ethno-nationalist politics,

2) a large part of society is right-wing, 

3) they have developed a centralist political space with a diffuse opposition to the government.

In spite of this, it is undeniable that the situation of Israel and Hungary are very different from each other, even in terms of their geopolitical situation.

Problematic Elections

In 201,9 two elections were held in Israel. The first, in the spring of 2019, received huge interest and media coverage. All political discourses have exacerbated in a dual value pair what is at stake in the elections: “will the state become Jewish or democratic?”. (cf. Will Hungary be European or national?)

The opposition felt that it was now possible to take the last step against Binjamin Netanyahu. Due to the stake in the election, there has been a great mobilization in party camps.

During the election, the Social Democratic Party weakened considerably, the Benny Gantz-led blue-white coalition went head-to-head with the Netanyahu-led Likud party.

In the end, despite the 35-35 mandates obtained, the coalition partners of the Blue and White Party ran out, so the right-wing bloc- led by the Likud party- gained 65 out of 120 mandates.

However, the problems of the coalition did not end here. The majority in the Knesset appeared fragile when Yisrael Beiteinu exited the coalition. Therefore, new elections had to be called in the same year.

After the spring elections, the people did not pay too much attention to the new General Assembly elections in the fall of 2019. Everyone was expecting Binjamin Netanyahu’s victory, so the level of interest in the elections and their mediatization was much lower than in the pre-election period.

Contrary to expectations, Mr Netanyahu lost some of his support and the Blue-White Party was able to gain more mandates with 33 to 32 mandates. There has been a stalemate in Israeli politics, with the largest parties holding only a quarter of the mandates. As a result, only a large coalition (between Blue-White and Likud) could secure majority for the governance.

The Blue-White did not defeat the Likud with a charismatic program, but PM Netanyahu was slowly extinguished. More important than the outcome of the election was the overthrowing of Netanyahu-s myth, that he was a survivor and a “political wizard”.

Even though Benny Gantz, was the largest party’s prime ministerial candidate, Israel’s head of state has asked Binjamin Netanyahu to form a government, since neither of the Arab parties supported Gantz to be the prime minister.

Here, Mr Tóth brought up the Hungarian story of Katalin Szili’s failure to be elected head of state, which parallels Israeli events, since in both cases the candidate’s failure was caused by the lack of support from a smaller coalition partner.

Finally, knowing the results, Csaba Tóth drew a lesson from the 2019 Israeli elections:

“Politics is unpredictable. When everyone thought that the stakes were high, and the election was important to everyone, Likud won the elections easily. 

However, when everyone thought that the match was over and Likud win the election, B&W could mobilize its voters and the results of the election surprised everyone.”

Israeli Society Is Divided

After the first panel, the second speaker was Barnabas Turai, who has just returned to Hungary after a year of staying in Israel, giving a recent account of the cleavages in Israeli society under the title “Five Topics That Divide Israeli Society”.

First, Mr Turai identified as one of such topics Zionism and, in close connection with it, the nation-state law passed by a narrow majority in 2018. This law, in the Zionist view, serves as a necessary complement to the Fundamental Law, since it is democratic, but does not carry Jewish spirituality, and the new law thus removes the resulting imbalance.

The law states that only Jewish people have the right to national self-determination, recognizing Hebrew as the only official language. The regulation also supports the Israeli settlements.

Law-abiding voices refer to Ben-Gurion’s Declaration of Independence against the law. They claim that it already represents the Jews, and that it is therefore unnecessary to make a new law on the same subject.

According to Mr Turai, in Israel, critics of the law must face the stigma of “anti-Zionism”, because Israel’s right to self-determination is a so-called “red line” among Zionists. To take it would be tantamount to Israeli hostility.

Therefore, there is a mass demand for a nationality law, but there is a meaningful dialogue in society about expanding the scope of the law, especially about the possibility of Georgians being legalized.

Secondly, Mr Turai identified the relationship between Israel and the diaspora as a deeply divisive issue for Israeli society. There is considerable tension in the diaspora that Israel pursues a politics with its recent clause, that solidarity can never override the country’s interests.

As a result, the diaspora, what has been investing huge sums in the country so far, have moved away from Israel and don’t care as much about the state of Israel as they used to.

Turai refers to the territorial questions about the state of Israel as the third line of breakdown, mainly highlighting the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, and mentioning the possibility / desire for the return of Judea-Samaria. Because there is not any Arab party, who can act as an Israeli partner, makes it almost impossible for the Gaza Strip to be resolved. The forces controlling the area (Hamas and Jordan) are so anti-Israel that they do not even recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

In the absence of a negotiating partner, the Gaza Strip is likely to be the most serious area of controversy, deepening the social divide. In contrast, the vast majority of society agrees on the correctness of the annexation of the Golan Heights because they see the protection of the State of Israel assured by this.

In terms of division, the situation of the Israeli left does not give much hope either. After the 2019 elections, there is still no left-wing resurgence, as there is no left-wing party among the major parties. The Blue-White Party, which is new in the political arena of big parties, is a right-wing alternative to the Likud. This is because 70-75% of Israeli society identifies itself as right-wing conservative.

Barnabai Turai sees the cause of the failure of left-wing parties, above all in the Oslo Accords, which was the final nail in the coffin of the Israeli left-wing.

According to him, other causes of this phenomenon are the still tense security situation, the transformed social structure and also the fact that Israel’s transformation into a high-tech society has resulted the disappearance of large union-based voter bases.

In addition to the above-mentioned breakdown lines, Mr Turai also highlighted the high profile of human rights issues in the press.

Here, he mentioned the conflict between the Orthodox and the secular Israelis, and the lobbying of NGOs and international organizations, which creates further gaps in the body of the Israeli society.

Continue exploring:

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Polish Parliamentary Election: Government That Stayed

Botond Tass
Republikon Institute