Right-wing Parties in the 2019 Israeli Elections

The 2019 Israeli elections will be determined on the issue of how many right-wing parties pass the 3.25% threshold and what their relative strength will be vis-à-vis the left bloc. Who are the rightwing parties, how did the religious and ultra-religious parties become “the natural partners” of Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, and what is the subtle interplay between them in view of the 2019 elections?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel concludes his third address before a joint meeting of Congress

The 2019 Israeli elections will be determined on the issue of how many right-wing parties pass the 3.25% threshold and what their relative strength will be vis-à-vis the left bloc. Who are the rightwing parties, how did the religious and ultra-religious parties become “the natural partners” of Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, and what is the subtle interplay between them in view of the 2019 elections?

Israel is a multi-party system, such that in order to form a government with a majority of at least 61 (of 120) MKs, the catch-all parties – Labor on the left and the Likud on the right – always need to forge coalitions with smaller parties. A standard part of the coalition negotiations for many years, beginning in the 1950s, was the negotiations between the major parties and the religious parties. The religious-Zionist party (formerly “Mafdal”), and the ultra-Orthodox parties of the Mizrachi Jews (“Shas”) and the Ashkenazi Jews (“Yahadut Ha-Torah”) negotiated with both Likud and Labor on issues relating to their respective identity groups and to the relationship between religion and state. After an agreement was forged, they were considered loyal coalition partners in the government they joined. They have been traditionally known as pivot parties, as they held the key to government formation.

A shift occurred in the 2006 elections with the resounding failure of the Likud party, which shrunk to only 12 MPs. Netanyahu, who had served as finance minister prior to the elections and inflicted substantial budgetary cuts affecting the ultra-Orthodox sector, revisited his strategy and began grooming the religious parties to become what he called his “natural partners.” Ultimately, this led to a very significant ideological process, with the religious parties adopting an ideological position of Israel as a nation-state based on religion, thus moving closer to their electoral base, which had always been more right wing than its leadership. The further result was a tremendous effect on the right wing in general, which, formerly a national-liberal camp, began an increasingly ethno-religious campaign. Tradition and religion became the pervasive position within the Israeli right wing, especially due to the influence of the settlers on Israeli politics, and in particular, on the Likud party, with the growing internal involvement of the settlers in the inner-workings of Likud institutions. The close relationship between agents of religion and the state – Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook's triangle of “Torah, war and settlement” – came to dominate the perception of the right-wing sphere of the Israeli public. This profoundly reshaped the Israeli political discourse, so much that the Likud campaigned in the 2013 elections under the slogan, “A Jewish and Strong Israel” instead of “a Jewish and Democratic Israel.” The majority of Israelis, in whose self-perception democracy had once been viewed as complementary to Jewish nationalism, now saw it as antagonistic. This would later be expressed in the Basic Law:  Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, in which democracy or equality would not even be mentioned. “Jewish first, democratic later,” or “Jewish values, democratic procedures” would dominate the right-wing discourse.

Netanyahu's “holy” alliance with the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties was a strategic move, which placed these parties on the extreme right and prevented them from serving as pivot parties. For example, when Livni became the head of Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset at the time, she approached the ultra-Orthodox parties, promising them everything they wanted in terms of specialized funds for their sector, but they preferred entering into a coalition with Netanyahu's Likud party and shunned Kadima. The religious and ultra-Orthodox parties are today ethno-religious parties, to the right of the Likud, and are shifting the entire discourse of the right towards increased nationalism and religious extremism. A rift is forming and deepening between Israeli and American Jewry, as in the case of the Kotel Agreement, which approved non-Orthodox, including reform and egalitarian prayers at the southern extension of the Western Wall, but was cancelled due to the delayed but uncompromising resistance of the ultra-Orthodox parties, to the great dismay of American, pluralistic Jewry.

A second process within the Israeli right wing is the emergence of new generations of leadership in the religious-Zionist camp. The old “Mafdal” was replaced in 2013 by the Jewish Home Party (“Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi”), when Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, a religious and a secular power-couple of Israeli politics and former employees of Netanyahu's office, were elected to the Knesset. They became dominant leaders of the right wing of Israel. Shaked, in particular, currently serving as Minister of Justice, spearheaded the illiberal revolution against liberal democracy, seeking to curtail the powers of the supreme court, limit the judiciary’s ability to block unconstitutional laws passed by the Knesset (the Override Clause) and appointing 330 judges, the majority of whom were “conservative” rather than “liberal,” to use Shaked's new, Americanized classification. This neo-conservative agenda became identified with Netanyahu's regime. Shaked and Bennet, however, later decided that the religious-Zionist party was too dominated by various rabbinical authorities and had a limited electorate. They therefore defected from the Jewish Home Party, just a few days before the candidate submissions deadline to the elections committee, to establish the New Right (“Yamin Hadash”) party, hoping to better position themselves for the 2019 elections. The diminished Jewish Home Party was forced to cancel its primaries, choose a new leader, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, and unite with the National Union party (“Ha-Ichud Ha-Leumi”), with the extremist Bezalel Smotrich as its new leader. Crucially, since Netanyahu feared this new party would not pass the 3.25% threshold, he pushed it to unite with the racist Kahanist “Otzma Yehudit” party. This move let the extremists into the heart of the Israeli right and caused a second, almost irreparable rift with American Jewry and AIPAC, which has condemned the move. Netanyahu's push nevertheless worked, and for the 2019 elections, the three factions comprise The United Right. This has further distanced the discourse of the right from liberal-democracy as it adopts an extremist, anti-minorities and racist campaign. The other right-wing party is Lieberman's “Yisrael Beiteinu” (Israel our Home), the party of immigrants from the FSU. This is the only secular party on the right (given that the Likud and Kulanu are not explicitly secular, being associated with traditional Jews), and many of its voters are not Jews by religion.  It is nationalist and stresses anti-Arab sentiment with slogans such “no citizenship without loyalty” an undemocratic position. Kulanu, Kachlon's party, and “Zehut” (Identity) Feiglin's party, are also on the right.

Netanyahu’s maneuver of joining forces with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party has reshaped the political map on the right: There is the Likud, the ruling party, to its left Kulanu, and to its right, Bennet and Shaked's New Right, the ultra-Orthodox Shas (Mizrachi) and Yahadut Ha-Torah (Ashkenazi) parties, Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, the New Right, and Feiglin's Zehut. The fate of the 2019 elections will be determined by the delicate dynamics between Netanyahu, the number one campaigner in Israeli politics, and his respective allies: the more successful Netanyahu, the more likely that one of these right-wing parties will not pass the electoral threshold, possibly enabling the center-left bloc to receive 60 or more votes. In any case, the extremist discourse of ethno-religious Judaism, which is deeply illiberal, together with neo-Conservatism and populism, is the prevalent ideology of the Israeli right today. Whether the Likud can be rehabilitated as a national-liberal party in the post-Netanyahu era is one of the fundamental challenges facing Israeli democracy.