On 17 September, Israeli voters elected a new Knesset (parliament). These were the second elections this year, with the first held in April. At that time, current prime minister Netanyahu's position was threatened. His main opponent, the Kahol Lavan party, and its leader, former Commander-in-Chief Benny Ganz fought to a tie, winning 35 seats each.
Netanyahu, desperate to stay in office and maintain immunity from corruption charges looming over him, tried to build a coalition with a number of far-right and ultra-religious parties. One of these, Avigdor Lieberman's secular right-wing Yisrael Beitanu, refused to enter into coalition with ultra-religious parties and voiced harsh criticism towards Netanyahu. As a result, no government could be formed and a new election was called.
But the new elections did not break the deadlock. Netanyahu, as always when under pressure, leaned further to the right and campaigned on a hysterical anti-Arab and anti-leftist platform. He also played up his personal relations with Donald Trump, who as a show of support to him during the previous election campaign, recognised the Golan Heights as a part of Israel. But Netanyahu’s hysteria did not have the same effect as it used to.
In fact, Netanyahu’s threats against Arabs seem to have spurred them to vote, meaning that both the two main parties received fewer seats than in April, with Likud losing a bit more than Kahol Lavan, and the two getting 32 and 33 respectively. The far-right and ultra-religious parties that Netanyahu needs in order to form a government (Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yamina) got a total of 23 seats, making the total of Netanyahu’s alliance 55 seats, 6 fewer than the 61 majority needed to form a government. Meanwhile, Lieberman (Netanyahu’s old ally) and his Yisrael Beitanu, which campaigned mainly on reducing the influence of ultra-orthodox groups, got 8 seats – almost doubling his previous results. Liebermann has traditionally based himself on the votes of the Russian minority in Israel, but with these elections, he broke that tradition and gained the support of a layer of secular Netanyahu supporters who are tired of Netanyahu’s flirting with religious extremism.
The third-biggest party after Kahol Lavan and Likud is the Joint List (an alliance of the Jewish-Arab left-wing Hadash party, the Arab-nationalist Balad, the Arab-liberal Ta'al and the United Arab List). The election turn out amongst Arabs rose to 61 percent this time, 12 percent more than in the previous elections. The liberal Meretz, running together with former PM Ehud Barak as the Democratic Camp; and Avoda, the so-called Labour Party, got only 5 and 6 seats respectively.
Government formation in deadlock
Thus, the crisis has not been solved. Today, three weeks after the elections were held, no government has been formed. Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beitanu party still refuses to enter a right-wing coalition with the ultra-religious parties and under Netanyahu's leadership. He has said that he would only join a government of national unity with Likud and Kahol Lavan, and under the condition of removing some of the legal privileges of the ultra-orthodox Jews, who for instance are exempt from military service. But these layers have formed a key pillar in Netanyahu’s powerbase, and being part of a government that attacks them would leave Netanyahu in an extremely weak position. But without Lieberman’s support, Netanyahu is not able to build a right-wing government.
Benny Gantz’s position is no better. The so-called centre-left forces supporting him (Meretz, the Labour Party and the Arab list) fall three seats short of a 61-seat Knesset majority. He has instead offered a "national unity government" composed of Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu's Likud and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu, but only if Netanyahu's corruption charges are cleared, or without Netanyahu. This has raised the question of a coup in the Likud party against Netanyahu. But that is highly unlikely to take place.
A split in the ruling class
The reasons for the difficulties in the process of building a new government are not ideological. Likud and the right-wing parties it leans on, share their racist views on the Arabs with Lieberman‘s right-wing Yisrael Beitanu. And while Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan uses more liberal rhetoric, its programme and policies do not differ in any essential way from Netanyahu‘s Likud. In fact, during the election campaign, the programmes of Kahol Lavan and Likud were virtually indistinguishable. When, for instance, Netanyahu proclaimed that he would annex the Jordan valley, Ganz replied by saying that Netanyahu was stealing his idea!
The reason for the conflict between these three political blocks is the result of a split, which has been brewing in the Israeli ruling class. For years now, Netanyahu has leaned more and more on the right-and-far-right layers, in particular ultra-orthodox Jews, in order to hold on to power, escalating his racist rhetoric against Palestinians and attacks on ‘the left’, which he accuses of being the “friends of terrorists”. During the latest election campaign he desperately warned that “Right-wing rule is in danger,” and “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” a statement which became a self-fulfilling prophecy as many Arabs voted in fear of what new atrocities a new Netanyahu government would unleash on them. Netanyahu’s Facebook page also reportedly warned that if elected, Ganz would form a “secular, left-wing, weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men.” And of course, as mentioned before, he promised that, if elected, he would annex the Jordan Valley.
All of this is part of Netanyahu’s continued hysteria, to appeal to the ultra-orthodox and the national-religious (the far-right settler movement), who have been loyally voting for him. It was also in a concession to these forces that he introduced the Nation State Law, which states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” The law downgrades the language of Arabic, making Hebrew the only official language and, promoting Jewish settlement to a “national value”, pledging that the state “will labour to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” In effect, the law is formalising and systematising the inherent racism in Israeli society, and elevating it to a new level.
During the last election in April 2019, members of Netanyahu‘s Likud party installed cameras in polling stations used by Arabs, while Netanyahu himself forged alliances with multiple far-right parties, one of them being the fascist Otzma Yehudit, whose predecessor (Kach-Party) was forbidden in 1994 for supporting terrorism against the Arab population.
Of course, from the point of view of the dominant wing of the ruling class, there is nothing inherently wrong in playing with sectarianism. In fact, the state of Israel since its inception has rested on the myth that the Israeli state is for and a protector of all Jews, regardless of their class. It has promoted Jewish sectarianism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments for decades. By creating a siege mentality amongst Jews it has succeeded in rallying Israeli workers behind itself. But all of this it did for the benefit of the ruling class as a whole. However, for the past decade, Netanyahu has been whipping up sectarian hysteria for his own personal benefit. Starting wars on Lebanon and Gaza, supporting extreme right-wing religious fanatics etc. – all in order to win elections and stay in power.
The rest of the ruling class sees Netanyahu’s single-minded focus on staying in power as reckless. On the one hand, they are dissatisfied with the concentration of power in Netanyahu’s hands. And on the other, they think that he has gone too far to the right and that his support of extremist religious forces poses a growing risk to political stability (i.e. the political rule of the ruling class), domestically and abroad. This process has also been alienating large, more-secular layers of Israeli society who are beginning to lose confidence in the illusion of Jewish unity that the regime had previously been fostering. In the long run this could also lead to class differentiation in society, which would pose an existential danger to the rule of Israeli capitalism. Meanwhile, internationally, Netanyahu’s quest for personal survival has seen him undermine the relationship of the Israeli ruling class and its US backers. First, Netanyahu directly undermined Barack Obama’s rule whenever he could, and sabotaged the Iran nuclear deal. Later on, his close personal alliance with Donald Trump – a relationship for the mutual, personal survival of both – and his provocations towards Iran have steered him off the course that the ruling class wanted.
The ruling class does not appreciate people like Trump and Netanyahu. Not because they are worried about democracy or human rights – heaven forfend! They don‘t care about people being thrown out of their homes, being sacked, shot, bombed or starved, this is just necessary collateral damage in the pursuit of profits. No, when they say that they are worried about democracy, they mean they are afraid that the true nature of their rule is revealed. They need people like Obama or Clinton, who smile for the cameras while ordering the bombing of civilians, who exported more arms than any other government since WW2, and the former of whom still got the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump and Netanyahu instead show their ugly faces to the TV cameras, and by doing so, they also reveal the true face of capitalism and the capitalist class. This might provoke social tensions to erupt, threatening the whole of the regime.
This is why the Israeli ruling class did everything to prevent another Netanyahu government. First of all, it has been attacking Netanyahu by revealing a whole series of corruption scandals, which are now being pursued by the courts. Secondly, it threw its whole weight behind Benny Ganz and Kahol Lavan, trying to instrumentalise the anti-Netanyahu-mood that exists in some parts of Israeli society. But while Kahol Lavan was able to achieve good results in the April elections, representing a serious threat to Netanyahu, the latter still had a right-wing majority on which to build a government. So the ruling class had to put enormous pressure on Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitanu party to stop the government-building process, with Lieberman declaring he wouldn't enter a coalition with the ultra-orthodox parties. But Netanyahu needs to cling on to power in order to avoid his corruption charges. This made him go for a second round of elections.
At the same time, Netanyahu has been striking back, accusing the public prosecutor, the courts and any state institution in his way of being a part of a great conspiracy to depose him. All of that is, of course, true. Just like he has been conspiring for years and using the state and his personal position to stay in power. Only a few days ago, Libermann was complaining about investigators, sent by Netanyahu to watch him. But within this civil war and mudslinging, the real danger facing the ruling class is that the real functions of Israeli “democracy” will be revealed. As the scheming and conspiring are revealed, so are the direct links between the Israeli ruling class and its state, undermining the whole establishment and the illusion of the state’s impartiality, which is the basis of all bourgeois-democratic rule. It is exactly this threat that Netanyahu is using to maintain his position, essentially threatening to burn down the house if they try to remove him.
The longer the present political deadlock continues, the more damage will be done to the regime. The bourgeoisie is desperately trying to put pressure on the different forces to form a government. Israel’s “constitutional” President Reuven Rivlin, representing more-farsighted elements of the ruling class, even went as far as to try to propose a complex power-sharing agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which would basically see two prime ministers. But the deal did not go through. If the deadlock continues, which is likely, there might be a call for a third election this year. Something that would add to the general political crisis and anti-political sentiments permeating society.
Tensions beneath the surface
If you look at the election results, parties whose ideology, policies and programmes are right wing, nationalist and militaristic have a clear majority (Likud, Yisrael Beitanu, UTJ, Yamina, Shas, and Kahol Lavan). The so-called left are not much better. All except for the Arab list come from the political establishment and have in one way or another supported the general line of the Israeli state in the past. While the Arab list talks with more left-wing rhetoric, it still proclaimed immediately after the elections that it would support a Gantz government. Furthermore, the more left-wing forces have essentially clipped their own wings by allying with tribal and Islamist forces.
Thus, there is no real alternative to the Zionist policies of the Israeli state at the moment. Nevertheless, what the latest elections reveal is a brewing crisis and rising tensions underneath the surface of society. The ruling class is divided and in an open civil war. It is incapable of providing political stability. It cannot even form a government. An important section of the ruling class, which sees the processes under the surface, wants to get rid of Netanyahu, who risks destroying the political stability and social peace in Israel. On the one hand, there is no guarantee that the fanatical forces that Netanyahu has unleashed, and who have been empowered by him, can be controlled. On the other hand, the decline in the authority of the regime will also open the path for waves of mass protests, similar to the ones in 2011. In the context of a new and deeper crisis in the world economy than in 2008, the class struggle will also intensify in Israel.
While Israel tries to present itself as a thriving, high-tech nation, only a small amount of its population actually profits from the gains in the high-tech sector. For the majority, rents and food prices are high – way higher than in Germany for example – while wages are far lower. A quarter of the Israeli population lives beneath the poverty line, 55 percent of children in Jerusalem are considered poor, and Israel has the highest level of social injustice of any OECD country. And while it seems at the moment that the majority of the Israeli population is hopelessly right wing and supports the Israeli state and government, the ruling class hasn’t forgotten the mass protests of 2011, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and many other cities in order to protest against the high costs of living. Last year alone, there were five big protests for LGBT rights, in support of refugees, against the nation state law, a women's march and against racist police violence. The ruling class is very cautious as to what this could anticipate in the next period.
The only thing that can keep the Jewish-Israeli working class in check is Israeli nationalism and the permanent fear mongering about the Palestinians being "terrorists", and Iran wanting to destroy Israel. When you ask most Israelis what the most important political issue in Israel is, they will answer "security". But if you ask them what the second-most important issue is, they will answer "social justice". The siege scenario and the security question is literally the only thing that prevents the social question from coming to the surface. But as Netanyahu’s present campaign showed, this policy has a limit and could risk turning into its opposite.
With a major global economic crisis looming ahead, and the Israeli economy highly dependent on the world market, tensions are set to rise further. A new crisis will mean further austerity and attacks on living standards. This will in turn lead to more instability and polarisation within society. In tandem with other movements in the region, this could open the way for new mass protest waves on an even-higher level than in 2011, which will shake Israeli capitalism to its core.