The World

The Real Losers of Israel’s Election

The inconclusive vote will leave Palestinians worse off.

Military members at a checkpoint.
An Israeli military checkpoint between East Jerusalem and the southern West Bank district of Bethlehem on June 23. Luay Sababa/Xinhua via Getty

Anyone hoping that Israel’s fourth election in two years might break political paralysis has been left disappointed. While incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won the most seats, two weeks of coalition wrangling have left it so far without the coalition of 61 seats needed to form a majority government in the Knesset. So far, he’s on about 52, all hailing from the right and far right. The anti-Netanyahu bloc hovers around 45 seats. The right-of-center Yamina party, which won seven seats, has yet to declare its allegiance. Neither has the United Arab List, a new Arab-Israeli party, which has four seats and has indicated it may be willing to get into bed with either side. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has given Netanyahu the first chance to form a government—although he also said he doesn’t believe any candidate has a chance to form a coalition.

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All this is to say, there were no winners in this election. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents have a clear path to a majority. But it’s clear who the losers are.

“The Palestinians barely featured in this election,” said Jeff Kaplan, an anthropologist who works with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He told Slate that Palestinian rights, and the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip, “didn’t even feature in the campaigns of the Arab parties, let alone in the campaigns of the Israeli left.”

“It’s marginalized the whole issue of occupation, of Palestinians, of peace,” he said. “Palestinians are off the political map, both in terms of Israel and internationally. It’s just not an issue anymore.”

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The 5 million or so Palestinians living in the West Bank, and in Gaza, did not get a vote in the elections, as they are not Israeli citizens. But the choices made by Israeli citizens can still have huge ramifications for the Palestinian communities whose lives are influenced, in many cases, controlled, by the actions of the state of Israel. Despite Palestinian rights not being a major issue in this election, the political makeup of the new Knesset will have a profound effect on Palestinians’ lives.

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“The next government of Israel will be the most right-wing in history,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He believes that the main issue dividing parties in this election was not ideological but support or opposition to the Netanyahu administration. Therefore, he said, despite being divided between two camps, the majority of votes in this election were still cast in favor of the Israeli right.

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Among these right-wing parties picking up votes was the Religious Zionist party, a coalition of far-right groups that has won six seats and may well be part of a Likud-led coalition—something that Sachs says would be “shameful.”

The coalition’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has described himself as a “proud homophobe,” while elements of the party itself are ideologically descended from the outlawed Kahanist movement, an openly racist espousal of Jewish supremacy that advocated for the creation of a theocratic state of Israel across the West Bank and Gaza—a proposal that may have included the expulsion of all Arabs.

The Kahanist movement’s political representation, the Kach party, was later banned in Israel and declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

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The Religious Zionists may only have a handful of seats, but the fact that they have picked up those seats at all could indicate that such extreme ideas are becoming normalized within the mainstream political discourse. “The rise of political forces even further to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud party put Palestinian life and presence on the land in greater danger,” said Sandra Tamari, the executive director of the Adalah Justice movement. “Palestinians will continue to be the target of extreme violence in Israel to justify further militarization and repression by these authoritarians.”

The people voting for the Religious Zionists make up a small minority of the voting population—hard-line members of Israel’s far right, many of whom will be living in settlements in the West Bank. This year, Palestinians have claimed that settler attacks against them and their property have increased, and it’s possible that some of the most radical settlers may become emboldened by the success of the far right.

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Moreover, the inclusion of extremist ideas within politics threatens to soften the image of some of the other parties that make up the majority of seats within the Knesset, many of whom have a hawkish view of the Palestinian question. “On the extreme right there’s an aspiration to annex all the Palestinian territory and declare Israeli sovereignty over all of it,” said Sachs. “But on the more centrist right, there’s a reluctance to give the Palestinians any more territory, or significantly enhance their independence. The hawkish camp today would be one that is far less inclined to any dealings with the Palestinian Authority, and major parts of it are explicitly opposed to the two-state solution.”

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This comes after a tumultuous period for Palestinians and their hopes of statehood. In 2018, President Donald Trump had the U.S. Embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, amid waves of protest in the Gaza Strip that saw almost 200 Palestinian protesters killed by security forces. Strong U.S. support for the Netanyahu administration may have emboldened it to threaten annexing parts of the West Bank last year, a move suspended when Israel signed the first of the “Abraham Accords” with the United Arab Emirates back in August. These deals normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, and later with Bahrain, as well as Sudan and Morocco.

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The signing of the Abraham Accords, however, was a clear shift away from the previous consensus—that these states would only normalize relations with Israel after an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state—and may suggest that elements of the Arab world are increasingly ambivalent to the fate of Palestinians. This is a sentiment that has perhaps leaked into this election—whatever their position on the political spectrum, Israeli parties do not see any political capital to be gained by trying to advance a just settlement to the conflict. Israel’s ongoing political paralysis may also give international actors even more incentive to keep their distance from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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It’s certainly true that, in a bizarre turn of events, the United Arab List party, led by conservative Islamist Mansour Abbas and holding four seats, could have a pivotal say over the shape of a new government. But greater independence for the Palestinian Authority barely featured in its election material, or in the material of any other Arab-Israeli party. Despite ethnic and cultural ties to those Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza, these parties focused more on issues like education, health care, and achieving greater equality for those Arabs that are citizens of Israel. “The Israeli Arabs have also kind of given up on a two-state or one-state solution,” said Kaplan.

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Mansour Abbas has expressed support for two states, but this is something that looks increasingly unrealistic. With Israel protected from attack by the Iron Dome missile defense system, and the erection of the wall that separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel, there’s a danger that the occupation has become a status quo. Israeli settlements, deemed illegal under international law, continue to expand within the West Bank, heavily defended by the Israel Defense Forces.

On Monday, Netanyahu appeared before a court hearing, facing corruption charges. As he fights for his political life, it looks likely that Israelis will be returning to the polls for a fifth time. However inconclusive this election was, it wasn’t a fight between a pro–Palestinian rights camp and an anti, or even between the left and the right, but between those who laud Netanyahu and those who revile him. That looks unlikely to change anytime soon.

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