Having held Knesset elections over the past four years, Israel’s parliamentary government seemed to be paralyzed by a 50-50 split between Binyomin Netanyahu’s right wing and Orthodox supporters and his centrist and liberal opponents. Friends of Israel in both camps worried that the resulting succession of weak governments, each with no clear mandate from the voters to govern, would be unable to properly address Israel’s many underlying internal and national security problems.
But the outcome of the latest Knesset election on November 1 was different. It yielded a clear winner, Binyomin Netanyahu, even though, once again, he and his opponents each won roughly the same number of votes. The difference this time was the impact of Israel’s election law which requires each political party to win at least 3.25% of the nationwide popular vote to place any of its members in the Knesset, and all the votes cast for the parties which fail to reach the 3.25% minimum are thrown out.
In preparing for the election, Netanyahu decided to maximize right wing votes by pressuring the leaders of right-wing parties to combine their candidate lists with that of the Religious Zionism party, so that all their votes would count towards winning seats in the Knesset. Thanks to the additional votes from the Noam party which would not have made it on their own, the Religious Zionism list won 14 Knesset seats, making it the third-largest faction in the Knesset.
On the other hand, the leader of the anti-Netanyahu groups, Yair Lapid, tried to maximize the number of Knesset seats his Yesh Atid party would win by targeting the liberals who vote for the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties. Unfortunately for the left, Lapid’s strategy worked too well, and reduced the number of Meretz votes in this election to just below the 3.25% limit. As a result, all 150,000 Meretz votes were thrown out, giving Netanyahu the ability to form a stable, all right-wing coalition consisting of the Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, and UTJ parties, with a clear majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
During the election campaign, the Israeli left and media harshly criticized Netanyahu for having arranged for Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, and Avi Maoz, head of the Noam party, to temporarily join with Religious Zionism and then become powerful members of his future coalition.
But instead of accepting their clear defeat in the November 1 election, the Israeli left and media went on the attack, arguing that giving these individuals — whom they have demonized as bigoted, far right-wing extremists — real power in the new government would pose a grave threat to the future Israeli democracy.
ISRAELI LEFT REJECTS NETANYAHU LIKE DEMOCRATS REJECTED TRUMP
In many ways, the Israeli left’s response to Netanyahu’s victory resembled the reaction of many Democrats to Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump in 2016 election. Leaders of the Clinton campaign and their supporter in the liberal mainstream media launched a “resistance” movement denying the legitimacy of Trump’s election literally the morning after election day.
Lawsuits challenging Trump’s victory were filed by in several of the key Rust Belt states which provided his winning margin. Electoral college delegates pledged to Donald Trump were put under pressure by left-wing activists to violate their pledge. Tens of thousands of protesters participated in quickly organized protests in several major cities across the United States, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, and Oakland, with many chanting “Not my president!’
Just after Trump took office in January 2017, leftist activists staged protests at airports around the country against his ban against visitors from terrorist-infested Muslim countries. The left then continued to publicly oppose all of Trump’s policies, harass his supporters at every opportunity, and sought to oust him from office throughout his presidency.
Since the Israeli election, we have seen signs of similar efforts by Netanyahu’s political opponents to discredit his new government even before it was fully formed.
LAPID’S INFLAMMATORY RHETORIC
For example, on November 30, at a memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid asserted that “the new government wants to destroy our democracy.” While he did acknowledge that the new coalition was legitimately elected, his rhetoric was still unnecessarily incendiary.
The Israeli left has raised its strongest objections to Netanyahu’s most right-wing cabinet choices. These include Betzalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionism party, who is in line to become Israel’s next Finance Minister, with additional authority over the Civil Administration which rules the Jewish-populated areas of the West Bank. Smotrich has been an outspoken advocate for Orthodox Jewish values, Israel’s historic Jewish rights to the West Bank, and the incorporation of halachic standards into Israeli law.
Itamar Ben-Gvir is a former member of Meir Kahane’s Kach party, who has called for the expulsion of Arabs who refuse to support Israel. He will be given expanded authority over Israeli police and the Border Police in the West Bank.
Avi Maoz, head of the small Noam party, will supervise Jewish identity and enrichment programs in Israel’s government-run schools. He has also called for limiting Israel’s Law of Return only to those who are Jews in the eyes of halacha.
POLITICS AND THE ISRAELI ARMY
Since the election, Ben-Gvir has been in the headlines for publicly defending Israeli soldiers who were disciplined following a confrontation with left-wing Jewish protesters in Chevron. Ben-Gvir criticized the army for sending a “harmful message” to soldiers, adding, “We must not let the anarchists who slander us endlessly win.”
Smotrich’s statement prompted IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi to issue a counterstatement declaring: “We will not allow any politician from either the right or the left to interfere in command decisions, or the use of the army to promote a political agenda.”
“Soldiers are prohibited from expressing political views,” Kochavi wrote. “They are certainly prohibited from behaving and acting out of political inclination.”
The incident raised questions about whether Ben-Gvir can be trusted to enforce the Israeli military’s rules in such situations once he assumes office.
Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz who is also the leader of the opposition’s National Union party, has warned that “the prospective coalition will harm the democratic character of the state.” He has also criticized the allocation of expanded national security powers to Ben-Gvir which “stemmed, in the best case, from a lack of understanding” of national security and “in the worst case, from a desire to establish a private militia for his use.”
A BATTLE OVER TORAH EDUCATION IN STATE-RUN SCHOOLS
But the strongest objections have been raised to the appointment of Avi Maoz, who has outraged the left for stating his intentions to insert more Torah content into the curriculums of all state-run schools. On December 2, Prime Minister Lapid sent a letter to local authorities and school officials across Israel urging them not to cooperate with Maoz if he tries to eliminate existing school programs which clash with Torah standards or which recognize the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform pluralistic ideologies.
Lapid’s letter said, “I write to you with great concern for the future of the educational system and of the country, since the new government that is being formed in Israel has abandoned the education of our children and passed it to the darkest and most extreme elements in Israeli society.
“As you know, this is an extremist, racist, and dangerous party. I call on you not to cooperate with the Department for External Programs and Cooperation in the Education Ministry, so long as it is controlled by Maoz.”
Dozens of school and local government officials have responded to Lapid’s letter by pledging to provide substitute funding out of their own budgets to continue any secular or pluralistic school programs which Maoz tries to cancel.
EXCEEDING THE LIMITS OF CRITICISM IN A DEMOCRACY
However, Lapid was criticized for writing the letter, despite the fact, that as a party leader, he had a right to criticize the policies of his political opponents — because his larger duty as the prime minister of Israel was to support, rather than challenge, the authority of a duly appointed state official. Acceptable disagreement in any working democracy does have its limits, and one of them is to never challenge the underlying legitimacy of the government.
In a televised statement, Maoz responded to his critics by saying, “This is a campaign by the minority that lost the election against the majority of the people who spoke clearly at the ballot boxes. It is nothing short of sedition.”
Lapid has also called the government that Netanyahu has been forming “the most extremist and insane government in our history.” Similarly, former education minister Naomi Chazan has called the incoming coalition’s plans to reorganize the current government ministries “a shift from democracy to authoritarian rule.”
Prominent Israeli opposition figures have also been warning that Israeli democracy would be threatened by the new government’s proposed legislation that would enable a simple 61-vote Knesset majority to overrule decisions by the liberal-secular dominated Supreme Court.
LEFT NEEDS TO LEARN THAT ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
In response to these concerns, Yitzhak Klein of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum, writing in a Times of Israel op-ed piece, reminds the Israeli left that elections do have consequences, and that in this case, the conservative government policy changes that Netanyahu intends to make as the winner of the November 1 election are legitimate, rather than a coup d’état.
Klein also notes that this kind of over-reaction is not new. “The Israeli Left throws a tantrum whenever the Right wins an election. This is just about how it reacted when Menachem Begin won the election of 1977 and Binyamin Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres in 1996.”
Meanwhile, since the November election, there have been media reports that senior Biden administration officials may refuse to talk to the members of Netanyahu’s new government who have publicly opposed the two-state solution. The Biden administration’s official response to Netanyahu’s plans for his new government was expressed in a deliberately ambiguous statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the liberal J Street lobbying group on December 4, in which he declared that the United States would deal with “Israeli policies, not individuals.”
NEW YORK TIMES LEADING THE ATTACK ON NETANYAHU
The New York Times, which has been a critic of Netanyahu and his policies since his first term as prime minister in 1996, has now taken the lead in condemning his plan to form an all right-wing coalition which it claims “is undermining Israel’s democratic values.”
On December 15, the newspaper published a 4,500-word treatise by veteran columnist Thomas Friedman which predicts a new terrorist uprising by alienated Palestinian youth if Netanyahu and his coalition partners go through with their plans.
Friedman’s column does note that “the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished. But no one wants to formally declare it dead and buried… So, diplomats, politicians and liberal Jewish organizations pretend that it still has a faint heartbeat.”
He also cites, “the fading of the peace process and prospects of a two-state solution, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the corruption and breakdown of the Palestinian Authority and the prevalence of TikTok and other [inflammatory] social media” as causes for the sharp recent uptick in terrorist attacks which have killed 20 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians, as well as attacks by “Arab residents of mixed Jewish-Arab cities, like Lod and Acre, attack[ing] Jews and burn[ing] Jewish property, including several synagogues.”
Friedman realizes that these have “undoubtedly prompted a considerable number of Israeli Jews from the center-right to shift to the ultranationalist far right,” but he still refuses to recognize the consequences of that shift, which has destroyed what little support was left in the Israeli voting public for a two-state solution.
Friedman retains his admiration for Israel’s secular accomplishments. He writes “I had not been to Israel since 2019, and I was stunned by the explosion of skyscrapers I found in Tel Aviv — all built with human creativity around science, medicine, agriculture and technology, not fossil fuels. Israel has much to be proud of and to preserve. But preserving its prosperity and stability, as it veers to the far right politically, will get harder and harder because that requires a wisdom and moderation” that Friedman complains is hard to find among Israel’s newly elected leaders. That is why Friedman is so pessimistic about Israel’s new government and expects it to lead to a “big mess” instead of a two-state or a one-state solution.
DENYING NETANYAHU HIS ELECTORAL MANDATE
Two days later, the editorial board of the New York Times published its own 1,400-word critique of Netanyahu’s government in formation. Entitled “The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy,” the editorial argues that while Netanyahu won the latest Israeli election fairly, he did not receive a sufficient mandate from Israel’s voters to offer such far-reaching powers to his right-wing and Orthodox coalition partners which represent “a qualitative and alarming break with all the other governments in Israel’s 75-year history… [and put] the ideal of a democratic Jewish state in jeopardy.”
The policies of those coalition partners that the editorial objects to include, “among other things, expanding and legalizing settlements in a way that would effectively render a Palestinian state in the West Bank impossible; changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, an action that risks provoking a new round of Arab-Israeli violence; and undermining the authority of the Israeli Supreme Court, thus freeing the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, to do whatever it wants, with little judicial restraint.”
While the editorial did acknowledge the strong recent demographic shift in Israel’s younger population to the right, it still calls for left-wing Israeli groups to mount an “energetic resistance” to the new Netanyahu government, to rescue “Israel’s democratic ideals.”
The editorial claimed that the newspaper has always has been a “strong supporter of Israel and a two-state solution” and would remain so, but because the pro-settler policies of Netanyahu’s new government “could make it militarily and politically impossible for a two-state solution to ever emerge,” it poses “a significant threat to the future of Israel — its direction, its security and even the idea of a Jewish homeland,” Therefore the editorial said that “the Biden administration should do everything it can” to intervene in the formation of Israel’s newly elected government as “an act of friendship, consistent the deep bond between the two nations.”
NETANYAHU’S RESPONSE TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Netanyahu responded directly to the criticisms in the editorial in a series of tweets in which accused the newspaper of “burying the Holocaust for years on its back pages and demonizing Israel for decades,” and charged that it now “shamefully calls for undermining Israel’s elected incoming government.”
He then added, “While the New York Times continues to delegitimize the one true democracy in the Middle East and America’s best ally in the region, I will continue to ignore its ill-founded advice and instead focus on building a stronger and more prosperous country, strengthening ties with America, expanding peace with our neighbors, and securing the future of the one and only Jewish state.”
SECULAR PROTESTS TO NEW GOVERNMENT START IN TEL AVIV
Meanwhile, a demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Motzoei Shabbos was attended by thousands of protestors against Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and the laws it plans to pass.
In his keynote speech, Dr. Eliad Shraga, head of the left-wing organization called the Movement for the Quality of Government, said: “They are about to change the DNA of Israel forever and to turn it from a secular country, where there is freedom of worship, which also means freedom from religion, into a religious, messianic, fundamentalist, Khomeinist country, where Orthodoxy is dictating the lifestyle to us, the secular. It also sidelines different Jewish currents and Diaspora Jewry.
“Sons of darkness, malicious people, convicted criminals and potential convicts… took over the government of Israel… We will not give in to corruption and not to corrupted criminals.”
Another speaker at the rally was former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who said: “In the last five years… he [Netanyahu] started to sacrifice the interests of the state in many areas in order to save himself… a huge shame.”
NETANYAHU REASSURES ISRAEL’S FRIENDS THAT HE WILL BE IN CHARGE
Meanwhile, Bibi Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving prime minister, and is returning to power after more than a year as leader of the opposition, has been waging his own personal public relations campaign.
Netanyahu has accused the outgoing government, headed by Yair Lapid, of trying to foster a rebellion against the government that he has been forming. In response to his critics, Netanyahu has sought to reassure both domestic voters and the officials of foreign powers that he alone will remain personally responsible for all of his new government’s policies, and that he will not agree to any unrealistic demands from his coalition partners.
Writing on Facebook, Netanyahu declared, “I was elected to lead the state of Israel, and I intend to do so on your behalf and in the spirit of the national and democratic principles on which I was raised in my father’s home and that have guided me my whole life.” In another post, he wrote, “Over 20 years, I have responsibly led the state of Israel forward in all spheres, and I will also do so this time.”
Addressing important foreign audiences, Netanyahu conducted three interviews last week, with Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya news network, America’s National Public Radio, and the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper. He told NPR that Ben-Gvir has “modified a lot of his views” from his earlier days when he was convicted of incitement to racism, and he has been declared fit to run for a seat in the Knesset by the liberal Israeli Supreme Court.
Netanyahu reassured his NPR audience that he will remain in control over his coalition partners. “They are joining me, I’m not joining them,” he emphasized. “I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won’t let anybody do anything to deny [Jews and] our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that, it just won’t happen. And the test of time will prove that.”
In his interview with Al Arabiya, he further explained that he will dominate the coalition negotiations because “Likud is one-half of this coalition. The other parties are, some of them are one-quarter, one-fifth the size of the Likud. They’re joining us; they will follow my policy.”
NETANYAHU PROMISES TO MAINTAIN SECURITY
In his Al Arabiya interview, Netanyahu also responded to a prediction by Defense Minister Gantz that the new government will lead to collapse in the security of the West Bank. “I think my record speaks for itself; the last decade in which I led Israel was the safest decade in Israel’s history,” Netanyahu declared.
“But not only safe and secure for Israelis, also safe and secure for the Palestinians. Because there was the least loss of life on both sides, and that’s not accidental. It’s because of a policy of security that I’ve led, which has actually resulted in more peace and economic possibilities. And by the way, in the [last] year that I left government and the outgoing government was in power, things changed immediately. We had an eruption of violence like we had not seen since 2008, a year before I returned to office.”
Netanyahu also took the opportunity to make a strong pitch to the leaders of Saudi Arabia to sign onto the Abraham Accords.
“Mind you, I’m committed to deepening and strengthening the remarkable Abraham Accords we’ve had with our neighbors, but I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes,” he said. “It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world. It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, Palestinian-Israeli peace. I believe in that. I intend to pursue it. Of course, it’s up to the leadership of Saudi Arabia if they want to partake in this effort. I certainly hope they will.”
When his Al Arabiya interviewer asked Netanyahu about how he expected Arab officials to deal with some of his coalition members who have in the past portrayed all Arabs as enemies, he responded once again that they have “changed and moderated their views,” and that they can also rely on his own record of developing good working relations with the Arab sector.
TRUMP ALSO DEFENDING HIS RECORD ON ISRAEL AND JEWISH ISSUES
It is also interesting to note that while Netanyahu has come under political attack because of his support for his right-wing coalition partners, former President Donald Trump’s support for Israel and the Jewish community has also come under attack because of his unwise and possibly unintentional selection of two notoriously antisemitic dinner guests, Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Yet as his custom, Trump has not admitted to the mistake, nor has he publicly apologized to the Jewish community for it, apparently because he feels that his strong pro-Israel record as president is the most powerful refutation to the accusations against him.
That was why there was so much attention to Trump’s first appearance before a Jewish audience since that unfortunate November 29 dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Speaking at a weekend conference in Miami sponsored by Torah Umesorah, Trump was warmly welcomed by the Orthodox audience, despite his failure to offer an explicit apology. In his address, Trump repeated a line from his 2019 State of the Union speech declaring that the US “must never ignore the vile poison of antisemitism, or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”
THE LONG LIST OF TRUMP ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Trump read from a 26-item list in an article written by Rabbi Dov Fischer citing the many “things I have done for my Jewish friends and the Jewish people and for Israel,” which go far beyond mere words in expressing his friendship and proving his commitment.
The list includes Trump’s recognition of a united Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim, keeping a promise that many former US presidents had broken. Trump also recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and recognized the legitimacy of all Israel state-approved Jewish communities in the West Bank.
In addition, Trump cut off all US government payments to the Palestinian Authority as well as the UN agency supporting them, and closed down the PLO office in Washington, DC.
Trump also walked away from President Obama’s disastrous 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and the re-instituted tough oil and economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.
He appointed Nikki Haley, a pro-Israel US ambassador to the UN, who successfully fought for Israel’s fair treatment, and achieved meaningful progress toward peace in the Middle East by facilitating the signing the Abraham Accords between Israel and several leading Arab Muslim countries.
The biggest applause came following Trump’s references to his freeing Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin from federal prison.
Given these and many other important things he did for Israel and the Jewish community while he was president, Trump wondered why he only received 26% of the nationwide Jewish vote in the 2020 presidential election. Trump said he couldn’t understand why so many American Jews had chosen Biden despite all that he had done, adding, “I am honored to do it, but it doesn’t make sense.”
It should be noted that Trump’s level of electoral support in the Orthodox Jewish community in 2020 was much higher.
In his concluding remarks, Trump offered “one little piece of advice that I think is very important.” Noting that a growing number of Democrat progressives in Congress have become “very much opposed to Israel, and frankly, to Jewish people,” Trump declared, “You have to treat your friends with respect, you have to treat your friends with dignity, and you have to be loyal to those friends.”
BOTH TRUMP AND NETANYAHU DESERVE BETTER TREATMENT
In that sense, both Netanyahu and Trump can make the same argument. They are being unfairly attacked, despite their impressive records of friendship and accomplishment for Israel and the Jewish people as they each attempt to make their political comebacks to power. They deserve much better treatment, and someday will doubtless be recognized in the history books as among this era’s most devoted friends of Israel and the Jewish people.