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The Center

Understanding Why Netanyahu Won

(Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

Whatever else one may think about the unholy trinity of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, and Bezalel Smotrich, they are, among other things, willing to discuss the serious internal security concerns that much of the country outside of Tel Aviv faces.”

I lived in the United States when President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Today, living in Israel, I see the same kind of hyperbolic handwringing about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition. Concerns about “the end of democracy” and fears that we will all be living in The Handmaid’s Tale sound remarkably similar to when President Trump was elected. All the while, the Israeli political left uses the same adjectives to describe Prime Minister Netanyahu as the American political left uses to describe President Trump: fascist, dictator, theocrat, bigot, racist, homophobe, sexist. Although the United States and Israel are different in so many ways, they do have this in common: The Left stubbornly insists on calling names rather than doing the much more nuanced and complex work of figuring out what happened when the Right wins.

When power changes from one side to the other (insofar as Israel’s complex coalitions can be said to have “sides” of Right and Left in the same way the United States does), we should pay close attention. This is because the far-right and the far-left do not change how they vote in a short period of time, especially in Israel, where the period between this election and the last election was barely a year and a half. The people who made the decisive difference were persuaded to move further to the right.

If, as former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wrote in his recent New York Times guest essay, 70% of Israelis agree on 70% of issues, why did so many people vote Prime Minister Netanyahu back in? Why did they take a chance on someone like Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose past, if one cares anything about civil rights, is pretty awful? Why did his Jewish Power party double its support in the short time between Prime Minister Bennett and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s mandates? Asking why people changed their vote is essential for understanding why we are where we are, but it requires looking at the thorny issues in Israeli culture and politics that defy simple solutions and combative rhetoric. 

Like in the United States, the answers are in plain sight for anyone who cares to see them. Take, for example, a case that recently shocked the Israeli conscience: A young Bedouin man broke into a Jewish family’s home just outside Beer Sheva. Prepared with a condom, his accomplices held a flashlight into a 10-year-old girl’s eyes while the man sexually assaulted her. The judge presiding over the case—who is not from Beer Sheva—gave the young man a plea deal and only five years in prison. The Beer Sheva mayor was outspokenly angry and so were the people who live there, whose complaints of incessant Bedouin drag racing in the street, illegal encampments around the city, and the fact that women do not feel safe walking alone at night are routinely ignored. 

After all, those on the Left tend to be educated, secular, and live in the safest places in Israel, such as northern Tel Aviv, its wealthy suburbs, and barricaded kibbutzim. They mostly do not have neighbors who are either Arab or religious, which allows them to lionize the former while demonizing the latter, leading to policy preferences that are ineffective or downright dangerous for a good number of Israelis living outside the center of the country. 

For those living outside of Tel Aviv and its wealthier suburbs, one hardly knows where to begin when listing other situations that have swung the consensus back toward the more security-oriented right: Palestinian flags flying at Israeli universities on “Nakba Day”; random terrorist shootings in family neighborhoods in central Israel; wide-scale theft of weapons and ammunition from military bases all over the country and a completely impotent reaction from the government; Bedouin protection rackets around Beer Sheva that receive payment from both the state and private business owners under threat of arson and violence; lethal Arab rioting in mixed towns during the conflict in May 2021; riots and attempts to derail passenger trains over forestation efforts on public land in southern Israel; including the Ra’am Party in Prime Minister Bennett’s coalition, despite that party’s regular contact with Hamas and transfer of funds to designated terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip; groups of young Arab men who harass Jewish women and men in public places, recording and posting the harassment on TikTok. These issues rarely receive the international coverage that conflict in the West Bank does, yet they are well covered in Israeli news because they have a major impact on the quality of life of many Israelis.

Faced with a disturbing sense of feeling unsafe and an even more troubling sense that a good portion of the Israeli left neither knows nor cares about these problems, increasing numbers of Israelis do not find the idea of politicians who are willing to take a stand against the rise in violence so bad. If a promise to take security problems seriously comes along with the possibility of illiberal social policies, people are willing to take that gamble, especially if they expect that the practical barriers inherent in everyday governance will mostly prevent the far-right from getting its more extreme policies in place. 

As anti-Semitism increases alarmingly all over the world and Jews discuss making aliyah around their dinner tables, Israeli Jews living in the one country committed to protecting their lives are seriously concerned about the government’s commitment to doing so. Whatever else one may think about the unholy trinity of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, and Bezalel Smotrich, they are, among other things, willing to discuss the serious internal security concerns that much of the country outside of Tel Aviv faces. And when nobody else on the local political scene is willing to say and do the things that need to be said and done because they are afraid of being called racist on the world stage, the only people remaining to do those things are on the Right. Israelis are not any more racist or religious than they were a year and a half ago. Most of them have a great distaste for the extremes of either party. And while they are not quite sure what they are going to get from this coalition, they are staking a lot on the hope that it will be better than what they have had.

Elizabeth Emery is a writer living in Israel. She maintains a blog called dinosaurscantread.com.

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