All the prime minister’s men

As Netanyahu returns, it is his primarily male, religious and nationalist partners who will set the new government’s tenor; could they give the left a fresh flag to rally around?

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Shas party head Aryeh Deri with supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem. November 1, 2022. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Shas party head Aryeh Deri with supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem. November 1, 2022. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The so-called “change government,” with parties from across the strata of Israeli society and bolstered by Jewish-Arab cooperation, was heralded a year and a half ago as a true representation of Israel and its sunny future. But it was only a mirage, now gone.

Tuesday’s vote for the 25th Knesset turned out to be a watershed moment and what appears to be shaping up as Israel’s new government now reflects where the country stands and where it is going, a future that is starkly religious, nationalist and masculine.

The four parties of the likely incoming coalition — Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism — will have a Knesset representation that is over 80 percent male, and perhaps even higher. The cabinet will likely have a similar ratio.

This cohort’s largely Orthodox and nationalist worldview will have an impact on a wide range of issues, including those of religion and state, West Bank settlement building, LGBT and reproductive rights and the military budget.

The big story is not Netanyahu, who is old hat by now to most Israelis. Instead, it is the rise of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, chief of the Otzma Yehudit faction.

How a newly powerful Deri, a resolute Smotrich and a controlling Ben Gvir will maneuver around Netanyahu and around each other will be factors worth watching.

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, opposition leader and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

And add to the mix new UTJ head Yitzhak Goldknopf, who remains a relatively unknown quantity, a wildcard that can shuffle the deck.

Left in the wilderness

The other side of the aisle, meanwhile, is licking its wounds and yet again in need of some serious soul-searching. Meretz’s 30 years in the Knesset have come to an end and Labor barely made it back in itself, while a gluttonous Yesh Atid fattened itself on their votes, only to be left with a lot of seats but too few partners to do Yair Lapid’s party any good.

The National Unity party didn’t help matters, lurching from dressing up as left-wing to disguising itself as right-wing while failing to tell anyone what distinguishes it from Yesh Atid.

Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid arrives to address supporters at campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on November 2, 2022, after the end of voting for national elections. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The left, which prefers to be known as the center, is in need of a common ideological basis to rally its various parties around, rather than relying on the slogan of “just not Bibi.”

The right wing and its religious allies have clear goals. One is preventing Palestinian statehood by building up West Bank settlements and perhaps annexing the territory. Another is the protection of Shabbat by force, which it will achieve by making matters of religion and state a central component of discussions around everything from public transportation to the IDF and tax levies.

To do this, the right will take several steps, including boosting budgets for religious schools, canceling the mandatory military draft for the ultra-Orthodox, rolling back conversion reform, re-centralizing Kashrut certification and keeping busses from operating on Saturday.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest against the arrest of a Haredi Jewish man who failed to comply with the mandatory military draft, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This is an issue the center-left camp can seize on. Many politicians on that side of the aisle observe Shabbat or other staples of Orthodox religious life, but do not seek to impose their beliefs on others.

The issue can give the camp a more coherent narrative to work around, perhaps even allow it to rechristen itself the secular camp.

Another issue to gather around could be Jewish-Arab cooperation. While not all members of the outgoing coalition are in agreement on how much power Arab parties should have, they all managed to sit with the Islamist Ra’am party for over a year, proof that the model worked once and can work again, if the left can get its act together.

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