The End of Policy Substance in Israeli Politics
Two prominent political developments in Israel received a lot of attention over the past two weeks given their importance for the potential formation of the next government. The first was the results of the Likud primary, which determined the pecking order for the Likud election list and thereby the MKs who are going to make up Benjamin Netanyahu’s Knesset faction. The second was the announcement that former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was joining Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, and that their parties—formerly known as Blue and White and New Hope—would now be united under the banner of HaMachaneh HaMamlachti, loosely translated as the Stately Camp but using the English moniker National Unity Party.
While these two developments are very different on their face, they both illustrate the way in which Israeli politics has thoroughly transformed itself in the span of a few short years away from policy substance and toward a focus on the process of how Israel is governed.
Likud’s descent into being a party that revolves around little beyond Netanyahu’s personal interests has been happening for years, and the Likud list for the November 1 elections crystallizes this in an unprecedented fashion. The thread connecting the candidates dominating the top of the list is not years of Likud service or deep identification with traditional Likud policies, but unwavering fealty to Netanyahu.
Yariv Levin, the top vote-getter, is Netanyahu’s most trusted Knesset lieutenant and the MK most associated with tearing down whatever structures of government and judiciary are necessary to boost Netanyahu’s rule and make his criminal trial go away. The men in the second and third slots, Eli Cohen and Yoav Galant, were not even Likud members until their Kulanu party merged with Likud in 2019, but are now firmly in the camp of those who loudly insist that Netanyahu is being persecuted by an unaccountable deep state.
Dudi Amsalem, Miri Regev, and Miki Zohar, who are all in the top ten, are well-known reliable Netanyahu attack dogs, while Amir Ohana in fifth was appointed by Netanyahu as justice minister after the first inconclusive April 2019 election following his comments that Netanyahu should be immune from prosecution. On the flip side, the winner of the last Likud primary, Yuli Edelstein, dropped from first to eighteenth following his challenge of Netanyahu as party leader, and other prominent Likud MKs whose loyalty to Netanyahu is in question also dropped precipitously.
If the Likud of the last decade was a party that was most associated with policies such as West Bank settlement and a hawkish stance toward the Palestinians, the current iteration is not associated with policies at all. It is a party that is about returning Netanyahu to power, settling scores with the justice system, and airing grievances against omnipresent and malevolent leftists. The current and future MKs who are now most popular among Likud voters have in the past been tightly associated with Gaza disengagement, equality for Arab citizens, and forming alliances with Arab parties—not exactly the traditional pathway to Likud popularity. But in a move that is reminiscent of the Republican Party in the U.S., the litmus test for today’s Likud is not one of policies, but one of process—do you believe that the party leader was a victim of illegitimate forces and an illegitimate effort to bring him down, and what are you prepared to do to restore him to power.
Unlike the Likud primary results, which were widely panned among Israeli commentators, Eisenkot’s entry into politics for the first time and his facilitation of an ideologically broad party were widely praised. The new party’s name and its mantra of building a diverse and stable government, promoting equality for all citizens, healing Israeli society, and most of all restoring respect for institutions to the fore of Israeli politics is the type of vision that most Israelis will find difficult to argue with. Eisenkot was joined by Matan Kahana, formerly of Yamina and Naftali Bennett’s closest political confidant, and someone seen as the embodiment of stateliness within the national religious community. That such a diverse set of politicians from different backgrounds can unite to address the fraying seams of Israeli society and the erosion of respect for state institutions is undoubtedly a good sign that the fight to maintain Israeli democracy is alive and well.
But it is remarkable that such an alliance seems natural in today’s Israel when only a few short years ago it would have been unmanageable over deep disagreements about the Palestinians and the West Bank. On the issue that has been the great divide in Israeli politics for over half a century, National Unity’s three leaders are an unapologetic annexationist (Sa’ar), someone who spoke at the party launch about the dangers to Zionism of Israel slipping into a binational state (Eisenkot), and a politician who has publicly swung back and forth for over three years between decrying annexation and supporting partial annexation schemes in the Jordan Valley or as laid out in the Trump plan (Gantz).
Sa’ar has said that these differences are not important and can be papered over because the overriding priority is to get Israel back on the right track internally, and given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s disappearance from the public conversation and the moribund political process between the two sides, it is hard to argue with Sa’ar’s logic. That does not make it any less striking, though, and one wonders how long Israeli politics can keep creating these strange bedfellows who downplay policy issues as secondary when the entire point of politics is to implement policy.
I argued four years ago that the right-left divide in Israeli politics was no longer about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about how one defines Israeli nationalism. As blocs and alliances form before the latest Israeli election, Israeli politics isn’t even about substantive policy issues anymore. It is driven almost exclusively by process. On one side, you have a camp that wants to tear down institutions and burn the system to the ground, and on the other side, you have a camp that wants to reinforce those same institutions and keep the other side from wreaking havoc.
What those institutions do is almost beside the point, and disagreements over policy and who should be included in a coalition are secondary or even tertiary. Will Netanyahu sit with Arab parties? Will Lapid and Liberman sit with the Haredim? Will the Haredim abandon Netanyahu if he can’t get to 61 seats and throw their support behind Gantz? Any iteration is possible because the policy differences that have in the past created natural alliances don’t really matter. Process, and process only, is what now counts, and will shape the contours of the run-up to the election and its aftermath.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.