On Nov. 8, the Office of the President sponsored a discussion on the Israeli elections and its implications for the nation and its relations with the U.S. Just a week earlier, on Nov. 1, Israel held legislative elections — the fifth round of elections in just three years — to elect the 120 members of the 25th Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament. Two days later, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition won the majority with 64 seats.  

President Ron Liebowitz gave the opening remarks before handing it off to the moderator, Prof. Emerita of Contemporary Jewish Life Sylvia Fishman (NEJS). Fishman introduced the two panelists: Member of the Knesset and Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University Yossi Shain, and the Raymond Frankel Chair in Israeli Politics and Society, Shai Feldman. 

Shain is the author of “The Israeli Century: How the Zionist Revolution Changed History and Reinvented Judaism.” He served in the Knesset and worked with national and international communities, as well as Non-Governmental Organizations in Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere. He is also the Romulo Betancourt professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University; the head of TAU's School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs; and the head of the Abba Eban Graduate Studies Program in Diplomacy. Shain is also the director of the Frances Brody Institute for Applied Diplomacy. 

Feldman was the founding director of the University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies from 2005 to 2019. He was president of Sapir Academic College in Sha'ar Hanegev Israel and head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He co-authored “Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East,” alongside Abdel Monem Said Aly, and Khalil Shikaki. This textbook was the first of its kind to, address the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and be co-authored by an Israeli, a Palestinian, and an Egyptian.

The discussion mainly centered around three bodies of thought: the election results and its implications for Israel, the election’s impact on Israeli-American relations, and current key political issues in Israel. Both speakers touched on why Netanyahu was reelected and how the election results may contribute to the erosion of democracy. 

According to Shain and Feldman, three factors led to Netanyahu’s success: his strong leadership and political maneuvering, his bloc’s cohesiveness, and missteps made by the left-wing coalition. Netanyahu emerged as the clear leader of a conservative alliance, whereas Yair Lapid was a weaker leader of the Israeli left. Feldman talked about how when an important event occurred, Netanyahu’s bloc had a united response in the media and individuals used the same talking points. On the other hand, the same party discipline was not present in Lapid’s coalition. For example, Feldman mentioned that Lapid did not have the authority to order Meretz, a left-wing political party, and the Israeli Labor Party to run together in the election. 

Moreover, the disqualification Supreme Court case surrounding the Arab political party Balad demonstrated Netanyahu’s strategic abilities. According to Haaretz, the political party We Are Together Towards a New Social Order urged the Supreme Court to disqualify Balad from running in the election because the party violated the Basic Law of the Knesset by rejecting “Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” Netanyahu broke away and ordered his party Likud to not join these efforts because he believed that Balad would not reach the threshold of votes needed to gain seats in the Knesset, and as a result, the thousands of votes for Balad would be wasted.   

The left-wing coalition did not focus its messages on voters’ top issues, and Shain stated that this was a mistake. He said that right now, Israelis are concerned about security, the rising cost of living, and the relationship between religion and the state. Specifically, Israelis are concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and supporting militant groups, as well as continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. However, the left focused mainly on pushing for peace talks to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Feldman explained that the election results weakened democracy because of the legitimization of new political leaders, namely Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich who are leaders of the Religious Zionism party. He argued that this is problematic because of their extreme political views and criminal backgrounds. Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization.

Furthermore, the right-wing coalition may upset the balance of power between the legislative and judiciary branches. Some conservatives want to create an override clause that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions. They argue that since the Knesset is sovereign, it does not make sense to allow the Supreme Court to disqualify the legislature's decisions. If such a clause were approved, it would damage the separation of powers and the democratic system of checks and balances.  

Feldman does not believe that the elections will substantially impact the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but he does think that it will negatively affect relations between Israel and the American Jewish community. He said that the American Jewish community tends to lean left, which clashes with the ruling conservative coalition in Israel. Shain stated that it will take time to see what the impacts are. 

Feldman also observed a similarity between Israeli and American politics. Although Netanyahu’s alliance won the majority of seats in the legislature, they barely received the majority of votes. The vote difference was 30,000 among a total of 4.7 million votes cast. The 50/50 ideological split is not new. The 2022 election enabled the Knesset to have a steady majority for the first time since 2019. The country experienced a period of gridlock with five elections in less than four years. When there is a near 50/50 split, it gives powerful extortion power to small parties and individuals who can tip the balance of power. Similarly, in the U.S., individual congressmen have the power to delay the passing of legislation or ensure a certain political party’s majority in the legislature.  

The panelists discussed multiple critical issues in Israel such as changing demographics and the relationship between religion and state. Shain explained that the ultraorthodox community makes up 20% of the vote, and they are the fastest growing group in Israel. The growing population places more emphasis on issues surrounding religion and the state. Reforms passed by the outgoing government regarding religious beverages and the school system and attempts to restrain the ultraorthodox education system during the pandemic has made this a contentious issue. Ultimately, its trajectory will be influenced by the shift from a left-wing to a right-wing ruling government.  

Both panelists agreed on a point of optimism for Israel: strong institutions. Institutions are stable in Israel, and they are crucial for defending democracy. Shain described them as “divorced from the bickering and the deep seated rivalries in the political system.” He stated that reforming or eroding state institutions would require a large amount of power. Shain said that “Netanyahu himself and many of his allies in the Likud are not keen” on eroding institutions because “they understand that if they [do] not guard these institutions, it will come [back] to haunt them.”