With 13 parties in the Knesset – and several of those umbrellas encompassing a variety of factions – patching together a coalition will be a challenge. It may not be possible at all, meaning Israelis would see their fifth election within a little more than two years.
Whatever pileup of strange bedfellows eventually manages to form a government, one particular possibility should be especially disconcerting.
To enhance their chances of passing the electoral threshold, three far-right parties united under the banner of Religious Zionism and succeeded in taking six Knesset seats. The Religious Zionist party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, seeks to annex all (or part, depending on which faction you listen to) of the West Bank and adheres to a familiar litany of Israeli far-right policies.
For this round of elections, they partnered with another small faction, called Noam, whose platform ostensibly seeks to create a halachic theocracy. In practical terms, the party is obsessed with homosexuality and seeks to delegitimize LGBTQ+ Israelis and roll back legal protections and equality. In addition to attacking gay people, the party has equated Reform Jews with Nazis and Palestinian terrorists who “want to destroy us.”
The third rail in this extremist triumvirate is Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is a descendant of the outlawed racist party Kach, led by the American-born fanatic Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990.
When Kahane was in the Knesset, before a law was passed to bar overt racists from elected office, all other members of the assembly would walk out when he rose to rant against Arabs. In an eerie echo of the Nuremburg Laws, Kahane sought to legally prohibit sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, among other far-reaching extreme positions.
An indication of the shifts in Israel’s body politic over the decades is evidenced by the fact that the incumbent prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, worked behind the scenes to get these small extremist factions to cooperate in order to reach the electoral threshold. While previous prime ministers – and every other member of the Knesset at the time – refused to listen to the hateful rhetoric of Kahane, this prime minister helped ensure his ideological successors would be represented in the Knesset.
It is bad enough that these ideas will be given a legitimacy they do not deserve by mere dint of their advocates being members of the Knesset. As a small rump of crazed zealots, they should be ignored and shunned. Instead, they will play a central role in the determination of who (if anyone) forms the next government.
It is worth recalling an incident in Austria, in 2000, when the xenophobic, racist and arguably neo-fascist Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, entered into a governing coalition in that country. The government of Austria to which Haider belonged was sanctioned and condemned by governments worldwide and other member-states of the European Union ceased cooperation with Austria’s government.
While the Abraham Accords have reduced Israel’s diplomatic isolation dramatically, the country still faces unjust judgment in the court of global opinion. If a new governing coalition includes a segment of enthusiastic homophobes, misogynists, racists and ethno-religious supremacists, a universe of denunciation would rain down on the country. And rightly so.
In what may be an irony of historical proportions, that ugly scenario could be prevented by another stunning development on the other end of the political (and ethno-cultural) spectrum.
A new Arab party, called Ra’am, has bolted from the conventions of the Arab political sector and adopted a pragmatic approach. Rather than the purely oppositional stands taken by the other Arab parties for decades, Ra’am seems prepared to play the game that small Jewish parties have excelled at. In a fractured political culture, the tail often wags the dog. Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, seems to understand the opportunity this presents. Strangely, this Arab religious party could find common cause with Jewish religious parties on issues like funding for parochial education and other community needs (as well as its apparently virulent hatred of homosexuality).
As the horse trading begins in earnest this week to patch together a quilt of some ideological consistency in the Knesset, Ra’am is sitting in one of the most enviable positions of potential power, possibly able to extract all sorts of treasures out of a leader desperate for their crucial four votes. The only thing they have explicitly ruled out is any situation that would enable groups like Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam.
How ironic it would be if Israel were saved from its own worst angels by an Arab political party that learned its capacity for power from watching the fringe elements on the other side of the Knesset.