When Merav Michaeli, the leader of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, arrived at the ballot box near her home in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning, she grinned from ear to ear. She poked toddlers in their strollers. Waved to photographers. But her sleepless eyes told a different story. Labor, Israel’s once dominant party—the party of Yitzhak Rabin—was inching toward extinction. So was Meretz, another dovish party to its left. So were three predominantly Arab parties. Israel’s peace camp was imploding. It wasn’t clear whether any of those parties would meet the percentage of votes needed to enter parliament. In the days leading up to the election, politicians from the left were pleading with voters to please, please help save their parties.
In Israel, this has become known as a gevalt campaign—Yiddish for “Help!” There have been positive campaigns. (“Hope.”) There have been negative campaigns. (“Lock her up.”) And then there have been gevalt campaigns, when party leaders vie with one another over their weak showing. In many ways, this election cycle—Israel’s fifth in less than four years—turned out to be the country’s gevalt election.
Still, when I pointed out the dismal predictions for Labor in the most recent polls (predictions that materialized as the day progressed), Michaeli said—a little too quickly—“I’m not worried.” She mentioned the two names on everyone’s mind in Israel: Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the country’s former and longest-serving Prime Minister, of the Likud Party, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the ascendant far-right politician once convicted of supporting a Jewish terrorist organization and inciting violence. Keeping both Netanyahu and Ben Gvir out of power was “a necessary condition,” Michaeli said. “Not sufficient, but we’re fully committed to it.”
Just how necessary became evident that night, when it was announced that Ben Gvir’s Religious Zionist party—an alliance of factions espousing Jewish supremacy, settler expansionism, and homophobia—has emerged as Israel’s third-largest party. That alliance now looks on course to wield more political power in the next parliament than all left-wing and Arab parties combined. “This racist phenomenon, which used to be outside the consensus here—on the margins of the margins—and which used to be opposed by everyone, has become mainstream,” Dan Meridor, a former justice minister from Likud, told me on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]