Is there a deep state in Israel?

Israel ahead of landmark elections

Four years of coalition of the right-wing parties in Israel have left an ambivalent picture in the country's society: On the one hand, the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives good marks from a majority of Israelis for his economic, foreign and security policy, at least as far as Syria and Iran are concerned . Even the left-liberal newspaper Haaretz attests to a far-sighted and correct Syria policy. An exception is his policy towards the Gaza Strip, with which 74 percent were dissatisfied. Furthermore, a narrow majority of Israeli citizens (53 percent) believe for the first time since data was collected on this question in 2003 that the overall situation in Israel is good or very good. On the other hand, the political polarization within society is stronger than ever. For the first time, the confrontation between the left and the right political camp is seen as the greatest social tension and has thus displaced the dispute between Arabs and Jews from this place. The two camps are also divided on the question of whether Israeli democracy is in serious danger or on the right track. This polarization is increasing further through the election campaign. From the center-left camp, the right-wing government is accused of wanting to undermine the principles of liberal democracy. The right-wing camp is complaining that old left-wing clusters have created a "deep state" that wants to bring about a change of power in an undemocratic way. The Israeli Democracy Index correctly states that Israel is thus classified in a number of Western states whose societies are experiencing a polarization that often goes under the umbrella term "crisis of liberal democracy".

New parties, old blocks

As a result of the trench warfare, ruptures in old parliamentary groups, new alliances and party formations can be observed in the 2019 election campaign. The new party alliance Kahol Lavan, which consists of Yesh Atid, Hosen L’Israel, which was launched at the end of 2018, and the smallest party Telem is particularly promising. This alliance of the political center is in most polls the strongest force ahead of the Likud. Her top candidate Benny Gantz has played a major role in this. As the first rival candidate in many elections, the former chief of staff of the Israeli army has poll ratings that are as good as those of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Security is the overshadowing issue in any election in Israel. Candidates who lack credibility in this area de facto have no chance. The prime ministers who have won an election against Likud since the early 1990s - Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon - were all high-ranking military officials. Therefore, Gantz ’military career does not play the only decisive role, but it does play a central role in surveys on qualification for the office of prime minister. His position is further strengthened by the fact that he was able to win two other former chiefs of the general staff for the party alliance, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon.

On the other hand, established parties like the Labor Party are dramatically losing support. Others like Hatnua under the former Justice and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are withdrawing. On the other hand, parties like Zehut, which previously eked a marginal existence, suddenly have prospects of overcoming the 3.25 percent hurdle.

Therefore, the upcoming election is anything but clear: a total of 14 parties or joint lists are running, which, according to surveys, have realistic chances of entering the Knesset. Five of them (Gesher, Zehut, Yisrael Beitenu, Kulanu, Ram-Balad) are sometimes above, sometimes below the 3.25 percent hurdle in the surveys, at least two others (Meretz and Shas) are stable, but only slightly above it . The coalition options after the election and the balance between the blocs will largely depend on which of these parties get into parliament.

Fundamentally, however, Israel remains politically divided into a center-left Arab bloc and a right-wing ultra-orthodox bloc.

The former include Hadash-Ta’al, Ram-Balad, Meretz, the Labor Party, Kahol Lavan, Gesher and Kulanu (although the center-right party is part of the current governing coalition). The latter includes the ultra-orthodox parties United Thorajudism and Shas as well as the Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, the New Right, Zehut and the Union of the Right Parties.

Topics of choice

The main focus of the opposition's election campaign is on voting out Netanyahu. This is also the unifying bond of the otherwise rather heterogeneous alliance Kahol Lavan. In terms of content, the opposition is primarily concentrating in the election campaign on principles such as the rule of law, moral integrity and the question of the style in which the country should be governed. Benny Gantz has reduced this to the formula "Memshala Mamlachtit" versus "Memshala Malchutit". Correspondingly, this means choosing between an inclusive government that supports the state and a government that leads the state like a "kingdom" and places personal and particular interests above the common good and the rule of law. With this, Gantz refers to the polarizing attitude of the government, verbal attacks on state institutions and the Supreme Court, and the charge that Netanyahu threatens to take for bribes.


Parliamentary election in Israel 2019

Source: , data from 1.3.-2.4.2019.

In addition, the substantive dispute between Gantz and Netanyahu remains relatively vague. With regard to Iran and Syria, their positions hardly diverge. As for the policy towards the Gaza Strip, Gantz accuses Netanyahu of failure, but leaves it unclear how he would proceed. In one of the first election commercials, Gantz was even portrayed as a hardliner: it showed a destroyed Gaza after the armed conflict in 2014. One of the successes was named "1,364 terrorists killed". The differences are marginal - with Netanyahu himself and less with the rest of the right-wing camp - also with regard to the peace process. Unlike the prime minister, Gantz demands that efforts should be made to re-establish a peace process, but does not speak of a Palestinian state or the two-state solution. Instead, he affirmed that Israel would not withdraw from the settlement blocs, the Golan or East Jerusalem, and complained that there was no partner on the other side. This ambiguity is generally a problem of the political center: According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, even voters who place themselves in the center say it is not clear what parties of the political center stand for.

The Labor Party is looking for a new role after the number of its seats is likely to halve. In the election campaign, she positions herself on the left and claims that without a strong labor party, Gantz would forge an alliance with the Likud. Together with Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al, the Labor Party forms the small rest of the parties that are still explicitly in favor of a two-state solution.

In the ranks of the Arab parties, the United List has split into two new lists because they did not agree on the distribution of mandates and more fundamental points: While Ram-Balad continues to categorically reject cooperation with Zionist parties, Hadash-Ta'al wants one Go more pragmatic and support a center-left coalition under certain circumstances.

The rights in the election campaign

Netanyahu presents himself in the election campaign as a competent foreign politician who discusses with the leaders of the world's great powers on an equal footing. The recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights by the USA two weeks before the election suits him and can be understood as an election gift to him. Otherwise he relies heavily on the message that only a right-wing government led by him can guarantee the physical security and the Jewish character of Israel. This is constantly spread in short, memorable election campaign slogans, which warn of the militarily "weak" left and a strengthening of the Arab parties. “Bibi or Tibi” (Ahmad Tibi is co-chair of the Arab party Hadash-Ta’al) and “Gantz is on the left. The left is weak «are the best-known slogans. This language has set the tone on the Israeli right since Netanyahu made a populist turn in the 2015 election campaign. In the face of an impending election defeat, he mobilized his supporters on election day when he claimed that the Arabs would vote in droves and that the left would buss them to the ballot boxes. With this statement and others in the course of the election campaign at the time, he implicitly accused the Arab minority of acting as the "fifth column" and brought them directly into connection with the Israeli-Arab conflict according to the motto: One vote for the left is one vote for the enemies of the state.

In doing so, however, he has also set a dynamic in motion (see SWP Comments 60/2016) that is open to the right: Since the last legislative period, a debate has developed within the coalition and especially between Likud and the Jewish Home, who is "more authentic" represents right-wing positions. This dynamic has further removed the discourse within the right wing political camp from the center. That means that the actual innovations in the course of these elections are taking place in the right-wing political camp, which is moving ever further to the right.

Party political shift to the right

It should be noted that in the party spectrum, the right wing was strengthened at the expense of the moderate right. This was mainly at the expense of the center-right Kulanu party. If she still has ten seats in the current Knesset, it is now uncertain whether she will move back into parliament. A party-political differentiation and a strengthening of the parties on the right fringes can be observed. If this was previously represented solely by the Jewish Home party, there are now three parties with good prospects of entering the Knesset: the New Right, the Union of the Right Parties and Zehut.

The New Right is a spin-off from the Jewish Home. With this step, the party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked had hoped to expand their electoral base beyond the national religious camp to the secular right. Thereupon the remaining Knesset members of the Jewish Home joined forces with Otzma Yehudit to unite the right-wing parties. It is noteworthy that Otzma Yehudit is a successor party to the Kach party, which was excluded from the Knesset in 1988 because of racism. She advocates Jewish suprematism and open racism. Otzma Yehudit demands that the entire West Bank be annexed, all Palestinians and Arabs disloyal to the state (according to her statement, 99 percent) deported, the Third Temple on the Temple Mount be rebuilt and the mosques there demolished. Furthermore, in its election manifesto it announces a "total war" against the enemies of Israel.

The third party on the far right that can hope for a place in the Knesset is Moshe Feiglins Zehut. It is a party of extremes: on the one hand, it takes an extremely libertarian standpoint, according to which the state should regulate the lives of its citizens as little as possible. Among other things, she promises in the election campaign to legalize marijuana, which apparently makes it attractive to the center-left electorate. On the other hand, Feiglin is far to the right when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians: According to the party program, the entire West Bank is to be annexed and a "Jewish synagogue" (a metaphor for the temple) rebuilt on the Temple Mount; in addition, the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to move to neighboring Arab countries. According to Feiglin himself, the party is very close to the positions of Otzma Yehudit, with the difference that Zehut relies on voluntary relocation and not on the expulsion of the Palestinians. This shows a more or less clear shift in party politics within the right-wing camp - depending on whether Zehut makes it into the Knesset. But even in the right mainstream, especially in the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties, positions have shifted further to the right.

Demand for (partial) annexation of the West Bank

The demand for annexation or partial annexation has become part of the standard repertoire in the right-wing camp. Yuli Edelstein, spokesman for the Knesset and candidate in second place on the Likud list, summed up this shift in discourse in an interview in January 2019: “In the next Knesset, we have the great task of gaining sovereignty over the settlements in Yehuda and Samaria to explain. Just a few years ago, anyone who talked about it was considered completely insane. We have turned that into a mainstream topic in recent years. «A look at the party-political landscape confirms this: The three parties from the right-wing fringe, i.e. New Right, Union of Right Parties and Zehut, have (partial) annexation in their programs firmly anchored in the West Bank. Likud is also in favor, although Netanyahu himself opposes it for diplomatic reasons. This controversy is the reason why there has been no current party program of the Likud since 2009. However, 28 of the 30 Likud Knesset members (with the exception of Tzachi Hanegbi and Netanyahu) are in favor of annexing parts or all of the West Bank. The Ribonut (Sovereignty) lobby group recently published a video in which numerous Knesset members, especially from the Likud, Jewish Home and New Right parties, express their support for annexations. The ultra-orthodox parties United Torahudism and Shas are more hesitant on this point because they are coalition partners of Likud.

Transformation to a majority democracy

Another right-wing issue is the widely shared desire to turn Israel into a majority democracy. In liberal democracies, constitutional principles and a system of checks and balances are supposed to protect individual and minority rights. Supporters of a majority system now claim that these principles constrained democracy and distort the will of the majority. That is why right-wing parties promise to largely weaken or even abolish the system of mutual controls between the powers, especially the control function of the judiciary, and to significantly strengthen the position of parliament. At the same time, individual and minority rights should take a back seat to Jewish collective rights. An important step in this direction was the nation-state law passed in July 2018 (see SWP Comments 50/2018). The forerunners of the law in the governing coalition openly articulate what they consider to be a necessary primacy of Jewish collective rights. Justice Minister Shaked stressed that the Jewish character of the state must also be protected at the expense of human rights. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said that Judaism should always take precedence over other political principles. Education Secretary Bennett demanded that a wall be built between the three powers: "One power must not intervene in the realms of another."

In this context, right-wing parties have chosen the Supreme Court as their main opponent. Justice Minister Shaked has presented a hundred-day plan with which the Basic Law "Human Dignity and Freedom" from 1992, known as the "Constitutional Revolution", is to be finally withdrawn. In the law, liberal principles were for the first time enshrined in constitutional status, from which the Supreme Court derived a right to review norms. This made it possible to take legal action against Knesset decisions. Shaked wants to have judges appointed only with the approval of the Knesset and the government and to pass an overriding clause (Piskat HaHitgabrut) that would allow parliament to revise judgments of the Supreme Court. The idea behind this plan is to free democracy from the shackles by making sure that the majority in parliament can hardly be restricted by the Supreme Court.

Above all, the adoption of the overriding clause would have far-reaching effects, because it aims at an end to legal control of the legislature. The Supreme Court, for example, has frequently conceded decisions by the Knesset or its electoral committee to exclude parties or candidates from an election.According to the law, this is permitted if they do not recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, support armed struggle or incite racism. Arab parties (such as Ram-Balad) and candidates (such as the aforementioned Ahmad Tibi) regularly made such decisions, but according to the Supreme Court did not meet the legal criteria. If the overriding clause is passed, the political perspective of the Knesset will prevail over the legal perspective of the court. Most of these differences between the Supreme Court and Parliament are based on questions of minority protection or principles of equality.

The impending criminal case against Netanyahu

Resentment against the judiciary as part of the "deep state" in connection with the threat of charges against Netanyahu for corruption is growing. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recommended on February 28, 2019 that Netanyahu be charged with three cases of corruption and presented a 57-page report. The premier is said to have exempted the leading communications entrepreneur Shaul Elovitch from state regulations so that he could do business worth the equivalent of around 250 million euros. In return, Elovitch is said to have ensured that the news website belonging to his group - the second largest news website in Israel - reported consistently positive reports about Netanyahu. The attorney general's report cites over 100 individual documents.

The next step is a hearing Netanyahu can object to the allegations. After that, the attorney general decides whether he will actually bring charges - which is generally assumed.

Netanyahu has said he will remain in office even if there is a charge. He was able to dispel all allegations at the hearing. However, almost all commentators think this is unlikely. At the same time, the prime minister and his supporters are launching a massive campaign to discredit the lawsuit and its background. The most important message from Netanyahu's camp is that the threatened lawsuit can be traced back to the endeavors of left-liberal elites who have established a "state within a state" or a "deep state". Since the left fails to democratically replace Netanyahu, these elites used their control over the media to exert pressure on the police and prosecutors, which they eventually gave in. Many right-wing politicians, but also right-wing media, share this point of view.

How Netanyahu will avoid being charged is not yet entirely clear. Two scenarios are conceivable. First, the Knesset can grant immunity to a MP or minister if it believes that the charges were not brought "in good faith." This is the direction in which Netanyahu's media campaign is moving. Second, there are concrete plans to pass what is known as the French law, which would grant an incumbent Prime Minister immunity per se. Such a bill has already been brought into play on various occasions by supporters of Netanyahu in Likud, but also in March 2019 by Bezalel Smotrich, a Knesset member of the Jewish Home. Netanyahu announced at the end of March 2019 that he considered it unlikely that he would support such a law - he has not ruled it out. It seems clear that such a project needs the support of the parties of the right-wing political spectrum. Many right-wing politicians - with the notable exception of Bennett - have also announced their willingness to do so, while the parties of the center-left have signaled their opposition.

The fact that Netanyahu is dependent on right-wing parties is also noticeable in the election campaign. The inclusion of Otzma Yehudit in the union of the right-wing parties actually came under massive pressure from Netanyahu. He offered the other politicians of the association two ministerial posts and one even a list place at the Likud. Netanyahu was lobbying against the background of the uncertain election outcome and the fear that the right-wing bloc would lose too many votes if the small right-wing parties were to fail to meet the 3.25 percent rule.

Netanyahu's approach has far-reaching consequences. By campaigning for the integration of a right-wing extremist party, the prime minister broke with the previous foundations of consensus in Israeli political culture - even though there is an agreement that Otzma Yehudit's MPs will go into opposition. With his campaign for the right-wing extremist party, Netanyahu started a discourse shift. Some MPs from Meretz and the Labor Party asked the Knesset electoral committee not to allow Otzma Yehudit to vote. Under the influence of the election campaign, the committee not only had to make a substantive decision, but also articulate where it stands: left or right, for or against Netanyahu. With a majority of 16 to 15 (the Kulanu party abstained), the committee declined to expel Otzma Yehudit's top candidate, Michael Ben-Ari. This has a symbolic effect, because the body, representing parliament, sanctions the party's positions and legitimizes them as appropriate to a democratic parliament. This shifts the boundaries of what can be legitimately said, as right-wing extremist positions are also ennobled in this way. The Supreme Court subsequently excluded Ben-Ari from the upcoming parliamentary election because of racism. However, the shift in discourse can no longer be easily reversed.

Three scenarios for forming a government

The first scenario would be a coalition led by Benny Gantz, with a change from Gantz to Lapid in the office of prime minister after two and a half years. Because Gantz has ruled out bringing representatives of the Arab-Palestinian lists into a government, Kahol Lavan is dependent on three things in order to be able to form a government majority: The alliance must do significantly better than Likud in the election, and it also needs a good result, smaller Central parties (such as Gesher and Kulanu) and the willingness of smaller right-wing parties (such as Yisrael Beitenu) to form a coalition with Kahol Lavan. Representatives of ultra-Orthodox parties would only get into a Gantz government if a coalition under Netanyahu were impossible.

Two other government coalitions are conceivable, each with Netanyahu as prime minister. Both are more likely than a center-left government, even if Kahol Lavan is currently ahead of the Likud in polls. Not only the polls speak in favor of these scenarios, but also Netanyahu's ability to form coalitions with both right-wing and center-right parties.

The second scenario would be a center-right coalition under Netanyahu. He would prefer this solution to a pure right-wing coalition. Although he praised the importance of a right-wing government, he would probably have to include the right-wing extremist parties Otzma Yehudit or Zehut in this. Instead, it would make sense for Netanyahu to form a coalition with Kahol Lavan, because this alliance and Likud are largely in line on security issues. Kahol Lavan has sent ambivalent signals: If Gantz and Lapid considered such a collaboration possible at the beginning of 2019, Gantz later ruled it out. A coalition with Kahol Lavan would reduce Netanyahu's dependence on the far right parties. It could also act as a moderator in difficult foreign policy developments, especially the annexation debate.

If Netanyahu is charged, a coalition with the center-left parties is unlikely. It is also almost impossible for a center-right coalition to pass a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity. In addition, it is unclear whether Netanyahu's party, the Likud, would support a coalition with Kahol Lavan: During the current legislative period, members of the Likud stopped Netanyahu in his attempt to initiate a grand coalition with the Zionist Union.

These arguments therefore speak in favor of a third scenario in which Netanyahu would have to form a purely right-wing government. If it does come about, it must first be expected that it will try to convert Israel from a limited liberal to a majority democracy. Second, the right-wing government is likely to set about meeting the widely shared demands for (partial) annexation of the West Bank.

In both cases, Israel would move further away from the common political value base with the EU, as set out in the association treaties between the Union and Israel. Any annexation would be a clear breach of international law. Furthermore, such a step would in fact be the end of the only realistic solution formula for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the two-state solution.

© Science and Politics Foundation, 2019

All rights reserved

The current reflects the author's opinion.

SWP-Aktuell are subjected to an internal review process, a fact check and a proofreading. Further information on the quality assurance of the SWP can be found on the SWP website at https: // www. qualitaetssicherung /


Foundation Science and Politics

German Institute for International Politics and Security

Ludwigkirchplatz 3-4
10719 Berlin
Phone +49 30 880 07-0
Fax +49 30 880 07-100
[email protected]

ISSN 1611-6364

doi: 10.18449 / 2019A18