Netanyahu Politics Possibly Behind Increased Left Support for Arab Joint List
Political experts say poll showing increased left, right support for hardliners reveals the influence of the prime minister
A new poll shows that 62% of Israel’s left support including the Arab Joint List in the government. At the same time, 37% of the Israeli right expressed support for controversial far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir as a future government minister.
Experts explain that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s politics are behind both results, which show a drift toward the extremes. However, parties on both sides are staying the course despite the shift in the electorate.
Israel will be going to its fourth round of elections in two years on March 23. With slightly more than a month to the elections, Israeli radio station 103FM on Monday released a poll conducted by the research institute Panel Politics to gauge the views of the electorate. While the poll revealed no surprise fall or rise in parliamentary power for any party, its questions about support for the inclusion of formerly off-limits elements in Israeli politics in the future government revealed surprising results that have generated headlines.
The first question asked respondents whether they supported or opposed appointing Ben-Gvir as a minister in the next government. Ben-Gvir, a leader of the Otzma Yehudit party who is associated with the Kahanist movement, is a well-known far-right activist whose political legitimacy has been questioned by fellow members of the Israeli right in the past. In response to the question, 37% of those self-identifying as right wing responded that they supported appointing Ben-Gvir to a minister position. Some 25% of all respondents – identifying as right, center and left – also supported his appointment, while 46% of the larger group said that they would oppose appointing Ben-Gvir.
In a second question, respondents were asked if they supported the inclusion of the Arab Joint List in a future government. The Arab Joint List, now comprising three separate Arab-majority parties running together, has been considered off-limits for a variety of positions considered radically left, including a call for Israel to remove its designation as a Jewish state. The poll showed that 62% of the Israeli left supports forming a future government that includes the Joint List. Some 80% of voters on the right opposed the proposition, as well as 64% of all voters.
The poll, which appears to show a shift toward the extremes on both sides of Israel’s political map, has raised eyebrows.
The primary goal of people that define themselves as left wing is to stop Netanyahu from getting reelected
“It is possible that had we asked the same question three years ago, we would have received completely different results,” Menachem Lazar, the head of Panel Politics, told The Media Line, referring to the increased right-wing acceptance of Ben-Gvir.
Lazar said that this shift is “the result of a long process – an almost two-year process of legitimization – of preparing the public opinion to accept that Ben-Gvir is a legitimate lawmaker, a legitimate coalition member and a maybe even a legitimate minister.”
This process, he explains, has been pushed by Netanyahu, who has urged more mainstream right-wing parties to merge with Ben-Gvir’s small Otzma Yehudit. By doing this, Netanyahu is hoping to avoid losing right-wing votes to small parties that normally don’t cross the electoral threshold of 3.25% or some 4 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
The change in Israel’s left, Lazar says, is also brought about by Netanyahu, but for opposite reasons.
“The primary goal of people that define themselves as left wing is to stop Netanyahu from getting reelected. Some were willing to include the Joint List in the government from the get go, but others are saying just like what we identified on the right with regard to Ben-Gvir – if this is what is needed to avoid Netanyahu as our next prime minister, let the Joint List be a part of the government,” he said.
The pollster points to Netanyahu’s recent flirtation with Islamist lawmaker Mansour Abbas as a move that legitimized acceptance of the Joint List on the left. If Netanyahu is open to having such an Arab partner, Lazar says, “then why not?”
Efi, a young Jerusalemite supporter of the Likud Party headed by Netanyahu, took a less partisan stance when describing his support for an appointment of Ben-Gvir, were it on the table.
“Normally, I would be staunchly opposed to Ben-Gvir being appointed as a minister. However, in light of the difficult situation facing the country, arising from the coronavirus pandemic and the inability to form a stable government these past two years, I believe that any government is better than anarchy and the absence of an approved budget,” he told The Media Line. This situation, he said, damages the country more than Ben-Gvir’s membership in the government.
The political system has created a divisive narrative, with Netanyahu as a leader of this movement
Dr. Ronen Hoffman, an expert in international relations and political psychology, told The Media Line that years of political divisiveness has led to this day.
Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, “the political system has created a divisive narrative, with Netanyahu as a leader of this movement,” said Hoffman, a former lawmaker for the Yesh Atid Party between 2013 and 2015. He explains that this divisiveness, created and furthered by the prime minister, has pushed the discourse to an extremely polarized position, as seen in the survey’s results.
More specifically, Hoffman believes that Netanyahu as a leader has chosen a tactic of demonizing his opponents to ensure the support of his political base. The employment of this tactic on the left, he said, is more difficult to identify, and so this possible shift to a more radical position is harder to explain.
What is certain, Hoffman says, is that there are political considerations at play “on both sides,” driving an acceptance of more extreme politics to ensure a right-wing government, or the end of Netanyahu’s rule.
Keshet, a student from Israel’s north who votes left, cited a different reason for her support for including the Joint List in the next government: the desire for better representation for Israel’s Arab minority. “I believe the issue here is essential representation – I feel that if you don’t get represented in the government, the chance that the group you represent, be it Arabs, LGBT, Reform or whatever, will get the resources you need is lower.”
Whether the changes have, at their heart, electoral considerations, ideological polarization or both, Israel’s parties aren’t necessarily rushing to align with their voters’ agenda. Jason Pearlman, spokesperson for New Hope, currently the country’s second largest right-wing party and a central challenger to Netanyahu, told The Media Line that party head Gideon Saar “made it clear that he did not view Ben-Gvir as a fitting coalition partner, and that a stable coalition that unites the people cannot be reliant upon extremists.”
Yesh Atid, the party leading the country’s center-left, told The Media Line in a statement that “the Joint List isn’t interested in entering the government and its inclusion in is not on the table.”
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said in a statement sent to The Media Line that “the center-left and Netanyahu have realized that you can’t do without the Joint List.” He added that after the last election the Joint List recommended Blue and White head Benny Gantz to form the next government which “prevented Netanyahu from forming a narrow, right-wing government.”
The Likud Party did not respond to a request for comment to The Media Line.