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An Uneasy Alliance in Jerusalem

A politician giving a speech against a green backdrop

Amir Levy/Getty Images

Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab Party (Ra’am), giving a speech, Nazareth, Israel, April 2021

On June 30, 2022, the Israeli Knesset voted to dissolve itself, setting the country on the path to a fifth parliamentary election in just three years. Since the first of those elections in April 2019, Israeli politics have bifurcated into pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, with public debate centering almost exclusively on Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness for office in light of his ongoing corruption trial. Last year, however, the struggle between these blocs produced a surprising development. The anti-Netanyahu forces, headed by the former TV host Yair Lapid and the former settler leader Naftali Bennett, managed to depose Israel’s longest-serving prime minister by forming a coalition that, for the first time in Israeli history, formally included an independent Arab-led party: Ra’am, the socially conservative, moderate-Islamist party headed by Mansour Abbas, a mild-mannered dentist from the Galilee. After more than a decade in office, Netanyahu found himself relegated to the opposition, with Likud and its aligned parties in possession of fifty-four of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Yet the anti-Netanyahu coalition—dubbed the “change” government by Israeli media—was always precarious, held together solely by raw necessity. It spanned the political spectrum: Lapid’s bourgeois, secularist Yesh Atid party; former Israel Defense Forces commander-in-chief Benny Gantz’s center-right Blue and White party; Bennett’s “moderate” pro-settler Yamina; former Likudnik hawk Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party; the infamously anti-Arab Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, representing Russian-speaking immigrants; the much-diminished Labor Party, led by the outspoken feminist Merav Michaeli; the flagging civil-libertarian, social-democratic party Meretz, led by Nitzan Horowitz, the first openly gay chair of an Israeli political party; and, finally, Abbas’s Ra’am. Without a consensus on any matter other than opposition to Netanyahu, the uneasy alliance could not have lasted long. Yet even in its short life, it achieved its primary goal: to remind the Israeli public that the country could survive without him in power.

The coalition began to unravel slowly, and then, this spring, it went into freefall. There were defections on both the right and the left. In early April Idit Silman—a religious Zionist member of Bennett’s Yamina—resigned from the coalition, ostensibly over matters of religion and state, depriving it of a parliamentary majority. In May the Meretz member of Knesset (MK) Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi appeared to resign over Israeli police violence against Palestinians on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, only to rejoin after discussions with Lapid. By June, the political differences among the various parties had become insurmountable. That month, the coalition failed to pass the emergency legislation that must be renewed every five years to maintain the two-tiered, apartheid legal regime in the occupied West Bank, where Jewish settlers live under Israeli civil law while their Palestinian neighbors live under military rule. For the members of Ra’am and Meretz’s Zoabi, voting for such legislation was an impossibly bitter pill; for the coalition’s right-wing parties, the inability to pass it was both an ideological failure and a political liability as new elections loomed.

Israelis are set to return to the polls on November 1. The elections will again be a referendum on Netanyahu and his Likud party. But they are also in large part a referendum on the participation of Palestinian-Arabs as equals to Jews in Israel’s political process. Ever since Ra’am provided the crucial votes to keep Netanyahu out of office, Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens—who make up roughly 20 percent of the population—have become central to the country’s electoral balance of power. This is perhaps the biggest shift in Israeli politics in the post–Oslo Accords era, and it has raised in an unprecedented way the question of the inclusion of Palestinian-Arab citizens in the Israeli polity—of whether the votes of its Palestinian citizens matter as much as those cast by Jews.

Since the end of martial law over Palestinian citizens of Israel in 1966, followed quickly by the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has functioned as a hybrid ethnocracy. Within “Israel proper,” it has been a constitutional, Jewish-supremacist state that provides voting rights to Palestinian citizens as individuals and denies them self-determination as a national minority. Beyond the Green Line, it has been a Jewish-run military dictatorship over the nearly five million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, who cannot vote in Israel despite living under Israeli control. For much of the past half-century, while Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel voted in parliamentary elections, their votes were a procedural formality, and their representatives were never meaningfully part of the coalitional math. It was “like the Israeli Knesset was 115 seats,” Reut Mor, a veteran left-wing communications strategist, told me, referring to the seats occupied by representatives of Jewish parties. Today, “we are in a completely different world.”

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“Right now, the demos is not inclusive,” said Noam Vidan, director of IDEA: The Center for Liberal Democracy. “It’s entirely Jews.” A political scientist might quibble with Vidan’s terms, for in Israel, there is no real demos; rather, it is the Jewish ethnos that Israel’s Basic Laws, its pseudo-constitutional framework, enshrine as the state’s exclusive sovereign. But what the fight over the legitimacy of Palestinian-Arab political participation has opened up is a contest over whether Israel could—however gradually, and not without substantial struggle—come to treat its Palestinian-Arab citizens as fully equal citizens and guarantee their national minority rights as sacrosanct. That there is no complementary horizon for ending the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza reflects Zionism’s successful fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement across geographic lines: between the diaspora and the territories of “48” and “67.”

In a sense, this struggle is also what explains the persistent right-wing attacks on Israel’s Supreme Court—seen by both its defenders and detractors as the last line of defense for minority rights—and civil society organizations promoting equality between Arabs and Jews. “It’s not yet true that Jews support cancelling Palestinians’ citizenship,” Vidan said. But increasing numbers of Jews “don’t want Israel to be a democracy.” Netanyahu’s path back to power will require rallying an illiberal, Jewish-supremacist majority, comprised of right-wing and Orthodox parties that militate against the full participation of Palestinian citizens and against institutions like the judiciary, which many Netanyahu supporters despise not only for its defense of minority rights but also for its prosecution of Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. With the grassroots far right gathering strength, he could very well succeed.

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In the winter of 2021, ahead of the fourth round of elections in two years, Abbas pulled Ra’am out of the Joint List, the coalition of Arab-led parties founded in 2015, and announced that he would join the next governing coalition—whether headed by Netanyahu or not. For months Abbas had been signaling his intention to break with the oppositional mode of politics, long practiced by the representatives of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens in the Knesset, which put front and center the struggle for Palestinian rights within Israel and across the 1967 armistice line. Since 1992, when two Arab-led parties supported Yitzhak Rabin’s minority government from outside the coalition, Palestinian politicians in Israel had mainly looked to the parties of the Zionist left as potential partners. Yet as Israeli politics moved steadily rightward and the Zionist left shriveled into near irrelevance, the Arab-led parties found themselves stranded in perpetual exclusion. Before preventing Netanyahu’s return to power became their paramount task, successive leaders of the center and center left—Lapid in 2013, Isaac Herzog in 2015, and Gantz in 2020—had all opted not to form a coalition that included or relied on the Arab-led parties.

Abbas’s decision in June 2021 to join a government headed by Bennett—and Bennett’s readiness, however reluctant, to accept Abbas’s offer of support—fundamentally reshaped Israeli parliamentary politics. The urgency of defeating Netanyahu proved, at least temporarily for the Zionist parties, stronger than the decades-old taboo that had relegated the Arab-led parties to the margins. For the first time ever, “there was an Arab Palestinian party inside the Israeli coalition and, you know, the sky didn’t drop,” said Mor, who worked with the Joint List during the 2015 campaign. “There’s no doubt, with all my criticisms of the current coalition,” Mor continued, “that Arab-Jewish political cooperation received a legitimacy that…would not have been imaginable previously.”

Two politicians conferring in pariament

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

Yair Lapid and Mansour Abbas at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 2022

According to Ron Gerlitz, executive director of the political psychology research group aChord, increased support among Jewish Israelis for political cooperation with the Arab-led parties—80 percent approval among left-wing voters, 42 percent among centrists—“is the biggest political change in the last few decades.” The effect has been paradoxical. At a time when the occupation of the West Bank has practically disappeared from Israeli public debate, Palestinian-Arab voters have become the new kingmakers of Israeli politics, albeit with a narrow selection of unappealing potential kings. Even as parties on both the center and the right continue to deny that they depend on the Arab-led parties to form a stable anti-Netanyahu coalition, the fact that they do is undeniable.

But while Abbas was instrumental in unseating Netanyahu, his political approach is also Janus-faced. “I did not inherit the sacred division between left and right, as if we’re in the pocket of what’s called the ‘Zionist left,’” he wrote in a Facebook post in 2020. “We’ve seen what the left has done to us in the past.” According to this view, the differences between the opposing ends of the Jewish Israeli political spectrum are less significant than their commonalities; it was, after all, not only the Jabotinskyite right but also Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists who directed and carried out the violence during Israel’s founding, and both left and right have overseen the subjugation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and the maintenance of the occupation. In the words of the late Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish—founder of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, of which Ra’am is the parliamentary wing—Palestinian citizens of Israel are “living in the belly of the beast.” For Abbas, this means that the best and last political option left—given the immovable reality of the Jewish state—is to improve material conditions for Palestinian citizens of Israel by working with whichever Zionist party happens to be in power. 

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Indeed, in interviews, Abbas has said that he would have preferred to join a “fully right-wing coalition” led by Netanyahu, since doing so would have legitimated Ra’am as a political player in the eyes of a wider segment of the Jewish Israeli population. He still might in the next round, if that appears to be the more promising option and Netanyahu’s allies permit it. In June a TV newscaster asked Dudi Amsalem, a notoriously pugilistic MK and Netanyahu stalwart within Likud, if his party would consider a coalition that included Ra’am. “If Mansour Abbas wants to join after we have 61 seats, ahalan wa’sahalan,” Amsalem said, sardonically using the Arabic phrase for “welcome.” Netanyahu quickly reprimanded Amsalem. But it was not long ago that Netanyahu himself courted Ra’am’s support—until his allies on the far right ruled out any agreement with Abbas, which enabled Lapid and Bennett to use the very possibility he had opened to remove him from power.

That is not the only ironic turn of events in recent Israeli politics. Over the last five years or so, “Arab-Jewish partnership” has been the watchword of Israel’s struggling parliamentary left. There has been no more dogged a proponent of the idea than Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List and leader of the Arab-Jewish socialist coalition Hadash. After both the September 2019 and March 2020 elections, Odeh backed Gantz for prime minister and proposed giving the Joint List’s support, from outside the coalition, to a Gantz-led minority government. It was the first time since Rabin’s government in 1992 that the Arab-led parties had endorsed a prime ministerial candidate and an arrangement with the coalition. And yet Gantz rebuffed Odeh and the Joint List on both occasions. In March 2020, as the Covid-19 crisis erupted, Gantz instead joined an “emergency national unity government” headed by Netanyahu.

For Odeh and supporters of the Joint List, Gantz’s rejection, followed by Abbas’s defection, has given rise to immense frustration. “Gantz ran away from a historic opportunity,” Odeh lamented over coffee in Haifa earlier this month. As for Abbas, “Mansour’s approach is to put politics aside, and for us to live as subjects,” he said. “I reject this approach…My approach is the one that wants us to be recognized as full citizens.” In Odeh’s eyes, when Abbas joined Bennett and Lapid’s government—which included right-wing settlers and was not engaged in even the pretense of peace negotiations—he demonstrated that he was ready to concede the fight for the rights of Palestinians as a national minority in Israel, as well as the struggle against Israel’s military rule in the West Bank and its siege of Gaza. For Odeh, this was an unacceptable compromise. “I am a native here. I did not come to the state of Israel; the state of Israel came to me,” Odeh told me. “I am willing to fight for equality with the settler, but to be a subject of the settler? I will never accept this…I’m supposed to give up on the Palestinian people, on the marginalized and economically insecure, on the [unrecognized Bedouin] villages in the Negev? In that, I cannot be a partner.”

A politician hands out a flyer to a driver with the car window reflects the skyline

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

Joint List head Ayman Odeh giving out an election pamphlet, Tira, Israel, September 2019

Abbas himself calls his approach “pragmatic.” Its closest analogue within the Israeli system is perhaps that of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, parties—the Sephardic Shas and Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism—from which Abbas has claimed inspiration. It is a transactional politics: cooperation in exchange for cash benefits. Ra’am has concentrated on securing increased investment in Arab educational institutions and infrastructure, improving the availability and quality of housing, and addressing high rates of lethal gun violence in Arab towns and cities. The party has, to an extent, delivered on this agenda. One of Ra’am’s signal achievements in the outgoing coalition was the passage of a five-year, 30 billion shekel (then roughly $8.6 billion) development plan for the Arab population in Israel, and an additional 2.5 billion shekel ($722 million) initiative aimed at reducing violent crime. Much of the money, however, has yet to be disbursed, and its full impact has yet to be felt.

For such potential gains, Abbas made ideological concessions no previous Palestinian-Arab political leader in Israel was prepared to make. “Israel was born as a Jewish state,” Abbas said at a conference sponsored by the business paper Globes in December 2021. “It was born like this and will stay like this.” The question, he said, is not “what the identity of the state will be” but “what the status of the Arab citizen will be in the Jewish state of Israel.” Abbas’s position also demanded serious practical concessions. Ra’am remained part of the coalition despite the passage of a discriminatory bill that bars West Bank Palestinians married to Israeli citizens from obtaining legal status in Israel; despite repeated incursions by Israeli forces into the Al Aqsa Mosque complex; and despite ongoing settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. “I’m not sure that one can call this a partnership at all,” said Samer Sweid, executive director of the Arab Center for Alternative Planning and a leading voter-turnout expert on Israel’s Palestinian-Arab communities. “It’s an agreement—a deal—but it’s not partnership.”

The rise of Abbas and Ra’am owed much to the burgeoning desire among Palestinian citizens of Israel to have a more substantial part in Israeli politics. In polling ahead of the April 2019 election, almost three-quarters of Palestinian-Arab voters surveyed said they would support the Arab-led parties joining a governing coalition if the opportunity arose. After the subsequent rounds of elections, Abbas seized on the existence of this critical mass of potential supporters for his new approach. In the lead-up to the March 2020 elections he also emphasized his party’s social conservatism and religious values, particularly in contrast to the secularist socialists of Hadash, and used his party’s opposition to LGBT rights to mobilize traditionalist voters. The result was four seats in the current Knesset, just two fewer than Odeh’s Joint List. Still, these gains may not last. A perception among Palestinian-Arab voters that the compromises that sustained Ra’am’s participation in the coalition were too great, and the gains too meagre, could harm not only the party’s chances but also those of the Joint List in November. That so much of the wider political picture has not changed, Sweid said, “causes people to despair.”

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Yet for much of the Israeli right, the mere inclusion of a Palestinian-Arab party in the coalition has proved unacceptable. Motivated by both realpolitik and real conviction, Likud politicians have been the main forces of anti-Arab incitement. Hardly a day passes without Netanyahu or one of his proxies denouncing Ra’am as “an antisemitic, anti-Zionist, terror-supporting party backed by the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks the destruction of the state of Israel,” as Netanyahu’s preferred formulation goes.

The far right, which has been gaining steadily in the polls, has amplified Netanyahu’s rhetoric and taken it to greater extremes. Itamar Ben-Gvir—leader of the Meir Kahane–inspired Jewish Power party—has denounced Abbas as a “terrorist” and called for other Arab political leaders, including Odeh, to be expelled from the country. Moshe Feiglin, a former Likud MK from the party’s hardline religious flank and a best-selling author, has warned that Israel risks becoming “a state of all of its Arabs”—an Israeli riff on the Great Replacement theory intended to galvanize right-wing, xenophobic voters.

For the most part, centrist politicians have shrunk from denouncing such racism. Although every member of the anti-Netanyahu bloc recognizes that there is no path to preventing his return to power without Arab-led parties, they have found this unsayable to the electorate out of fear that it could push moderate right-wing voters back into the pro-Netanyahu camp. They struggle even to say the word “Arab,” let alone without a negative connotation. In one of his first addresses as interim prime minister in early July, Lapid could speak only of Israel’s “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” citizens. Blue and White MK and former communications minister Eitan Ginzburg stated that his party would only sit in a coalition “with those who recognize Israel as a Zionist state” and “certainly would not rely on support from the Joint List.” More recently, Lapid vowed not to form a coalition with either of the “extremists on both sides,” equating the civic-egalitarian Joint List and Ben-Gvir’s expressly racist Jewish Power.

Such timidity may very well turn out to be a self-defeating tactic masquerading as sound judgment. Lapid is acting “against his own interests,” Gerlitz said, since backtracking on cooperation with the Joint List risks causing “big damage to Arab turnout in the election.” To defeat Netanyahu, “Lapid is dependent on Arab voters going out to vote,” not for him but for their own parties, explained Ran Cohen, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the Israeli Democratic Bloc, a progressive NGO. “We are trying to create an atmosphere that encourages [Palestinian-Arab] voting.” The right understands this dynamic, too. In the past, Likud and its allies have mounted voter suppression efforts that range from racist rhetorical campaigns to deploying operatives with body cameras to polling stations in Arab cities and towns as an intimidation tactic.

Three politicians sit under an enormous Chagall painting

Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP/Getty

Naftali Bennett (center) speaking during a cabinet meeting at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 2021

The political exigencies of the anti-Netanyahu camp mean that politicians like Lapid and Gantz, who would otherwise have preferred to ignore Palestinian-Arab voters—and to avoid discussing the meaning of democracy altogether—have no choice but to address them if they want to keep Netanyahu out of power. Indeed, for Israel’s progressives, Netanyahu’s persistence has ironically created a political opportunity that otherwise would not exist. Many of the anti-Netanyahu parties are led by former Likudniks and erstwhile Netanyahu allies: Lieberman served as director-general of the prime minister’s office during Netanyahu’s first term; Naftali Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008; Gideon Sa’ar was a lifelong Likudnik before launching a failed bid for leadership of the party. Their objections to Netanyahu are primarily personal, not political. If Netanyahu were no longer leader of Likud, his party would almost certainly be able to form a coalition with a commanding right-wing majority. “This is our reality,” Cohen said. “Without Netanyahu, it’s 80 seats to the right.”

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What would another Netanyahu victory mean? “I look at Hungary and I see that as the direction we’re going in,” Vidan said when we met at a stylish café in central Tel Aviv. Were Netanyahu to return to power backed by a more muscular far right, she warned, what remains of the country’s democratic institutions would be in jeopardy. “These are the last tools we have: the existence of a [political] opposition, civil society, a free press, the judicial branch. All of this,” Vidan said, “the right wants to eliminate…Without these institutions we’re doomed.”

Such fears are not ungrounded. During his previous terms, Netanyahu used legislation in tandem with initiatives by right-wing activists to carry out sustained attacks on Israeli civil society and human rights organizations. The corruption cases for which he is on trial have revealed the great lengths to which he went to quash criticism of his administration and his family in the Israeli media. His allies on the right have threatened to pass a “court override” bill that would enable the Knesset to restore laws struck down by the judiciary. “Liberals in Israel are worried about whether the country will continue to be a democracy,” Vidan said. “A fully right-wing government is almost a guarantee of fascism—and not only for Palestinians…We aren’t even talking here about the occupation.”

Yet for those on the left, it is precisely the exclusion of the occupation from the anti-Netanyahu camp’s agenda that reflects the inadequacy of its approach. It is not that Israeli democracy needs defending, but that it needs to be made real in the first place. As long as Israel maintains its military rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and its siege of Gaza—a status quo enabled and perpetuated by state institutions like the Supreme Court—any talk of democracy is not simply naïve, but detrimental to the fight to democratize the current one-state reality. What the anti-Netanyahu camp offers instead, Odeh told me, is “a defense of democratic structures at the expense of the essence of democracy.” It proposes a defense of the Supreme Court, academia, and the press, “but the occupation, the rights of Arab citizens of Israel—those it puts on the side.” Odeh continued, “What do they want from me? To be with the settlers, against the fascists.”

Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the renewal of rocket fire from the besieged territory earlier this month is a reminder of the intractability of the brutal status quo. For much of the last year, young Palestinian demonstrators have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank with startling regularity. On the streets of Israeli cities and in the settlements, the far right appears emboldened. Settler violence has spiked, and Jewish holidays have become regular occasions for marches by Ben-Gvir and his supporters. The shadows cast by the events of May 2021—when right-wing Jewish extremists fought with Palestinian-Arabs on the streets of Israel’s “mixed” cities—have not disappeared.

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Israel is a country where things happen at the last minute, and campaigning will only begin with full force in September. Still, it is possible to hazard a few predictions. Over the last four rounds of elections, the division between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs has been relatively durable; very few voters swing between the two. Though this near stalemate will most likely hold, there are three potential developments that could lead to a Netanyahu victory.

The first is low turnout among Palestinian-Arab voters. Current polling puts the likely rate of their participation at just 40 percent. “The starting point that we have right now is the hardest we have ever seen,” Sweid told me. “I imagine it will rise, but if that remains what it is, there will be five Arab Knesset members and Ra’am will not cross the [electoral] threshold” of 3.25 percent of the total vote. By comparison, when the Joint List won a record fifteen seats in 2020, Arab voter participation was nearly 65 percent. The only way to ensure Netanyahu cannot return to power “is if the Arab parties increase their number of seats to twelve,” Sweid said, “but that means that the turnout needs to get to around 50 percent. Every Arab vote puts Netanyahu further away from power.”

A second potential shift is the further splintering of what remains of the Zionist left. For much of the last decade the liberal, social-democratic Meretz has begun every election cycle with the existential fear that the party may fail to cross the electoral threshold. This time, Meretz is campaigning after its first stint in a governing coalition following two decades in opposition. Yet the taste of power may have weakened rather than strengthened the party. The social base of Meretz has increasingly come to resemble that of Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and since the party intends to sit in a coalition with Lapid in any event, some Meretz voters may choose to vote for him directly. But politics is a game of margins, and unless the party entirely shifts its support behind Lapid, the drift of only some Meretz voters into Yesh Atid or other centrist parties could decrease the total size of the anti-Netanyahu bloc by keeping Meretz from crossing the electoral threshold. The shrunken Labor party faces a similar dilemma.

The third shift since the last round is the growing strength of the extreme right. In the current Knesset, the Religious Zionism list—a merger of right-wing religious nationalist parties and the Kahanist Jewish Power—claims six seats. Yet recent polls show that with Ben-Gvir in a leadership position, Religious Zionism could win between eleven and thirteen seats, which might make it the third-largest party in the Knesset. As of this writing, Ben-Gvir is running at the head of his own independent party, but with a month before the parliamentary lists must be finalized, a merger that puts him at or near the top of the Religious Zionism list could still be on the horizon. In a bid to become the right-wing populist leader of Israel’s Mizrahi working class, he has already begun to adjust his rhetoric away from mere racist incitement and to adopt the language of class war, accusing the Labor party leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli of raising public transportation fares for residents of Israel’s socio-geographic periphery and the West Bank settlements. On his popular Twitter feed, pictures of campaign stops in packed auditoriums and houses alternate with posts attacking leftists and Palestinians. An additional boost to Ben-Gvir’s fortunes could come from Haredi voters who have moved away from their traditional parties with the passing of the last generation of authoritative rabbinic leaders. Pollsters debate the size of this phenomenon, but the fear is that in the upcoming elections it could be substantial.

The wager of the fragile anti-Netanyahu coalition is that the broader Jewish Israeli public wants good governance and a bare modicum of political stability more than it fears full Palestinian-Arab political participation. Netanyahu and the far right are betting that the defense of Jewish supremacy will prove more important than the threat to the rule of law that a right-wing return to power would entail. The sad fact is that it will be close.

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