When the same country holds the same election with the same cast of characters five times in under four years, identifying new variables that will help decipher what is unfolding becomes harder with each iteration. But since Israeli politics is never repetitive even when it looks repetitive, there are actually a few faceoffs to look out for this Tuesday that will explain what happened and what might happen next.

National Unity Party vs. Religious Zionism

The competition between Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar, Gadi Eisenkot, and their National Unity on one side against Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and their Religious Zionism on the other is not over a shared pool of voters. While National Unity actually has a significant number of candidates who identify as religious Zionists on its party list, it is hard to imagine a voter who is contemplating a choice between the party running on restoring stateliness and respect for state institutions and the party that just released a plan to eliminate the oversight power of the Supreme Court. It is also hard to imagine a voter who has trouble deciding between the staid demeanors of Gantz, Sa’ar, and Eisenkot, or Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s riotous radicalism.

A Religious Zionism election banner from 2021 featuring party leader Bezalel Smotrich

The competition between these two sides is over numbers. While each is in the running to be the third largest Knesset party behind Likud and Yesh Atid, which one finishes higher has implications beyond bragging rights, or even whether Prime Minister Yair Lapid or his predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu will get the first shot at forming a government. If Netanyahu and Likud have a potential coalition of 61 seats or more with his natural partners in Religious Zionism, Shas, and UTJ, the criticism coming from many—though not nearly enough—corners about forming a government with Ben Gvir is not going to dissuade Netanyahu from taking that path if it is the only one available to him. If Religious Zionism has more seats than National Unity, the die will be cast. If, however, Netanyahu gets to 61 with his natural partners but Gantz manages to secure more seats than Religious Zionism, Netanyahu is likely to try to persuade Gantz to save the country from a Kahanist future by joining with him and leaving Religious Zionism out.

This gambit will not necessarily work, since while Gantz acceded to Netanyahu’s appeals to him to save the country once before—that time from the COVID pandemic following the third election—it is much less plausible that Sa’ar and Eisenkot would go along, which would leave Gantz without enough Knesset seats under his control to pursue the option. But if Religious Zionism bests National Unity on Tuesday and Netanyahu manages to clear the magic number, the most extreme government in Israel’s history that rests on a large group of Jewish supremacist advocates of apartheid and transfers of Palestinians—with everything that entails—will be a fait accompli.

Shas and UTJ vs. Themselves

Under past circumstances, the Haredi parties would have no reason to be concerned about this election. Their voters are reliable, don’t go shopping around for other parties, and understand that their power rests on making their representative parties the kingmakers in Israeli politics. Furthermore, Shas and UTJ were left out of the Bennett-Lapid government, and they felt the effects as the outgoing government—particularly the Haredim’s bête noire, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman—threatened their subsidies and monopoly over kashrut certification while imposing taxes on products that the Haredi community buys in large quantities. If anything, this election should be one where the Haredi parties outperform their previous results.

Yet there is a real danger that both Shas and UTJ, but particularly Shas, lose ground on Tuesday compared to last time, and it stems from their voters starting to display an ideological streak. Religious Zionism has begun to appeal to younger Haredim, who are more nationalist and more hawkish than older generations. Haredim have appeared in greater numbers in nationalist marches, have participated in clashes between Jews and Palestinians, and in August established the first ever Haredi illegal West Bank outpost, Derech Emunah, something that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. While it may strike some as odd to refer to ultra-Orthodox religious parties as non-ideological, that has been their historic posture with regard to politics, even though they are now so associated with the right that they are considered to be Netanyahu’s natural partners. For Haredi voters who want to see their political ideology represented in the Knesset, Religious Zionism and its insistence that Jews must be the “masters of the house” over Arabs in both Israel proper and the West Bank is a more attractive option. The fact that Ben Gvir is Mizrahi and is associated with “second Israel” also gives him appeal to some of Shas’ non-Haredi voters, who have stuck with the party over the years because of its Mizrahi identity.

A Shas election booth in April 2019, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

If Shas and UTJ bleed seats compared to the last election, it will not cause a shift between the political blocs. But it will be a cause for alarm to the Haredi parties, as the shift to other parties on the right—primarily Religious Zionism—is more likely to be a canary in the coal mine than a temporary radar blip. It will also be another signal that Israeli politics is moving in a more nationalist, nativist, and anti-democratic direction.

Justified Alarm vs. Delusional Fantasy

If it seems clear following Tuesday’s vote that the next Israeli government will include Religious Zionism, that Smotrich and Ben Gvir will be cabinet ministers, and that Netanyahu is completely beholden to them given his legally motivated desire to be prime minister at all costs rather than the other way around, here are some things you are going to hear:

  • Smotrich and Ben Gvir aren’t going to actually push through all of the things they have pledged to do.
  • The settler community, and the religious Zionist community in particular, had nobody else to vote for.
  • Religious Zionism’s support is really about security, not about treating Arabs as second class, and none of this would have happened without the riots in mixed cities in May 2021.
  • It’s the Bennett-Lapid coalition’s fault for sitting with Ra’am and spooking right-wing Jewish voters.
  • Ben Gvir is not prime minister, his power is limited, and it won’t be so bad.
Itamar Ben Gvir’s makeshift office in Sheikh Jarrah, February 2022 by Shai Kendler, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

These run the gamut from weak justifications to poor excuses to outright delusions. Smotrich and Ben Gvir are as extreme as the warnings about them posit, whether you are talking about relations between Jews and Arabs, territorial maximalism, eliminating any independence from political interference of prosecutors and courts, or creating a permanent two-tiered system of citizenship based on ethnicity and religion, not to mention open demands to consign Palestinians in the West Bank to permanent stateless subjugation without even limited autonomy. Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s rise cannot be wished away, and the transformation taking place within segments of the religious Zionist and settler communities and the collapse of alternative religious Zionist parties means that Kahanist participation in—if not outright dominance of—religious Zionist politics will not be fleeting. Whether Israel’s political system and Israeli society gear up to recognize the gravity of the problem should Smotrich and Ben Gvir be the true winners on Tuesday, or instead offer the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” in the face of impending disaster, will go a long way toward indicating just how choppy the waters ahead will be for Israeli democracy, credibility, and basic liberal rights and values.