Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party, is closer today to losing power than at any other point since he assumed office 12 years ago. Following an unprecedented period of polarizing crisis, with four elections in two years, a diverse medley of opposition parties are working together to form a new government.
Among the multiple forces that have together brought about this fraught political moment, the rise of the “Never-Netanyahu” right stands out. And, yes, there are interesting parallels between the Never-Netanyahu right in Israel and Republican Never-Trumpers in the United States — what’s happening in Israel sheds light on how different electoral systems facilitate political change.
Not all of Israel’s political divisions are about ideology
Divisions between a dovish left and a hawkish right have long defined Israel’s highly fragmented party system. Yet during the past couple of years, Israeli politics has increasingly become not only a competition between left and right — but also between the pro-Netanyahu and Never-Netanyahu blocs. One side sees Netanyahu as the protector of Israel, while the other considers him an immediate threat to Israeli democracy. Netanyahu’s indictment on bribery and fraud charges and his combative stance toward the Israeli legal system have only further polarized how Israelis feel about their prime minister.
While these ideology-based and leader-based cleavages are closely related, they do not overlap. It is the interplay between these two cleavages that has opened the door to the rise of the Never-Netanyahu right — as our ongoing research shows.
How we did our research
We conducted a panel survey — interviewing respondents multiple times throughout our study — that asked a representative sample of Jewish Israelis about their political views and feelings toward Israel’s parties and leaders. Our sample is limited to Jewish respondents due to lack of infrastructure for running a panel survey among a representative sample of Palestinian citizens of Israel. We interviewed the same individuals nine times over two years (2019-2021) and throughout four elections, which allows us to examine whether and how they changed their political preferences.
In one of our surveys, we asked our respondents how they feel toward Netanyahu on a scale from 0 (negative feelings) to 10 (positive feelings). We also asked respondents where they locate themselves ideologically on a scale that ranges from 0 (far left) to 10 (far right). This allows us to explore the relationship between the left/right ideological cleavage and the pro/anti-Netanyahu cleavage.
Here’s what we found
The figure below shows how our 1,499 respondents are spread across the two dimensions: left-right ideology (x-axis) and feelings toward Netanyahu (y-axis). As we can expect, more leftist respondents tend to express more negative feelings toward Netanyahu. We found that responses clustered into two camps: those at the bottom-left quadrant are Never-Netanyahu leftists, and those at the upper-right quadrant are the pro-Netanyahu right-wingers.
Yet while there are almost no pro-Netanyahu leftists, there is a sizable minority of Never-Netanyahu right-wingers, shown in the red box. This is a small segment of the right, but Israel’s proportional electoral system can empower small groups of voters.
Why is this finding important?
Israel’s electoral rules are proportional. To simplify a rather complicated formula, seats in the Israeli parliament are divided more or less proportionally between parties that pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. This leads to a fractured party system with a comparatively high number of parties in parliament.
In the last election, held in March, the recently formed New Hope party entered parliament. Led by former ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party, New Hope sought to mobilize the Never-Netanyahu right. It gained only six seats out of 120 in parliament, which supporters considered a painful disappointment; yet these six seats proved highly consequential.
The pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc won 59 seats — leaving it two seats short of the majority required to form a government and keep Netanyahu in office. New Hope’s six seats in parliament — together with other forces on the anti-Netanyahu right, namely the Yisrael Beiteinu party — were thus just enough to deprive Netanyahu of a majority. Small parties can have big effects in proportional systems.
What are the parallels with U.S. ‘Never-Trumpers’?
Comparing the relative success of the Never-Netanyahu right with the relative failure of the Never-Trump Republicans illustrates how electoral systems shape politicians’ constraints and opportunities.
Both groups represent minorities within their respective political camps: Most Israeli right-wingers are pro-Netanyahu, and most Republicans are pro-Trump. Yet this is more or less where the similarity ends.
Here’s why: Israel’s proportional electoral system enabled the small Never-Netanyahu right-wing party New Hope to deprive Netanyahu of a majority with less than 5 percent of the vote. In the American two-party system, there is no such realistic path forward for Republican Never-Trumpers. It is no surprise then that observers suggest Never-Trumpers focus their efforts on reforming the U.S. electoral system and making it more proportional.
Israeli leftists from various parties worked tirelessly to beat Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition at the polls for many years. But their efforts failed, again and again. There is historical irony in the fact that after Netanyahu’s 12 years in power, it’s the Never-Netanyahu right that has brought him closer than ever to losing power.
Noam Gidron is assistant professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter @NoamGidron.
Lior Sheffer is assistant professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. Find him on Twitter @LiorSheffer.