The main lesson to be drawn from Israel's latest general election is that behind politics lies sociology. And that politics — or politicking — cannot trump sociology forever.
Israel has been steadily moving to the right over the past two decades, for at least three reasons: conservatives are family-oriented and have more children than liberals; the liberals' "peace agenda" has repeatedly failed; and the old Labor party, which actually founded the country and was the backbone of the Israeli Left, has disintegrated.
The head of the national-conservative Likud party and the longest-serving prime minister in the country's history, Benjamin Netanyahu, took note of these shifting conditions at an early stage. He acted accordingly, with much success.
However, Mr. Netanyahu had difficulties with many of his closest associates — the defense and then foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman; the interior minister Gideon Saar; and defense ministers Moshe Yaalon and Naftali Bennett — who, once they realized he had no intention of retiring, deserted him to start or relaunch their own parties.
None of them managed to challenge Mr. Netanyahu as Israel's most popular statesman (despite lingering judicial affairs) nor Likud as the country's largest political group. However, they deprived him of significant numbers of conservative voters, and thus, under an electoral law based on proportional representation, of a working majority at the Knesset.
Hence a succession of deadlocked elections in two years: two in 2019, one in 2020, a fourth one in 2021. By that time, most of the renegade conservatives had aligned with a secular left-of-center opposition party, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, and with Blue-White, a smaller Right-of-Centre party founded by former chief of staff Benny Gantz.
Still, one last group was hanging somewhere between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs: Mr. Bennett's party Yamina. With just seven seats in the newly-elected 24th Knesset, it could make the difference.
In terms of sociology, Yamina was still part of the Right: its voters were imbued with a mystical Zionist philosophy and many of them lived in Israeli settlements in Judaea and Samaria. In terms of politics, however, Mr. Bennett saw more opportunity with Messrs. Lapid and Gantz. Eventually, he cast his lot with them.
Mr. Bennett was to be prime minister for eighteen months, and then to "rotate" with Mr. Lapid. His calculation was perhaps also that once removed from the premiership, Mr. Netanyahu would lose his grip on Likud and the Right ; and that he himself would surge as a savior and take over. No professional gambler would have bet on such remote and uncertain circumstances.
The Yamina voters were simply horrified, as Yaakov Katz observed in the Jerusalem Post. The people they had voted for were now to side with the people they had voted against. Moreover, since even with Mr. Bennett's support the anti-Netanyahu bloc was still short of an absolute majority of 61 out of 120, it had to rely on the additional support of Ra'am, an Arab party.
True enough, Ra'am's leader Mansour Abbas had just declared his loyalty towards the State of Israel, something no Israeli Arab had dared to do hitherto. It was difficult, though, to overlook the fact that he had been for most of his career a militant Islamist and an anti-Zionist.
Mr. Bennett spent only twelve months as prime minister: he resigned on June 30, 2022, the day the 24th Knesset voted its own dissolution and convened the November 1 election. Politics were clearly catching up again with sociology, and the "legal country" with the "real" one.
Mr. Netanyahu was tightening his domination on the Right. Yamina voters were transferring en masse to Betzalel Smotrich's alternative Religious Zionist party, which was soon to include a radical group, Itamar Ben-Gvir's Jewish Power party.
National security developments, from pogrom-like Arab riots in mixed Arab-Jewish Israeli cities in 2021, to the return of Islamist terrorism in 2022, were vindicating the overall conservative predicament. So did the new context created by the Russia-Ukraine war.
It comes as no-surprise that, on November 1, Netanyahu's coalition rose to 64 seats from 52 seats in the outgoing Knesset: a 25 percent increase, all the more impressive since the turnout increased a bit as well, to 70.6 percent in 2022 from 67.4 percent in 2021.
The Right is now well above the 61 seats required for forming a government. Moreover, its two components have proved to be equally powerful, both in votes and seats. Likud won more than 1.1 million votes out of about 4.8 million, and 32 seats. Its three religious allies garnered about 1.2 million votes and 32 seats, an unprecedented success for them.
Among the liberals, Yesh Atid managed to rally about 850,000 votes and to rise to 24 seats now from 17 seats in 2021. However, unlike Likud, it cannibalized the votes of its own allies. The Gantz and Saar parties held 14 seats in the 24th Knesset: running as a single National Unity party in 2022, they have been cut down to 12 seats.
Mr. Liberman's group Israel Beiteinu regressed to 6 seats from 7, and Meyrav Michaeli's Labor party — the diminutive remnant of Shimon Peres' Labor, to 4 from 7. As for Meretz, the Far Left gadfly of Israeli politics, it vanished in the process, dropping to zero seats from 6.
On the 25th Knesset, Yair Lapid will doubtless be the Leader of the Opposition, an official position in Israel, but his former associates are not likely to forgive his tactics easily. "Lapid's campaign was a resounding failure," National Union's leader, Benny Gantz, observed on November 2. "He did not do his job as a coalition leader," thus comparing unfavorably with his conservative adversary.
Whereas Mr. Netanyahu was personally involved in the Smotrich-Ben-Gvir alliance, which helped them to rise to 14 seats from 6, Mr. Lapid did not pressure his two small socialist allies, Labor and Meretz, into merging and consolidating their own voting potential. Nor did he care much about the Arab vote.
Two ethnic Arab parties were represented in the 24th Knesset: the Joint List, with 6 seats, and Ra'am, with 4 seats. The latter's strategy of integration into the Israeli mainstream (which may have been influenced by the Abraham Accords of 2019) paid off, since it won an additional seat in the 25th Knesset.
As for the Joint List, it split into two groups who ran separately on November 1st. One of them, Hadash-Tal, won 5 seats. Yet the more extreme Balad party (which rejects the very existence of Israel) was eliminated.
Mr. Gantz and other critics contend that Mr. Lapid should have cared to rebuild the Joint List and thus prevent a big loss of Arab votes. "His neglect helped the Right to rise to unprecedented heights," pundits say. Indeed, when smaller parties do not reach the required 3.25 percent threshold to sit in the Knesset, their "lost votes" increase the share of the bigger parties.
Friends of Messrs. Lapid and Gantz, both in Israel and in the West (particularly American Democrats), have started a campaign against Messrs. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, whom they characterize as bigots, racists and fascists. Should they really be sorry that Balad sits not in the 25th Knesset ? One wonders.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a Ginsburg-Milstein Fellow at Middle East Forum, and editor emeritus of Valeurs Actuelles.