A recent election reveals four interesting paradoxes about Israel


Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin will decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu (r) gets to form a new Likud government, or if that privilege will go to Benny Ganz (l), Netanyahu’s former top general and leader of the “Blue and White” party. The election revealed some interesting paradoxes about Israel. Read more.

To most Canadians, Israel is a very unusual state. Consider for example:

  • It was created in 1948 as a result of a UN decision to carve up what had been Palestine under a British mandate.
  • It still has never defined its own borders (which keep expanding).
  • It has been holding 4 million people under an indefinite occupation for more than 50 years.
  • It has been more criticized by the United Nations General assembly than any other nation.
  • It has been the largest recipient of US military aid every year for many years.
  • It is not legally the “State of its citizens” (as is the case in most countries), but the “state of the Jewish people”, over half of whom live in America, Canada or elsewhere.

What have the recent elections revealed?

In addition to these peculiarities, the recent hard-fought (some would say even vicious) Israeli election has shown some other unusual paradoxes in this unusual country.

Israel is BOTH a democracy AND not a democracy

Israel IS a vibrant democracy. There is universal suffrage for a 120 seat Knesset (parliament). Turnout was high both among Jews (70%) and Arabs (60%). Campaigning was vigorous. Over 20 parties competed. There is no evidence of election fraud. (Netanyahu claims of fraud and threat to put cameras in the polling stations, seen as a way to intimidate Palestinian Citizens of Israel was opposed and dropped.) The prime minister might well be defeated (something that is only possible in very few of the other states in the Middle East.)

Israel IS NOT a democracy. The State of Israel rules over 12 million people “from the river to the sea”. (See the map from Ynet’s electoral coverage. It shows ALL of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as “Israel”.)

electoral map of Israel

This map of Israel was used by a major Israeli television station in its election coverage.

But 4 million of the people under its rule are disenfranchised. They do not have the right to vote.

Only 8 million people, (its 6.5 million Jewish citizens, plus 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel) have that right.

Ironically, Jewish settlers living illegally in the West Bank can vote, while Palestinians living a few metres away do not have the right to vote for the government which controls their lives.

Israel is BOTH divided AND united

Israel is divided. The 20 parties running covered a very wide political spectrum. There was no clear winner. The two biggest parties, “Likud”, headed by Netanyahu, and “Blue and White” headed by Benny Ganz each won about 30 seats.  There is no love lost between them. Netanyahu accused Ganz (his former head of the Army) of being “unstable” mentally. Ganz accused Netanyahu of acting like a “dictator”. Now one or the other needs to cobble together a fractious “coalition” of many much smaller parties in order to have a majority in the Knesset. That will mean horsetrading, making promises (e.g. “if your 3 seats will support us, you can be head of the ministry of housing, or we will give more subsidies to settlers, etc.” Coalitions are by necessity unstable.

But Israel is also united. Of the 120 members of the new Knesset, 107 are firmly united in their support of Zionism, the idea that Israel belongs to Jews. (Only the 13 non-Jewish Palestinian Israeli members oppose this idea.) Nor was there any debate during the election over the recently passed “Jewish Nation State Law”, which enshrines the primacy of Jewish rights over those of other Israeli citizens.

Its also hard to see any differences between Likud and “Blue and White” in terms of policies towards the Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza.

Many Canadians (including many Jewish Canadians) were hoping that a Netanyahu defeat would signal a roll-back from Israel’s drift towards right-wing, ethno-nationalist, expansionist policies? But as the National Post observed, “There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns. (…) An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran, or the Palestinian conflict,”.

  • One example: Netanyahu promised to “annex” the Jordan Valley. Ganz said simply that “Israel will stay in the Jordan Valley”. 
  • Another example: Netanyahu said he “might be forced to attack Gaza”, the Ganz campaign emphasised how he was willing to “bomb Gaza back to the stone age”
  • A third example: In the new Knesset, only 5 Jewish members belong to parties that support a “2 state solution”. On that Israel is very united.

Some Palestinians were “INDIFFERENT” to the Israeli election, BUT others were very ENGAGED.

Many Palestinians said it wouldn’t matter who won. To the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, (who did not have the right to vote anyway) there did not appear to be much difference between Netanyahu and Ganz. Both candidates declared opposition to a 2 state solution. Both support the settlements.  Both oppose the right of return for the refugees. Both seem warlike.

But 60% of Palestinian voters inside Israel did care and hurried to the polls. To many of the Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCI), Netanyahu’s campaign was explicitly racist, based on raising fears among Jewish Israelis, claiming the “Arabs want to annihilate us”. They responded by voting in record numbers against Netanyahu. The  “Joint list” of Arab parties (with 13 seats) is now the 3rd largest political formation in the new Knesset (after Likud and “Blue and White”).

That will make a difference, though exactly how is not clear yet. If the two big parties join to make a government of national union (their differences are more about personalities than policies), the Joint List will become the Official opposition.

Alternatively, the Joint List might support Ganz to defeat Netanyahu. Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List said he would support a Ganz government on certain conditions. It remains to be seen whether Ganz will take up the offer and whether it will in fact, make much difference for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

Israel is BOTH a “Jewish State” AND a mostly secular country

Israel proudly declares itself a “Jewish State’. Every citizen must carry an ID card which immediately identifies the holder as Jewish (or not). Jews have preferential rights in education, housing, employment, while many obstacles face non Jews. Discrimination against non Jews (i.e.”Arabs”) is both widespread and legally in Israel.

But most Israelis are “secular”.  As Jonathan Cook explains in this short video, the 3 parties that got the most votes from Jewish Israelis (Likud and “Blue and White”, as well as the “Jewish Home” party) tend to support mostly secular policies – in favour of civil marriage (currently not allowed in Israel), equality for women, against gender segregation, etc. The religious parties, did not do particularly well.

What next?

Nobody is yet making predictions about which party will form the government or who will be Prime Minister.
It seems that the election may possibly have given the Palestinian Citizens of Israel some measure of leverage for defending their rights inside Israel, while not significantly changing the deplorable situation of those Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is a weekly newsletter which encourages and promotes a thoughtful discussion among Canadians on the Israel/Palestine issue, including a well informed and sensitive discussion about solutions. CTIP encourages serious people who disagree with any column to make comment. Disagreements respectfully offered are welcome. To learn more about what CTIP does, contact us at chair.ctip@gmail.com.



  1. The division is not quite as strict as some might believe. The Joint Arab List has one Jewish Member of the Knesset. (a very outspoken MK) and Gantz’s party has one Arab member. I am not sure about Likud but in the past they have had an Arab Member of the Knesset. I see this as a tiny ray of hope in a very dark scene.

    1. There were 5 Arab Members representing Zionist parties in the last Knesset. (The one that was dissolved in April).

      1. It was easy to find the data for the previous Knesset but not the present one. The important observation is that neither side is “pure”. The only healthy future for Palestine/Israel is one in which all ethnic groups cooperate and no laws discriminate between them.

  2. I think the above analysis should point clearly to a change of direction by the UN and various nations that have any influence on settlement of the whole issue. Israel from its creation has had as a major goal the absorption of all the land it now “occupies”. It has succeeded in that goal. For the rest of the world to keep going back to 1967 borders and a 2 state solution, simply represents an approach that has failed miserably and should now come to an end in light of Israel’s united front in both these matters. What should now happen is a recognition of Israel as the “owner” of the West Bank and require Israel to offer its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship. It must also grant all its non Jewish citizens equal human rights. If it won’t then a South African kind of ban on all dealings with the country could ensue justifiably, as anything less than offering all HUMAN rights equally would be equivalent to apartheid in South Africa. in most important respects. However, I think that for the time being equal POLICAL rights are problematic as it is clear Israelies stand firmly behind the notion of Israel being a Jewish state, whatever that really means. Here is where creative political thinkers could help create a solution to the voting issue eg. perhaps a bicameral legislature sitting in Jerusalem, one governing Paelstinian issues and elected by citizens who opted to vote for its reps, and one governing Jewish issues voted in by those opting to vote for is reps, with some matters requiring a majority in both legislatures to become law (budget?); with a bifurcated justice system dealing with each people; a uniform police force and army keeping law, order and security of the state in hand; and with an overriding Bill of Rights recognizing Israel as a Jewish state but granting all it’s citizens those rights normally associated with a liberal democratic society. While tackling the political equality issue would be difficult, I would think it is far more likely to lead to a successful resolution of issues than simply continuing on the failed line of argument for Israeli withdrawal and a 2 state solution. To continue along that line simply continues to allow the Israeli government to claim it is an “occuping” force and ignore Palestinian rights. It will take a long time for the enmity between these two peoples to die, if ever, but at least this kind of solution may lead them down the road to ultimate reconciliation in some future generation. And it could lead to reopening peace talks with a new framework and new ideas.

    1. I appreciate Jon Snipper’s critique of continuing to reference two states as a possible solution and instead to promote one state with equality, democracy and freedom for all.

      1. The old-new idea of a single democratic state that have been propped around recently as an alternative to the two state solution can be misleading.

        Much of the support to that idea comes from two groups: the diaspora Palestinians (including Gaza) and the Israeli settlers / political right

        The Palestinian imagine one state that will include Gaza and will grant citizenship to 1948 refugees from Lebanon Syria and Jordan

        The settlers imagine one state where the West Bank is annexed, but Gaza and the refugees are left out of the game

        if the the last 52 years thought us anything is that in a situation like that it will be the settlers who’ll get their wish

        abandoning the two state solution can backfire in the face of both nations

      2. Ahik: Abandoning the two-state solution is not possible because a two-state solution does not exist. I don’t think it ever did.

        What the Palestinians and their supporters want, and I believe will eventually get, is not just citizenship for all but an end to discrimination among citizens on the basis of what Israelis call “nationality”.

        What the settlers want (including those who still want Jews in Gaza) is not what others call the one-state solution because they do not want equality, i.e. the end of discrimination by “nationality”; they just want to steal more land,

        What we should have learned in the last 70 years is that the world has given birth to a monster state, one that accepts no boundaries, has no sense of justice and, is deeply divided among many fault lines. In addition to the obvious divisions between the two groups usually named, each of those groups is itself badly divided. As Abraham Lincoln, building on the Christian Bible, wisely said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Palestine/Israel must learn from history if it wants to avoid the experience of its staunchest ally, i.e. a long bloody civil war.

  3. 1. Israel is not a democracy and does not have universal suffrage. Israel claims all the land west of the Jordan. It refuses citizenship to the majority of non-Jewish peoples that are on that territory and have been for many centuries. In effect the minority rules the majority and that’s without counting those they expelled and live in other countries around the world. That is clear in government announcements and also in opposition claims. That it has not annexed the areas is a technicality. It is evidenced by their actions in dispossessing and forcibly relocating Palestinians.Their position is clear. By the same measures that Israel is a democracy then South Africa was too and the world wasn’t that blind. To pretend it is ignores reality.

    2. This is not truly indicative of a nation divided. Leaving aside the joint list they all favour the ongoing zionist project. And let’s be honest the joint list isn’t relevant as they will not be invited to be a part of the government at this time. Should they be then they will not be a part of the inner circle and will not control any ministry considered by Israel to be security related which is practically all. At best some form of tokenism but a start I guess.

    There may be a nation split but it’s not on issues reported or mentioned in your article. I frankly don’t know but if so the issues would likely be along the lines of social issues such as benefits for those in needy sectors. If so this is entirely the business of Israel as long as it doesn’t systematically violate human rights of a large identifiable sector.

    What we are seeing is a competition between leaders using questionable tactics in order to try to make themselves the nation’s leader. Trudeau/Scheer, Trump/Clinton/whomever, Johnson/Corbyn…. all those contests see a lot of extreme and unfair claims laid against each of the parties/leaders. Same for every competition going back in modern history.

    Are those nations, nations divided?

    3. Not sure about this one. The Palestinians were as engaged, and even more engaged than, voters inmany western nations. Reading something into it on a go forward basis seems a stretch but the reasons why they engaged is likely the analysis you present. Still not a paradox.

    4. Since I’ve typed so much I’ll short circuit this one. You seem to ignore that many Jews see being Jewish as diffirent things. A religion. An ethnicity. A people. A nation. There are no mass of secular Israeli Jews calling for a nation of all it’s citizens. It’s a Jewish nation for Jewish people. That’s uniformity of thought.

    No significant argument about the things you point out and your analysis of them other than they aren’t paradoxes really.

    Shorter me: Change the article title haha.

  4. I do follow the politics of Israel enough to appreciate that it is more likely that we will see climate change fully addressed and in the bag and a democratic China before we witness a functioning democracy in Israel/Palestine. My big concern at this time in Canada is its metastasis on our democracy and the deleterious effect on accurate news reporting.

    I am fairly knowledgeable on the above mentioned process but I am sure there are others following this forum who know far more than I do and I could use some edification.

    What I do know for sure with respect to news is that the web is swarming with pro Zionist trolls from the obvious like b’nai brith to Honest Reporting.

    When it comes to political funding, I know that large Jewish organizations fund any party in power or likely to be and suspect that most are hard line Zionist although the Jewish community is not monolithic by any means. It just seems to me that the liberal side is less flush. I know enough not to buy from Indigo as Reisman and her husband Schwartz heavily support Netanyahu policies. That brings up Nigel Wright. I just find it hard to believe that he gave up a top job at Onyx to become a flunky for Harper.

    The behavior of our two main parties (i.e. voting in the UN) has been bought off. Most of our parliamentarians can be bought off with paid junkets to the holy land. This practice has been condemned by the likes of The Globe & Mail and Democracy Watch, which I support.

    In the case of Justin Trudeau, he was literally crowned by the late Barry Sherman who held a political rally in Toronto. This was criticized as Sherman was a lobbyist but not followed up. Was Sherman a hard line Zionist or Trudeau naive enough to think any Jew would be happy with a Netanyhu supporting policy? With a light grip on ethics and honesty, he may also have an information deficit. Now the UN fell under Freeland, honest when convenient but it seems I read about some family baggage. Maybe Trudeau set the policy.

    Frankly, I was considering a spoiled ballot as my secular bent put me off Singh, as well as his Air India baggage but May now seems to have a better grip on the issues of this forum so even in my mid 80s there is probably no better time to go Green.

    This may be a tad off this thread but it addresses issues on my mind for some time. It may require a new thread for election time.

    1. Hey Bob, its my observation that very few Canadian Jews do not support the Zionist idea of a Jewish State. Some are “hardline” Zionists (Israel right or wrong) and some are “liberal Zionists” who desperately hope the Palestinians will agree to the creation of a Jewish State on most of the Palestinian land. But only a few courageous ones (including those in IJV Canada) have broken with Zionism completely.

      1. Yes Peter, I am aware that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in the Jewish community from the hard right Zionist hawks to the likes of David Kattenburg and the many Jews in
        Israel pleading for BDS. While, for years I have been an ardent supporter for the Palestinian cause. my overriding concern at this time is the Canadian political scene which I view as ethically challenged if not outright dishonest as I pointed out above.

        As you have said, Zionists do not control the CBC but I would accuse them of intimidation such as Honest Reporting. I believe they hit me. I commented on a SNC Lav. news item where two chaps were fined over donations. One reader said he was more concerned about what went under the table. I replied that you could assess that by their actions and mentioned UN voting over Israeli territorial predation. Content was disabled. Much later I copied and posted again under a stern warning about the facts and said that it was disabled due to bias, incompetence or trolling and disabling again would be dealt with vigorously. This time it flew.

        Also on the non-Jewish side of the debate I believe you mentioned the NRA but the largest group is the Evangelical Christians. They just vote. My concern is my counties politicians who have trouble passing a loaded trough and like the CBC are easily intimidated. I would think Holocaust Victims would be turning in their graves if they knew how the word “antisemitism” is abused today by people who should know the consequences.

Comments are closed.