Is Naftali Bennett Israel’s Ted Cruz? Comparisons to help you make sense of the Israeli election.
Keeping track of the myriad players in Israel’s election on Tuesday can be dizzying, even though we’ve seen this movie before, as this is the Jewish state’s fourth balloting in less than two years.
For confused Americans who want to follow along but are unsure how to understand all of the major players — what’s the difference between the New Right and right-wing New Hope parties, again? — here are some parallels between Israeli politicians and their American counterparts. Yes, we’ve cast incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as former U.S. President Donald Trump, but we’ll come back to them later; in a sea of hardened politicos and fresh faces, Netanyahu’s name is the most familiar, and so, in some ways, the least interesting.
These aren’t exact correlations, and any devoted observer of Israeli politics might well choose other ones. Making these judgments is an act of imagination — and of satire — not a science. Either way, apologies to both sides.
Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party currently serves as the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset, and his closest analogue in U.S. politics would probably be the dissident anti-Trump Republicans of the Lincoln Project.
Like the Lincoln Project Republicans, Lapid’s opposition to Netanyahu is not rooted in a strongly considered ideology. For both, opposition to the right-winger in power is rooted in the sense that their personal behavior — crass, indecent and corrupt — makes them an embarrassment to their respective countries. That’s why Lapid, who proudly proffers himself as a centrist, seems to spend more time attacking Netanyahu for personal corruption than on any ideological grounds. And much like the Lincoln Project Republicans, when it comes to, say, immigration policy, one should not expect Lapid to have a significantly different approach than Netanyahu does toward the Palestinians.
Gen. Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party has had a pretty circuitous political trajectory, going from running against Netanyahu in 2019 to joining a coalition government with him in April 2020 to leaving that coalition just eight months later, helping to precipitate this new round of elections. He insists he has “no regrets” over joining a Netanyahu government — but also that he would not do it again.
In this sense, Gantz is probably most analogous to Gen. Jim Mattis, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration before resigning in shame because, as he told The Atlantic, he “had no choice.”
General Mattis eventually denounced his former boss as “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.” But he’s stood by his choice to join the administration in the first place, saying in 2019 that “If a Republican or Democrat president calls you and says I want you to do something, you don’t sit up on the wall of the castle, wringing your hands. You don’t pull a Hamlet saying, ‘No, should I do it or not?’ Just go to work.”
Both Mattis and Gantz have also tried, with middling success, to leverage their military backgrounds to make it seem as though they’re somehow above partisan politics.
Ayman Odeh, who leads the political alliance of Israeli Arab parties known as the Joint List, is the highest-ranking non-Jewish politician in the Knesset. He identifies as a socialist, and says that his Joint List offers “the true alternative on the political map” to Netanyahu and, indeed, to all of the Jewish-led political parties in Israel.
In this sense, one might compare Odeh to Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Both come from historically marginalized communities within their own countries, experiences that have informed their politics in significant ways.
Jayapal, like Odeh, is willing to work with more center-left politicians when necessary, but openly keeps them at arms’ length. And it isn’t a coincidence that Odeh calls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whom Jayapal endorsed and campaigned for in the 2020 Democratic primaries, a friend.
Gideon Sa’ar, leader and founder of the new right-wing New Hope Party, grew up in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and first caught international attention in 2019, when he ran an ill-fated campaign to oust Netanyahu from the party’s leadership. Since then, he’s continued to serve as a sharp critic of the prime minister, although — like Lapid — his criticisms focus almost entirely on Netanyahu’s personal corruption rather than any ideological differences.
In this sense, his closest American analogue would be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Minority Leader.
Early on in the Trump administration, McConnell made a calculated decision to form an alliance of convenience with President Trump. In 2017, Trump described his relationship with McConnell as “outstanding,” while McConnell said that he and the ex-president were “together, totally, on this agenda to move America forward.”
But after the Jan. 6 storming at the Capitol that made Trump a potential political liability for Republicans, McConnell turned on him, denouncing Trump’s involvement with the declaration that “74 million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage that provoked it. One person did. Just one.” Notably, this was a denunciation of Trump’s political and rhetorical style, not his actual political positions.
Sa’ar and McConnell: For those who basically want the agendas of Netanyahu and Trump, but with less embarrassing personal presentations.
For the first 30 years after the founding of the state, Israel’s Labor Party was dominant. But after a historically poor showing in the last round of elections, many observers said that the party was dead. Don’t mourn yet: Polls show new signs of life for Labor under the leadership of pioneering feminist activist Merav Michaeli.
The closest parallel to Michaeli in U.S. politics might be Vice President Kamala Harris. Both are path-breaking female leaders who have confronted tremendous amounts of institutional sexism in their careers. Both represent generational changes in the politics of their countries.
Both combine liberal social views with much more centrist views on foreign policy; Michaeli has criticized the further-left Meretz Party for its support for an International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli war crimes, while Harris has resisted calls from the left to condition military aid to Israel on Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank.
Naftali Bennett leads the New Right party, which aims to unify right-wing religious Zionist and right-wing secular voters. (Whatever their differences over the role of the rabbinate in Israeli society, New Right’s voters oppose a Palestinian state and support unilateral West Bank annexation, which would effectively transform Israel from a de facto into a de jure apartheid state.)
Bennett has combined a consistent commitment to far-right policies with a shifting personal relationship to Netanyahu, going from serving as his chief of staff to threatening to leave his coalition. In this sense, Bennett most closely parallels — albeit in reverse — Sen. Ted Cruz, who has also been a consistent leader of the far-right in the U.S., and who has also combined great personal enmity with Trump and strategic support for the former president.
(The difference: Bennett and Netanyahu went from alliance to enmity, while Cruz and Trump went from enmity to alliance.)
Bennett aims to position himself as a kingmaker after next week’s elections, hoping that the support of his party will determine whether Netanyahu can form a coalition or not. That likely means we’ll be stuck with Bennett for a while — just like we’re probably stuck with Cruz.
Avigdor Lieberman, born in the former Soviet Union, leads the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which finds its strongest base of support among Russian-speaking immigrants.
Lieberman’s party combines far-right positions on Palestinian issues with a desire to weaken the authority of the Israeli rabbinate over Israeli civil affairs through policies such as allowing public transit to run on Shabbat and creating a path to civil marriage not run through the rabbinate. Since much of Netanyahu’s support comes from Orthodox religious Zionist parties, his relationship with Lieberman has been naturally fractious.
For Lieberman’s U.S. parallel, consider Sen. Mitt Romney, another politician who calls himself “severely conservative” but whose unique experience as a member of a minority community has led him to very publicly break with Trump.
While one is a devout Mormon and the other staunchly secular, hear me out: Romney cites his Mormon faith, a religion with a history of being attacked as un-American, as a reason for his opposition to Trump, just as Lieberman’s experience as the leader of a community that has often had to fight to defend its status in Israel has led to his fractured relationship with Netanyahu.
Finally, Itamar Ben-Gvir leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, a party so extreme and bigoted that it backs the expulsion of Israeli Arabs from the state. Ben-Gvir presents himself as a loyal follower of the far-right Meir Kahane, whose Kach organization is classified as a terrorist group by the United States. In a sane, humane polity, Ben-Gvir, who admires Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, would come nowhere close to political power.
Unfortunately, in a desperate bid to save his political career, Netanyahu has welcomed Ben-Gvir into his coalition. In this sense, Israel perhaps offers us a warning for what will happen if the Republican Party does not repudiate its farthest right elements, such as the substantial QAnon faction of the party or the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
Thus, the closest parallel to Ben-Gvir in the United States is probably Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, an avowed conspiracy theorist who has publicly embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory and who famously claimed that the California wildfires were ignited by space lasers owned by the Rothschilds, the Jewish banking family that has figured prominently in antisemitic conspiracy theories for centuries.
Like Ben-Gvir, Greene’s far-right views should be kept far away from power in a healthy polity. But just as Netanyahu has shown himself willing to overlook Ben-Gvir’s open support for expelling Arabs from Israel, so too have Republicans proven themselves willing to overlook Greene’s extremism, with Trump going so far as to call her a “future Republican star.”
Which brings us back to the top. Any amateur can compare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former President Trump — but it’s still valuable to think about why.
Both are fond of deploying attacks on the news media as “fake news,” while remaining obsessed with the media coverage they receive.
Both rely on racist demagoguery, as when Trump baselessly accused cities with large Black populations of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and Netanyahu whipped up some of his supporters in January by claiming that Israeli Arabs were “heading to the polling stations in droves.”
And both men needed to stay in power to avoid legal consequences for their alleged financial misdeeds. Now that Trump is no longer protected by the office of the presidency, prosecutors are looking into financial fraud at his company, and he’s facing a current count of 29 pending lawsuits. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing a much-delayed trial after being indicted on charges of corruption in 2019, and has tried to use his incumbency to stall movement from the courts. If he loses the premiership, his hand, like Trump’s, suddenly looks much weaker.
If you aren’t satisfied with these comparisons between Israeli and American politics, don’t fret. Analysts say there’s a good chance these elections will also fail to produce a stable coalition, potentially bringing a fifth election — and a chance to do this all over again.
Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.