Israel had a party on Election Day. The weather was beautiful and people went to the beach and the parks by the tens of thousands. They were in a very good mood. And why not? For all the gloom and doom about Israel, its neighbors and its neighborhood, Israel celebrated its place in the very exclusive club of free and vibrant democracies. There are multiple parties (including the Pirate Party) and a free press to air the issues and the candidates. Women vote, ultra-Orthodox Jews — including ultra-Orthodox women — vote, poor people and rich people vote, Arab citizens vote. The Arab League, which explicitly rejects the legitimacy of the State of Israel, encouraged Israeli Arabs to get out the vote, something they didn’t do for the Saudi or Yemeni or Omani election. Oh, yeah, right — Arabs in those countries don’t get to vote; they have no elections.
The Google Doodle celebrated Israel at the polls.
The votes haven’t all been tallied, but a few things are clear about Israel and its electorate.
- Nearly 70% of Israelis voted. Remember, this is a country in which there is no early voting and there are virtually NO absentee ballots. (Diplomats stationed abroad and members of Israel’s Merchant Marine only.) If you want to vote, you go to the polls on Election Day. And they did.
- The guard has changed. Unexpectedly big winner Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) is 50 years old. Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) is 42. Shelley Yachimovich who inherited the venerable Labor Party is 52. Bibi Netanyahu — previously seen as the perennial youngster — is now the elder at 63. Women are in: Likud has 6 among its 31 expected seats; Yesh Atid has 7 in its 19; Habayit Hayehudi has 3 among its 12 seats; and Labor — headed by a woman — has 3 women in its 17 seats. (Seat numbers may change slightly as more votes are counted.)
- The issues have changed. Labor declined to talk about foreign policy, focusing on income inequality. Yesh Atid made its name on civil society issues, economic growth, education, drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the Army, and rooting out corruption in government. While not rejecting the mantra of a “two-state solution,” Yesh Atid would maintain the large settlement blocs and united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Habayit Hayehudi has been described as “a mixture of hard-right principles on the future of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and liberal ideas on social issues.” Likud has been the party of economic growth for years.
- Left, right and center have shifted. Left and right in the U.S. are terms with social significance: abortion, gay rights, taxation, guns, etc. Most Israelis are “left” on the U.S. social scale, but in Israel, left and right have been almost exclusively defined by a willingness to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for a political settlement. Polls in 2012, however, show that while 70.6% of Israelis favor negotiations with the Palestinians for peace, only 31% believe those negotiations will yield peace. It makes “land for peace” or “the two-state solution” less relevant to people’s definition of themselves — they may want meaningful negotiations, but they know they won’t get them. That makes “right-wing” or “left-wing” less important than a single position on a single issue such as drafting the Orthodox or income inequality. This is the reason for the startling rise of two parties that didn’t exist a year ago.
The American administration will want to cast the decline in Likud seats as a personal defeat for Netanyahu, hoping to find a more congenial partner. The Washington Post (no surprise) carried the President’s water, calling it both a “lackluster campaign” and a defeat for Netanyahu. (The U.S. should only have voter turnout figures like Israel.)
But the case could equally be made that since Netanyahu can make a coalition to HIS left (Yesh Atid) or to HIS right (Habayit Hayehudi), and because both of those parties can sit in a coalition with him and with each other — but neither can make a coalition to IT’S left or IT’S right, Netanyahu has emerged as the centrist and the kingmaker, more secure in a broader base.
None of the above means Israelis no longer care about security or that Iran has ceased to be a threat. But there is maturity in understanding that Israel does not control the decision of the Iranians to build a bomb, or the ability of Hamas and Fatah to find unity, or the ability of the Palestinian movement in general to accept the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. It is out of the Israeli voter’s hands to determine how the President of the United States views Israel and its houses. Israeli voters expect their government to secure and protect them the best it can. They wanted the government to have taken a harder line against Hamas in the November fighting in Gaza, but there was no rebellion against Likud on that score.
Israeli voters chose parties committed to issues that affect them on a daily basis, while the constellation of parties — center-left, center and center-right — appears committed to a secure Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.
That, plus the youth movement and rising female representation, is something to celebrate in a democracy that has emerged and triumphed in dangerous and inhospitable soil.