Today, Israel held its parliamentary election, where voters decided which parties would have representation in the Knesset (Israeli congress), and how many seats in the Knesset each party would get. A new prime minister is often also chosen at this time. Election day in Israel is sort of a mini-holiday, where people go to the polls and get off from work. There are approximately 8 million people living in Israel today, and yet, its election is arguably as important as the American one, despite the population difference of well over 200 million people! Most Americans rightly wonder why the political goings on of a country 475 times smaller than the U.S. matter. Well, that’s an excellent question. Israel as a whole has been under a collective international microscope ever since it declared independence in 1948. This in itself is a slightly disturbing phenomenon that has especially increased recently, but its an issue that is far beyond the scope of this post. However, I can answer the general question.
The Israeli elections are incredibly important and have relevance to Americans today because as the year 2013 dawns on us, there are a host of looming domestic and international problems that Israel and the United States will have to solve creatively together, or else face the dire consequences of inaction and partisanship. A fanatical Iranian regime run by fundamentalist Shia Muslims could very well acquire and test nuclear weapons by as early as this coming summer. Their leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, is totally bent on the destruction of the ‘Great Satan,’ the United States, and the total annihilation of the ‘Zionist entity,’ Israel.
Moreover, the Palestinian people demand equal representation in the United Nations and around the world. They demand equal rights, fair government and good living conditions. The Palestinians deserve all of these things, but somehow, none of their governmental bodies, be they Hamas in Gaza (labeled a terrorist organization by the State Dep.) or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have been able to meet the needs of this growing people. And besides for these pressing concerns, Israel also has a whole host of domestic issues that need to be addressed. For one, the Ultra-Orthodox bloc in Israel, for the most part, refuses to serve in the Israeli army. Instead, the government gives stipends to Ultra-Orthodox students learning in yeshiva, and they are thus exempted from the army. This arrangement worked well in Israel’s early years when there was a tiny population of ultra-orthodox Jews. However, today, chareidim, or the ultra-orthodox, have exploded in population to nearly 800,000 people, and they are now Israel’s fastest growing sector. Because of this, the Israeli government spends millions of shekels every year paying students to learn in yeshivas, while secular universities.
In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of housing, food, and other living expenses. There has been sustained criticism ever since of the Israeli government by a segment of Israel’s population who feel that it is insensitive to the needs of the working and middle classes in Israel.
Enemies internal and external besiege Israel. Even though the United States government gives Israel billions of dollars ever year in foreign aid, the relationship right now is not what it could be. Obama and Netanyahu have each done their share to stall progress in their working relationships, and by extension, their two countries’ alliance. Whether they like it or not, Israel heavily relies on American aid and defense help in order to remain strong. For 60 years, the U.S. has understood that our only democratic partner in the Middle East that shares core values like freedom, democracy, and innovation is Israel.
However, in recent years, tensions have flared between these two nations. The U.S. has become impatient with Israeli building of settlements, and inability to negotiate effectively with the Palestinians. Israelis in turn are fed up with the constant U.S. involvement in their political state of affairs. Because of these concerns, both countries get weaker. As we enter a future that could potentially lead to much violence and bloodshed, the United States needs to reaffirm its commitment to remaining an ally with Israel, and Israel in turn needs to realize that without U.S. help, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Israelis to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The election today will be a major factor in answering some of these burning questions. Although all the votes have not been counted, it is almost guaranteed that Benjamin Netanyahu will serve a second term as Prime Minister.
However, Netanyahu’s right-wing political party, a combination between Likud and Yisrael Beitenu faired relatively poorly compared to experts’ estimates. The party’s number of seats dropped from 42 to 31. It still remains the largest faction in the 120 member Knesset, but because of how Israel’s political system works, its power is greatly diminished, as I will explain later. A huge surprise of this election was the overall weakening of the right wing partys’ power in Israel. An upstart center-left party, Yesh Atid, garnered 19 seats. Its head Yair Lapid demands an end to the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, and the giving of stipends to yeshiva students. The centrist Labor party got 17 votes, which is significant, but representative of a great reduction in its power. A new hard line right wing aimed at Zionist religious Jews, Habayit Hayehudi, won 12 seats, according to exit polls. Shas, a party run by and for ultra-orthodox Jews of sefaradic heritage, won between 11-13 seats, and increased its power. The other ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, won 6 seats.
The strong showing of center-left and centrist parties was a huge shock to many pollsters and journalists. Israelis were thought to have shifted sociologically into more right wing frames of thinking, which should influence how they vote, but didn’t.
As I mentioned briefly earlier, Israel has a unique political system that demands the ruling party to form a majority coalition with other parties of similar ideologies. Netanyahu as the winner says he wants to form a broad-based coalition government, which will hope to include as many parties as possible to gain a majority. However, as of now, it is unclear who Netanyahu will try to persuade to join him. He will have to make concessions and compromises either way, whether he chooses to form a more centrist government with Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, or if he decides to head right and create a coalition with more hard line right wingers like Naftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi, or perhaps even the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas, and United Torah Judaism.
As of current exit polling, it appears that neither the right wing nor the left wing will be able to form any government without the help of the ultra-orthodox parties, who together make up 19 seats. Therefore, it is likely that the big winners of this election are the rapidly growing chareidim. If they join a coalition, they will ensure that the new government continues the de facto policies regarding stipends and army exemptions. However, Netanyahu is a secular Jew who really doesn’t have the same priorities as the religious parties. It is very likely that he will make some tough compromises, and try to bridge the right wing Habayit Hayehudi party with the centrist Yesh Atid, and thus avert having to deal with the ultra-orthodox parties.
In this hypothetical scenario, Israel will end up forcibly drafting the chareidim into the army, which could lead to rioting and even actual civil war. After all, a slew of ultra-orthodox widely respected Rabbis and heads of yeshivas have come out and told their students to go to jail rather than fight in the army. Some went as far as to invoke Jewish law, and claim that fighting for Israel is a case of “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor, which, loosely translated, means chareidim should die rather than serve in the army. This is not just talk. Naftali Bennet, the head of the Zionist national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party was verbally harassed and pushed by a mob of chareidim as he prayed at the Kotel in Jerusalem just this past week. Events like this show the uncertainty and volatile nature of Israel’s political situation.
I advise all the readers of this blog to stay informed regarding Israeli affairs and politics, because in the coming days and months, our shaky relationship with Israel will depend on mutual respect and level-headedness. Whichever parties end up sitting in the majority government will have to deal with issues and controversies that will need their immediate attention and total focus. I hope all parties involved understand the tremendous challenges at hand, and are prepared to compromise and negotiate in order to secure a better future for everyone.
On a side note, I am interested to know what you all think about the Israeli political system. To most Americans, it seems awfully strange to have as many as 5 political parties running in an election, as opposed to our two-party system. The whole idea of establishing a coalition is also foreign to the American political arena. Coalitions require negotiations, compromise, and mutual-respect. Those are all characteristics that are markedly absent from the U.S. congresses of recent memory. Do you think it would be possible to create coalitions between members of both parties that agree on more than they disagree in our current U.S. government? I’m not so sure.
On another side point, in the Israeli election, about 75% of all eligible voters exercised their right to vote and went to the polls. That has not happened in America in at least sixty years, if not longer. In the past few presidential election cycles, a little over half the eligible population voted. My question to you is, why do so many more Israelis percentage-wise vote than Americans? We have the greatest democracy in the world, and have been the prime example of fair elections and good government for years. With that in mind, why do so few Americans participate in the great dance of democracy and vote?