No, if you love Israel, you also have to love her for what she is today, right now. Israel is a thriving, fast-paced and tumultuous society. It is a place filled with an astonishing variety of people—kibbutzniks in the Galilee and ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, bohemians in Tel Aviv and mystical religious seekers in Sefat, gun-toting settlers in the West Bank and vineyard workers in the Golan Heights, tank commanders in the Negev and Arab merchants in East Jerusalem. Israel is a complex society, filled with contradictions, always grappling with the difficulties implicit in its identity as the world’s only Jewish state, a country surrounded by hostile neighbors, and the only democracy in the Middle East.
As you may know, Israel right now is preparing for national elections, a process that puts many of the country’s inner conflicts on display. This Tuesday, Israelis will vote for members of the new Knesset, the national parliament, choosing from a ballot on which no fewer than thirty political parties will be listed. It is likely that the new Knesset will include representatives from as many as a dozen of those parties.
Israeli politics can be frustratingly complex, even for those who read about it in the newspaper every morning over their coffee in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. American Jews tend to see the country as a monolith and don’t understand the many factions and conflicting issues that make up Israeli society. Tonight, I would like to take some time to give you an overview of Israeli society as reflected in next week’s election, and to offer some thoughts about what to look for when the election results come in.
First of all, you should know that Israel’s Knesset works on a system of pure proportional representation. That means that every party that receives at least 2% of the vote will have at least one representative in the 120 seat Knesset. It does not matter how geographically spread out those votes are. Any party that can gather about 65,000 votes from anywhere in the country will be in the Knesset.
Second, you should know that in the entire history of the State of Israel, no party has ever had a majority of Knesset seats. Every government Israel has ever had has been formed by a coalition — often a tenuous coalition — of parties that have some fundamental differences with each other.
After the last election, in 2009, for the first time in Israel’s history, the party that got the most seats in the election was not the party to form the government. The centrist Kadima Party, which was founded in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, won 28 seats but was unable to form a majority coalition around its platform of aggressively pursuing a land-for-peace negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority.
The government, instead, was formed by the right-of-center Likud Party, led by Israel’s once and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud was the runner-up in the 2009 election and formed a coalition that included the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, with which it is now virtually merged. Other coalition partners included the left-of-center Labor Party and the ultra-orthodox religious Shas Party.
Netanyahu has led Israel on a platform that endorses the formation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank as a long-term goal, but which says that the Palestinians must first relinquish all preconditions before negotiations can begin. Netanyahu also has been a strong backer of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and has allowed them to expand their communities. Palestinians, and many Jews on the political left in Israel, see the settlements as a barrier to the formation of a viable Palestinian state and charge that Netanyahu’s real goal is to delay any agreement with the Palestinians until a Palestinian state becomes a virtual impossibility.
Entering the 2013 elections, the issues of peace with the Palestinians has actually receded into the background of national attention. In recent years, there have been major social and political upheavals in Israel in opposition to cuts in social programs, lack of affordable housing, and a growing disparity between the rich and poor in Israel. The Labor Party, which for many years was the leading force for peace with the Palestinians, is now turning toward these socioeconomic issues. Labor’s current leader, Shelly Yachimovich, is regarded as a champion on housing, education and health issues. With that focus, the Labor Party is expected to do better in Tuesday’s election than it did four years ago, but not well enough to displace Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s office.
For those Zionist Jews who want to cast a clear vote for an immediate agreement with the Palestinians on peace and the creation of a Palestinian State, there is only one party left, Meretz. National polls show that nearly half of all Israelis agree with Meretz on moving quickly toward a peace settlement, but few of them will vote for such a staunchly left-wing party. Most of the pro-peace votes will go to the more mainstream Labor Party and a few centrist parties.
Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) focusses on political reform and an end to the government subsidies enjoyed by ultra-orthodox yeshivas. Hatnuah, another centrist party, is identified with its leader, Tzipi Livni, the former leader of the Kadima Party, which has fallen apart almost entirely.
Over on the right end of the political spectrum, Jewish Home is the new up-and-coming party, a coalition of pro-settler and right-wing religious groups. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, caused a stir in Israel when he said in a recent interview that if he were serving in the army, he would rather go to jail than follow an order to evacuate illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Some Israelis saw this as bordering treason, others thought it was heroic. The party is expected to have a significant position in the next Knesset with as many as 15 or 16 seats.
In a country where few people have a lifetime loyalty to any one party, Shas is a major exception. The Shas party is the stalwart of religious Jews of Sephardic or Middle Eastern descent — quite a large demographic in Israel, and a group that feels it has been discriminated against by the dominant Ashkenazic minority. Shas is synominous with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef; the party’s spiritual leader is rightly considered one of the greatest living authorities on traditional Jewish law. While his rulings are considered lenient in the world of ultra-orthodox Judaism — for example, he says that it is permissible for boys and girls to study together, until the age of nine — his agenda is far from the interests of Israel’s secular majority. In particular, as a condition for joining a government coalition, Shas would seek continued exemption from military service, and continued state funding, for ultra-orthodox yeshiva students.
Many secular Israelis — and some religious Israelis, too — have reached the point where they are no longer able to accept the idea that their taxes subsidize the endless Torah studies of tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox men who do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. The issue came to a head last February when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the law that exempts yeshiva students from military service is unconstitutional. (This in a country that does not have a constitution, but that’s another story.) Israel will soon be at a point where it must decide whether to tell the ultra-orthodox they must participate in the nation's defense.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that he favors a “more equal” obligation to service, but he has not been specific about what that would mean. Some of the other secular parties have taken stronger positions against the military service exemption. Almost all of the religious parties refuse to even talk about the issue.
Israel also has a few Arab parties which reliably hold a total of ten to twelve seats in the Kneset. This is to be expected as about fifteen to twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Muslim and Christian Arabs. Any other block that size could wield significant power in the Kneset, but this is not the case for the Arab parties. Since the founding of Israel, there has been a political taboo on including non-Jewish parties in the government. The political left can usually count on the votes of the Arab parties in the Kneset, especially on peace issues, but there is an equally strong taboo on passing any significant legislation on national security or peace without a majority of the Jewish members of the Kneset.
So, if you’ve been doing the math, you will have noticed that the next Kneset is likely to look like this: The current leading party of Likkud united with Yisrael Beiteinu will have something on the order of 35 to 40 seats, less than in the current Knesset, but more than enough to take the lead to form a new government. They will need to find coalition partners with twenty to twenty-five additional seats to find their majority in the Knesset. They will have two different ways to do this, or a combination of the two.
The easy way would be to look to their right, which is how the ruling coalition was formed in the last government. The Jewish Home party could get Netanyahu most of the way to a majority, even if it means giving a ministry or two to Naftali Bennett and his provocative remarks about defying orders to dismantle settlements. Add the religious party, Shas, to that, and Netanyahu would have his governing coalition.
Such a government could be counted on continue policies of building new settlements in the West Bank and further delays to changing the military exemption for ultra-orthodox yeshiva students. Under such a government, we could expect continued difficult relationships between Israel and the United States, which wants to see progress in peace talks with the Palestinians. It could also mean continued strains in Israel’s relationship with leaders in the American Jewish community, which wants to see liberalization in the recognition of non-orthodox Judaism, including the right of non-orthodox rabbis to officiate at weddings, conversions and funerals.
The baggage that goes with a solidly right-wing coalition might be uncomfortable for Netanyahu. Also, part of Netanyahu’s power comes from being seen as the best alternative for the interests of the settler’s movement and the right wing. He may not want to lend greater legitimacy to the parties on his right by placing them prominently in the government. Also, Netanyahu tends to be more of a political pragmatist than an ideologue, so he may choose to look to the center and the center-left to form his government. There he will find a viable path to a majority with the Labor Party, Yesh Atid and Hatnua as junior partners in the coalition.
Such a choice would deeply anger the ultra-orthodox, who would notice the Sword of Damacles hanging right over their military exemptions and government funding for yeshiva students. It would also suggest a willingness to be more cooperative with the Obama administration’s desire to see greater progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. That would anger the settlers and the right wing.
Netanyahu is probably waiting to see where the greater weight of votes falls in the election, to his right or to his left. Once he sees that, he can then play the center against the right, and the right against the center, to negotiate the best deal for himself — maybe a combination of right and center parties.
In reporting on the election, the American press will probably focus on the fact that Netanyahu will remain as Prime Minister. For Israelis, that is uninteresting. It's already a given. The more important question is how many votes go to the right — primarily the Jewish Home Party — and how many go to the center-left — primarily the Labor Party. That will probably tell the story of what kind of government, and what kind of policies, Israel will have for the next few years.
Sitting here, tonight, in Stuart, Florida, it may seem that such machinations 6,600 miles away are unimportant to us. In fact, they matter a great deal. Israel is the 64-year-old experiment in how a country ruled by Jewish values works in the real world. It isn’t easy and, occasionally, it gets pretty ugly. But it is real.
As American Jews, we can’t participate directly in the government of Israel, but we do show our love and our concern for Israel by taking the time to pay attention to an event that shows the issues that are most important to her.
Israel is a golden country and Jerusalem, her capital, is a focus of our prayers and dreams. Yet, it is a real place. We love her by seeing the political and social realities she lives with, as well as the dream.