KIBBUTZ KFAR RUPPIN, Israel — On Jan. 22, after three months of ruthless campaigning, 67.3 percent of eligible Israeli adults casted their votes. The election constituted a referendum on the Likud government and made former TV anchor Yair Lapid a kingmaker, but it gave no one a clear mandate to lead the country.
A grueling process of political horse-trading will be this splintered Knesset’s only hope of producing a functioning coalition.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party lost 11 of its 42 seats because his Likud administration failed to properly address the pertinent concerns of the wider Israeli public. For one thing, he neglected calls for a re-evaluation of the place of orthodoxy in the Jewish state.
Essentially, many progressive Israelis perceive the role Judaism plays in governance as a necessary evil. To them, Jewish democracy is as oxymoronic as Islamic republicanism. On the other hand, religious Jews see the secularization of Israel as one of the state’s biggest threats.
The “rabbis” of the Knesset — Shas (Sephardi) and United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi) — pursue religious social policies, financially support their constituency, and oppose army service for the ultra-religious. These parties create real problems on the national level. Their presence imposes religion on a largely secular population and exempts haredim from mandatory national service. Furthermore, it’s virtually impossible to form a government that excludes the Shas or UTJ.
Of course, the machinery of democracy has tried to check the effects of religious policies. Israel’s supreme court struck down the controversial Tal Law, which exempted haredi Jews from military service, as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, Israel’s precarious existence disallows a constitution and Netanyahu remained passive.
Netanyahu’s other failings were of a foreign policy and economic nature.
Geopolitically, the Middle East has experienced tremendous changes in recent years. Revolutions in Syria and Egypt have eroded the average Israeli’s sense of security. Additionally, Netanyahu was criticized for spending extravagant amounts of money on hawkish rhetoric with Iran during the wrong U.S. administration. Closer to home, rockets from an emboldened Hamas fell in Tel Aviv, bolstering the terrorist organization and supplanting the PLO. The two-state solution is tentatively deceased and Netanyahu is often blamed for its passing.
In 2011, massive “social justice” demonstrations implored the government to enact economic reforms to combat the high price of living. Signs that read “Bibi is only good for the rich” were a common site in any city during the election cycle. Young veterans of the IDF are having a difficult time supporting themselves financially in the present economy. Servicemen and women are the heart and soul of Israeli society, and their voices are not taken lightly. Again, Netanyahu was criticized for inaction by an impatient public.
Certainly, Likud was supposed to be weakened due to the aforementioned circumstances but few expected the centrist tendencies of the voter on Election Day. Frustration with the Palestinian peace process was meant to strengthen religious, nationalist parties such as The Jewish Home, which proposes a partial annexation of the West Bank. Economic uncertainty seemed to justify Labor’s socialist policies. Few expected the surging success of Yair Lapid and his party, Yesh Atid.
Lapid, a former news anchor, had no previous political experience and was mocked for his entrance into politics. However, the crafty newsman learned from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election. He ran an energetic campaign that didn’t get bogged down by its promises or policies. His campaign slogan — “we came to change” — was a combination of “yes we can” and the all-capital “change,” two battle cries of the former U.S. senator from Illinois. Israel’s youth was enthused by Lapid’s copious use of the first person plural.
Instead of playing partisan politics in the bothersome quarrels over peace and war or capitalism and socialism, Lapid focused on an issue that invokes the very principles of democracy. Yesh Atid championed the cause of national service for all, including Arabs and haredim. Lapid vowed not to sit in a government with ultra-religious politicians and thus won the hearts of young idealists demanding equality.
Of the 34 parties on the ballot, 12 received seats in the Knesset. The large number of medium sized parties accurately represents the Israeli political landscape but makes it virtually impossible to build a coalition. Election of the 19th Knesset seemed to reaffirm that for every two Jews there are at least three opinions. Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” This round of elections proved to us that Jewish democracy is no exception to Churchill’s wisdom.
With the United States as a strong ally and the Jewish knack for money management, it seems that Israel’s most pressing questions regard her relationship with Judaism. How will the millennia-long fracturing of Jewish unity and practice reflect on our state? In the end, it all depends on us.
(Asher Wiseman, 17, of Pittsburgh, is a Diller Fellow who now attends Gaon Hayarden High School and lives in Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel. He writes a monthly column on Israel for the Chronicle, from a young person’s perspective.)