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Election in Israel: What Happened and What’s Next

As the Jewish community enters a new year, we have about as much clarity on the future of the Israeli government as we did last year. In other words, very little. After being tasked by President Rivlin to form a government, Netanyahu has not yet been able to negotiate an agreement with Benny Gantz, and as his pre-indictment hearings have already begun the threat of a third election looms over Israeli society. It can be difficult to not feel a little lost and overwhelmed when it comes to understanding and interpreting everything occurring in Israel. Because of that, I appreciated the chance last Monday to attend an event sponsored by Boston Partners for Peace and the Israel Policy Forum featuring Rachel Fish of the Singer Family Foundation and Michael Koplow of Israel Policy Forum discuss their points of view on the election results and potential paths forward, as well as the current state of Israeli society, generational divides, American Jewish relations with Israel, along with a host of other topics. While they discussed everything from the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to the possibility of annexation, a few points stood out to me that felt worth sharing.

First, while this past election looks very similar to the previous one on the surface, there are a few key differences that Michael Koplow enumerated. First, the collapse of Likud. While their 32 seats does not seem like a huge downgrade from the 35 they won in April, when you include their absorption of Kulanu and their 4 seats, and Likud's agreement with Zehut to withdraw from the election and encourage their voters to vote for Likud, Likud's election result is actually a net loss of 8 seats, from 39 to 31, and 300,000 fewer votes, a sharp contrast to their April election results.

Second, while this election was unprecedented in a number of ways, one of the most surprising was the participation of Arab Israeli citizens. Back in April, the Arab voter turnout was below 50%, and the parties received just 10 seats. This time around, all four primarily Arab parties banded together as the Joint List, and thanks to Arab voter turnout increasing to 59%, the Joint List received 13 seats. This is notable for a few reasons, including their presence as the third largest party in the Knesset, and the possibility of Ayman Odeh becoming opposition leader. Additionally, prior to President Rivlin choosing Netanyahu to form a government, the Joint List endorsed Benny Gantz, the first time Arab parties have endorsed a Zionist for prime minister since 1992. No matter the outcome, it is heartening to see increased Arab participation in Israeli democracy. It is hard to predict exactly what it means, but it hopefully represents an increased interest in Arab Israelis exercising their rights to have their voices heard and their perspectives taken into account as citizens of Israel.

My third main takeaway about election results was offered by Rachel Fish as she cautioned us against reading too much into the success of Kahol Lavan (Blue & White), viewing their votes as more of a rejection of Likud than of support for Blue and White. Some of this stems from how Blue and White has positioned themselves, not as a left-wing party, but a center-right party aimed at forming a unity Government with Likud. Due to the vagueness of the Blue and White platform and positioning, it is hard to know what they stand for exactly. Thus, their votes are less a reflection of true support for Blue and White and rather reflect their successful positioning as the best alternative to Likud and Netanyahu.

While Michael and Rachel spent a lot of time helpfully breaking down the specific election results, they also addressed issues in Israeli society, and how that impacts not just this current electoral moment but the larger direction of the country. Some of this can be seen in the continued decline of the Left in Israel. With just Labor, the Democratic Union, and the Joint List representing the Left, this once strong ideology in Israel is down to a mere 24 seats in this current Knesset. There are many reasons for this shift over the years, but one of the most intriguing to me is the impact that younger generations have had on the Left's decline. As Rachel explained, the main focus of younger generations in Israel is security. Growing up with intifadas, security barriers, and rocket fire, young voters can’t imagine what it looks like to not be on the defensive. And, as Michael explained, the Left has offered no real security plan or position, and until they manage this, their hopes of capturing younger votes will likely be futile.

To me, one of the most alarming issues that has been raised in the last two elections was the possibility of annexation. As this threat has been simultaneously dismissed by some as pure electioneering and highlighted by others as a slippery slope away from democracy, it can be hard to fully understand not just the possible impacts of annexation, but also where the issue now stands. Israel Policy Forum has an excellent brief on the threat of annexation, but in short, even partial annexation runs the possibility of contributing to the collapse of the PA. And, because of the interdependence between Israel and the West Bank on security and administrative matters, and a need to ensure that there is no repeat of the Gaza disengagement, the collapse of the PA quickly puts Israel in the situation that experts have been warning about for years: having to choose between giving citizenship to millions of Palestinians and setting the country on a path toward being a non-Jewish state, or sacrificing its democracy for the sake of its Judaism. Either way, the consequences of annexation are serious and we can thus breathe a slight sigh of relief that due to the weakened support for Likud, and the possibility of a unity government, the immediate threat of annexation has been diffused.

While this summary barely scratches the surface of the insight that Michael and Rachel offered at the event, there was one final takeaway that I think is worth pondering. When asked what all of this means for American Jews, Rachel took the time to remind us what can be so easy to forget when we get sucked into the world of Israeli politics - that Israel is not America, and Israeli Jews are not the same as American Jews. This does not just show up in our differing voting patterns, as American Jews vote overwhelmingly Left, and Israelis clearly lean to the right, but even in the ideological frameworks of our countries. Though founded by European Jews, Israel has become increasingly culturally Middle-Eastern (associated with Mizrahi Jews who fled to Israel from surrounding Arab countries), and is only going to continue down that path. The biggest issues for most American Jews - religious pluralism and a two-state solution - are not issues that are going to be solved by a unity government, and we likely won’t even see much progress on these issues with new Israeli leadership. To project our viewpoints and our beliefs onto Israeli society is an exercise in frustration and futility, and the more time we spend ignoring that reality, the more we turn Israel, and support for Israel, into a wedge issue, not just within our community, but within America. This does not mean that we should cease advocating for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and all the responsibilities associated with that characterization, just that we need to keep our expectations grounded in the reality of the situation.

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