It is ironic that for a contest whose results promise more of the same, the balloting numbers in Israel’s election last week suggest a potential break with the past.
Israel may be moving toward a more stable, large-party system, rather than the fragmented multiparty structure that has been the country’s confusing reality since its founding. About 60 percent of the recent vote (70 of 120 seats in the Knesset) went to two large parties – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party. This suggests that while Netanyahu may have a stronger bargaining position in forming a governing coalition, Gantz has the opportunity to lead a united and strong opposition — if the first-time politician has the skill to do so.
Voter turnout declined. Reports indicate voter participation was down four percent from the last election, and could continue a trend. Although the decline was mostly across the board, it was strongest within the Arab voting bloc — with only 45 to 50 percent voting, down from 60 percent or more in previous elections. Just how much of that drop was prompted by the Likud placing 1,200 hidden cameras at Arab polling sites, as a settler leader boasted on Facebook, could be the subject of an investigation by Israel’s attorney general.
As expected, the high-participating haredi Orthodox community gave the overwhelming majority of its votes to haredi parties. These non-Zionist parties, led by Sephardi Shas and Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism — growing powers in numbers and influence — are major players in coalition negotiations, who are described by Netanyahu as his “natural” allies.
From the perspective of the majority of Diaspora Jewry, there is concern that Israel’s haredi parties are a “problem” on issues of concern, such as: the right of non-Orthodox Jews to prayer alternatives at the Kotel, the authority of Diaspora rabbis to have conversions they perform accepted in Israel, and the authority and reach of the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate, among other sensitive religion-and-state issues. No one is predicting a change in policy on these issues in the next government, and there are fears that the rabbinate’s stranglehold on personal status issues and religious observance guidelines could be tightened.
We are concerned.
At a time of heightened focus on support for Israel in the Democratic Party, particularly in the run-up to the 2020 elections, the issue of Diaspora-Israel relations is very important.
The vast majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel, support a two-state solution, are troubled by the campaign-driven threat of unilateral annexation of large portions of the West Bank, support religious pluralism, and want to be welcome and respected in their Jewish homeland.
While Israeli voters are unquestionably entitled to a government of their choosing, coalition negotiations can be messy. We hope that in that negotiation process Netanyahu keeps some focus on the needs and sensitivities of the segment of the Jewish world that has been and remains so crucial to Israel’s growth and success.