Israeli democracy full of unknowns as election nears

Israeli voters will go to the polls (again) this April to vote for a new government. What that means for some of the most important issues affecting Israel and Israelis is anyone’s guess.
But American Zionists must also watch these elections carefully because the issues that we specifically care about (religious equality, egalitarian worship at the Western Wall, two-state solution,) will be front and center as the individual parties jockey for seats in the next Kneset.
Like many Israeli governments before it, this one collapsed when one coalition partner decided they had had enough and brought down the government, necessitating a new one. Israeli governments usually have a difficult time lasting until the next scheduled election.
What makes Israeli democracy unique? Not a whole lot, but two main factors do make Israeli coalitions so fragile.
First, the wide range of views from the political left and right. From the Arab parties to the most hawkish Zionist parties, and all in between, there is disagreement on the fundamental status, character and future of the state. From the most secular to the ultra-Orthodox parties, there are fundamental differences on what it means to be a Jew. This, combined with the usual differences of opinion about social safety nets and taxes, makes any given government there extremely volatile. Israel, in some ways, is still trying to define itself, and this plays out politically.
The second factor are the divisions in Israel that give small political parties enormous power. The Knesset has 120 seats. The threshold a party must meet to win seats there is very low, so small parties, with four or five seats wield enormous power when larger parties need them to get to the magic number of 61 seats to form a coalition.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have historically used this threshold to their advantage, demanding enormous sums of money for their schools, draft deferments for their young people and control of religious institutions in return for supporting the government. With such power, they dominate religious matters such as marriage, conversion and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
This election is unusual in that Prime Minister Netanyahu is being investigated for bribery and corruption. It is likely that a decision will be made on indictment before the public votes. If he is indicted (which seems likely) it could affect what the next government looks like. The Prime Minister’s party, Likud, is again projected to win the most seats and to be tasked with forming a new government. An indictment could scramble things, then God only knows what will happen next.
There are several new parties, new leadership of the old ones, and several new individuals on party lists. It is redundant to say that every Israeli election is extremely important. (Really, they all are).
As Americans, we obviously cannot vote, but we can make our voices heard with Israelis we know, through warm connections created over the years. We should tell them what issues matter to us, which ones affect our relationship with the Jewish state. Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the region, we all eagerly anticipate seeing that democracy in action.

(Matt Goldberg is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.)

Leave a Reply