Israel elections 2019

Israel elections 2019

Breaking the Status Quo

08/2019  | Reading time: 6 minutes

Israeli citizens will cast their vote for the second time this year on 17 September to elect a Parliament—hopefully, one which will be capable of providing a new government to the country after a failure in April. Despite all the rhetoric, the main issue dividing the political blocs is a dispute about the exact nature of the “Jewish state” as a political and social concept. No matter which side will win the elections, internally, Israel will be fundamentally reshaped, just as it is developing into more than a mere regional power.

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Source: Zsolt Csepregi

The current complex politicking of the intensive campaign season notwithstanding, the upcoming elections seem to be different from anything that we have ever seen before in Israel. Previous elections were all about a choice between right-wing and left-wing politics, security, social policies, and other issues similar to political campaigns in the Western world and using the language of the Euro-Atlantic political community. However, this time, the divide is not truly between left and right, but between “religious” and “secular” sides. Speaking about Israel, the latter terms need a more careful explanation.

After the 9 April electoral fiasco, two sides were formed in Israel: one was headed by Netanyahu with Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox religious parties, and the nationalist-religious “To the Right” (a union of right-wing parties), while the other side was led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid with Blue and White, centrist and leftist forces supporting them, plus the reunited party championing the Arab cause. From the former side, Netanyahu had sixty members of Knesset (MKS), precisely the half of all mandates, supporting him. However, now, he had to disperse the Parliament, and, according to the current polls, he would have between 54-57 supporters this time, while a similar number of centrist and leftist MKs would be strongly against him. This stalemate means that neither bloc could form a government on its own.

Between these two sides, there stands Liberman, who offered a third option and made it clear that Israel needs a wide, national unity government between Likud and Blue and White (together with his party, Israel Our Home, and possibly others) and efforts to strengthen the Jewish state, avoiding the creation of a “Halachic state,” i.e. a state based on Halacha, the Jewish religious law. Liberman’s message has in some shape or form become the main rallying cry of the opposition during the summer campaign, while forces to the right of Likud loyal to Netanyahu have also doubled down on strengthening the “Halachic” nature of the state.

Liberman is currently the only flexible actor who can move his projected ten-or-so mandates in the upcoming Knesset to one of the sides. Which means that he is well-positioned to become the kingmaker of Israel in this unique political battle for the nature of the Jewish state. Blue and White leaders spoke in favour of the proposed unity government, but only if Likud enters it without Netanyahu, because of the ongoing (but at this time only alleged) corruption cases. Netanyahu is strongly against forming a national unity government, as he knows that he would not be its leader.

The debate on the nature of the Jewish state and the role of Halacha might seem theoretical, but it will to a large degree shape Israel as a regional and global actor in the upcoming years. Over a little more than seventy years, Israel has become a technological, economic, and military powerhouse. While it is a relatively small country, its healthy demographic structure featuring the highest fertility rate among OECD countries, combined with the still intensive but manageable Jewish immigration (totalling around thirty thousand persons a year), means that it is on an emerging trajectory in the international arena in all dimensions of power. In order to reap the benefits of these favourable processes, Israel needs one thing only: to maintain unity among its citizens, which is a hard task considering the ethnically and religiously diverse make-up of Israeli citizens and even Israeli Jews. The conflict lies in the fact that, parallel to the rapid strengthening of the Arab Israeli (Muslim, Christian, and Druze) middle class which moderates Israeli political and social life, Jews, who represent 75% of Israeli citizenry, are fragmenting into two large groups divided on the issue of the core of Jewish identity. The question had to come to the fore eventually, as, since the declaration of independence, an artificial secular-led status quo has been maintained, in which the Jewish state has been understood as a Western democracy which balances between the equality of its citizens on an individual level, promoting Jewish ethnic and historic symbols and traditions as its national ones and allowing Jews, Muslims, Christians and the Druze religious freedom. The problem is that it is impossible to separate clearly what constitutes a cultural or ethnic Jewish tradition and which part extends into religion. Political parties have made and maintained difficult compromises and omissions to make this paradox work in the framework of a parliamentary democracy. After seven decades, it seems that the status quo has been challenged to such a degree that decisively putting Israel on either of the trajectories is unavoidable. One side demands a Halachic state governed by Jewish religious law (in its ultraconservative interpretation), and the other, a secular Jewish state. The outcome can make or break Israel.

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Source: Shutterstock

The question is which trajectory would serve the survival of the Jewish ethnoreligious group and the State of Israel better in the long run. On the one hand, some historical arguments can be made for the nationalist-religious side, which claims that only a devoted core will be able to maintain its unique identity if we think in terms of millennia. The inclusive, secular-leaning side states that, as the Jews have once again a country of their own, it must provide an opportunity for many forms of expressing Jewish identity from the ultra-Orthodox religious lifestyle to the completely secular one. Furthermore, Israeli Jews need their Arabic-speaking minorities as allies to create a powerful Israeli nation. The opposition led by Rt. Lt. Gen. Gantz and Liberman demands one thing from all Israeli citizens in return for the inclusion: loyalty to the Jewish state and the fulfilment of their civic duties.

So now, after decades in politics, Benjamin Netanyahu is in an awkward position. He has got used to being Mr Security, arguing about acting on the Gazan or Iranian threat, or socioeconomics—but, now, he seems out of place as the political battlefronts have shifted so much. In some sense, it was Likud which embodied the great umbrella of religious and secular Israelis, united in their Conservative political ideals. Now, he has to rely solely on the religious parties which want to change the sensitive status quo, being attacked by an opposition which is motivated to end the era of inconvenient compromises with the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and move on, creating a truly secular Jewish state. Netanyahu cannot be a unifying figure, as there is no middle ground anymore, so whatever he does, he loses potential voters and allies on one end of the political spectrum. His only chance is to convince the electorate that the real issue is still security, and the opposition would be soft on Iran and the Palestinians. Quite hard a task when the opposition is like a who’s who of former top generals of the Israel Defense Forces.

We shall see if Netanyahu’s strategy succeeds, but it does not help either that his favoured national-religious allies are making comments which upset the vast majority of the Israeli population, such as calling for a Halachic state and pushing back the focus of the campaign on the state’s identity. Israel has never been as divided on a core issue not connected to security as now, one month before the elections. It seems that if Netanyahu cannot change gears in his campaign—which is always a possibility as he should never be underestimated as a political wizard—he will not be the prime minister leading Israel into its next evolutionary step as a Jewish state. Instead, a transformational era is coming with a national unity government remoulding the country in order to adapt it to the new challenges and its unique society.

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