Sheila Wilensky was in Israel recently with the American Jewish Press Association
After spending a week in Israel one thing is certain: discussion about politics is a national sport – and with more than 30 political parties running in the Jan. 22 election, it’s not surprising. I arrived in Israel, with 22 other journalists from around the United States on an American Jewish Press Association trip, the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party held onto a majority in the 19th Knesset.
The big surprise was how well former journalist Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party fared, picking up 19 out of 120 Knesset seats. Now the task of Israel’s parliamentary democracy is coalition building.
“This election is very widely expected to smash the right-wing advantage in place ever since the second intifada,” said Alexander Yakobson, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, during a panel discussion hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute for our group on Jan. 25. “The left figured on the far right winning, proving their fears.”
Earlier that day we attended another post-election discussion, hosted by Uri Dromi, executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club, at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim guest house.
“Netanyahu didn’t and doesn’t want to lead only on the right,” Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University, told us. “Bibi likes to have a way to retreat if his government collapses. He wants to have partners on the left. Bibi’s first call after the election was to Lapid. They’ll work together beautifully. But Lapid will have problems in his party on social issues.”
Diskin said that the most important issue in the election was “the Arab-Israeli conflict,” while Steve Linde, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, opined, “something big happened in these elections. Socio-economic issues were the biggest issues,” which is why Lapid did so well.
Avigdor Liberman, the former foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, which ran on a combined list with Likud this election, is “perceived as too extreme,” said Diskin. “Who captures the center is most important” in coalition building.
Key to a new governing coalition is the combined total of 31 Knesset seats held by Lapid’s party and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), the same number as Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party. “Two superstars emerged,” said Linde. “Lapid reminds me of a young Bibi Netanyahu. Bennett speaks very right wing in an acceptable way.”
Israelis outside of the professional political arena also had the election on their minds. Strolling down Ben Yehuda Street one evening, a colleague and I found three 21-year-old Hebrew University students who wanted to talk. “I voted for Shelly Yachimovich [Labor party chair],” said Bar. “I want to get an apartment and a car. Bibi is more for capitalism, rich people. He reduces their taxes. I’m left wing on the economy, right wing on security. Everyone says they’re at the center,” she continued. “They just want to collect votes.”
Yael voted for Lapid. “He talks nice and knows what to tell people. I believe him. I think he’ll make changes, lower prices. He’ll get experience in the Knesset.” Amit said she was right wing and voted for Netanyahu because of “security. My family is the same.”
At a dinner sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, I sat next to Nacham Katz of the International Media Placement company. Of course we talked politics. “We have too many parties in Israel. It deflects from a strong government,” said Katz. As a religious Israeli, he said, “We have to be realistic. We live in the world,” but he rejected a political solution to Israeli-Palestinian woes: “Israel is a Jewish country because God gave it to us. I believe Arabs across the board don’t want Israel to exist. I don’t believe there will be any solution until the Messiah comes.”
On AJPA’s excursion to northern Israel I spoke with Liora and Uri Schindler of Rosh Pina, who run an orchard, raising pears, plums, apples and apricots. They grew up on the same kibbutz, Ayelet Hashahar Hagoshrim, which in 1952 split into right and left-wing factions. “The main problem was that the religious and political were mixed,” said Uri. Both their families went with the non-religious left-wing faction.
“The religious shouldn’t force me to do what they want. I have my rights too,” he explained. “If I want to drive on Shabbos I should be able to. The ultra-Orthodox balance the coalition. [The government] needs them to make a right-wing coalition. But they take and they don’t give. They don’t work. They don’t serve in the army.”
Uri voted for Lapid because of “social problems.” His wife, Liora, voted for Meretz because it is “more left. We now have more hope that the coalition will not be so right wing,” she told me.
Another proud farmer in the Galilee, Arik Lubovsky, 73, voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party. His wife is a retired major in the Israel Defense Forces. “She still patrols fields along the border,” said Lubovsky. “I hesitated between Bibi Netanyahu and Bennett. People who support Bennett serve in the most dangerous places in the army. I went for Bibi but he needs to build more public housing for poor people.
“I support his policy to keep building more settlements in Israel,” he said. “We have dear Arab friends who have served in the army. They want to have peace in their lives. Our government must give them equal rights, such as the same mortgage that I have.”
But Lubovsky is still critical of Netanyahu. “Bibi must listen and be kinder and more polite to Obama. America is our best friend. I like that Bibi is strong but now is not the time if he wants to get a peace agreement.”
Although socio-economic issues seemed to take center stage in this election, hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is ever-present, including for 18-year-old Sa’ed, a Palestinian working at a café in Jerusalem’s Christian quarter.
A third-generation Jerusalemite, Sa’ed didn’t vote in the recent election. “I don’t want Israeli citizenship. I don’t want to be an Israeli,” he said. “My country is named Palestine.” In favor of a two-state solution, Sa’ed supports Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas. “I think he’s our man. He’s a man of peace. He doesn’t want a war between us and the Israelis,” said Sa’ed. “If we make a war we will not win anything. Our people will stay in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.”
Our tour guide, Gideon Har-Hermon, also weighed in on the voting preferences of his family members. “I voted for Bibi. My wife voted for Lapid. My daughter voted for Bennett. My son voted for the ultra-Orthodox Gimmel party. My other son didn’t vote. He’s in New York City.”
On my way to Ben Gurion International Airport on Jan. 31, I couldn’t help myself. I asked Nir, my 37-year-old Tel Aviv cab driver and father of three, how he voted. “Like everybody else, I voted for Bibi,” he replied. “Then we curse him because he doesn’t do anything. Like Shelly [Yachimovich]. She talks and she doesn’t do anything.”
[The American Jewish Press Association trip was sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.]