In an odd, little essay in Tablet about how important it is for Israeli leftists to overcome their alienated ennui and show up to vote, Israel’s fabulist-laureate Etgar Keret wrote that:
Deep down, every citizen in this country knows that the coming elections will determine not only our political and economic future, but first and foremost, the social and moral future of this country. Do we aspire to be, as the original formulators of the Jewish State bill demand, a country that is first of all Jewish and only then democratic, or will we seek to be an egalitarian society that while keeping its Jewish identity does not distinguish between and discriminate against citizens who hold different religious beliefs?
Keret’s assertions echo those of politicians on both sides of the aisle. Hardline Likkud MK Zeev Elkin told Arutz 7 that these are “fateful elections” for those who don’t wish to repeat the experiments of the “glory days of Oslo.” Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog told a Globes conference audience that:
These are fateful elections for the future of the state and of democracy. They are fateful for the economy. One must understand this.
Tzipi Livni has declared in speeches that the upcoming “historic…elections…will change the country’s course in the economy, social matters, security, and religion and state.”
Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli Left said much the same thing, in a livelier way, suggesting that the elections offered “a clear choice between two very different Israeli states, a racist Israel of inequality, engaged in an endless war and increasingly subject to the rule of fundamentalist rabbis, or a democratic Israel that seeks peace with Palestine and the entire Arab and Muslim world and equality between all citizens, irrespective of sex, nation, religion, language and community.”
This take on the upcoming elections is shared by observers overseas. Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer prize winning Middle-East maven, blogged in a New York Times post entitled “This Israel Election Matters” that:
Israel has had critical elections before, but this could be its most important, because the Israeli right today is no longer dominated by security hawks and free-marketeers like Netanyahu. It is dominated by West Bank settlers and scary religious-nationalist zealots like Naftali Bennett, who, if they run the next government and effectively annex the West Bank, will lead Israel into a dark corner….
All this apocalyptic prose is surprising. When Prime Minister Netanyahu first announced his intention to hold new elections, his former coalition partner and Finance Minister Yair Lapid accused him of dragging the country to “unnecessary elections.” Polls showed that many voters agreed, and analysts concluded that election turnout would be historically low. Now, less than one month later, the elections are seen as Israel’s come-to-Jesus moment.
What is odd about the shift from the who-cares? apathy of a month ago to the apocalyptic rhetoric of today is that, most likely, the elections will produce only modest change. Benjamin Netanyahu is all but certain to remain Prime Minister. Most likely, in the new coalition he forms the Ultra-Orthodox parties will take the place of the secular centrist Yesh Atid party. This new coalition will not differ greatly from the outgoing coalition about matters of security, settlements or peace negotiations (though it will roll back recent legislation diminishing the influence of religion in the Israeli public sphere). Like all elections, everywhere, these elections matters. But they are unlikely to be as significant as most of us seem to think.
Why, then, are we convinced that these elections will be momentous? Partly because politicians left, right and center tell us so, in the hope of frightening their supporters to the polls. People are more likely to vote, they figure, when what is on the line is nothing less than life as they know it. That cannot be the entire explanation, though, if only because we Israelis are adept at ignoring our politicians.
A deeper explanation lies in a recent eschatological turn in the way that Israel is regarded, both at home and abroad. Controversies of the day are debated as though the continued existence of the state depends on their proper resolution. If the Temple Mount is opened to Jews, then an angry army of a hundred million Muslim zealots will be visited upon us. If the Temple Mount is closed to Jews, then we will find ourselves barred from all other holy sites as well. If we do not find a way to end the occupation, the world will isolate us with sanctions until the state collapses. If we withdraw from occupied territories, we will be destroyed by a hostile Hamas-led Palestine. If the right wins, they will legislate to oblivion the safeguards of democracy. If the left wins, they will negotiate to oblivion the safeguards of security. Political discourse within Israel, like discourse about Israel abroad, has become all Sturm-und-Drang. It is forever ratcheted to eleven. And so too is the talk of these elections.
But this is a lousy way to approach politics, especially at a time when the country faces harsh challenges that cannot be quickly overcome. The character of the country will not be decided, once and for all, on March 17. The future of the country will not be determined, once and for all, at the polls. One thing we know for sure about these elections is that they will not be dispositive. Whatever their results, the next day we will wake up in a country still riven with cussed discord. The next day, Israelis on the right and Israelis on the left will each still need to try to persuade one another that theirs is the sounder vision.
Israel as a nation and Zionism as a project are not as fragile as we seem lately to have come to believe. The problems that we face are grave – matters of life and death – and they are immediate. I don’t take them lightly. What’s worse, I doubt that the upcoming elections will produce a government that addresses them wisely. But in four years, and perhaps sooner, there will be another election. And then another after that. For all our problems, a long future stretches out before us, in which to continue to seek solutions. The “social and moral future of this country” will not be decided on March 17; we will build it together – left and right, secular and religious, Israeli and Palestinian – over many years to come.