Today, on the eve of the vote for the 20th Knesset, nobody really doubts its significance — even though scarcely one hundred days ago, when Binyamin Netanyahu announced his decision to call an early election, many queried its necessity. In a few hours, millions of Israeli citizens will be on their way to the polling stations in what has become the most critical ballot in decades. This struggle over the shape of Israel’s tomorrow has been especially sharply contested, revealing both the scope of differences and the depth of the currents of change sweeping through Israeli society. Whatever the outcome, the public arena — as well as Israeli society in general — will not be the same the day after the votes are counted.
By all accounts, this has been by far the most contentious election campaign in recent memory. After an initial period marked by party organization and realignment (dictated to a large extent by the new electoral threshold), the contest for primacy has developed into a veritable race between alternative leaders and worldviews carried out in the streets, on the airwaves, in the media and via every possible actual and virtual social network. At times intense and even vicious, this campaign has been as animated as it has been ugly, as emotional as it has been cerebral, as vapid as it has been vigorous and as twisted as it has been candid. Its mixture of intensity and volatility only serves to accentuate the rising suspense leading up to Election Day.
The charged atmosphere is due to several factors that are not about to disappear overnight. First, after a somewhat hesitant beginning, there is definitely a sense of change in the air. In a period of several compressed weeks, more and more Israelis have come to agree on what they don’t want: more of the same. And although they remain very seriously divided on almost every conceivable issue — from the cost of living and housing to security and peace — they are much more willing to entertain other options given that familiar ones have failed repeatedly.
Second, these elections have succeeded in mobilizing previously uninvolved citizens to political activism. For the first time, broad civil society groupings have converged to demand change at the top (V-15, A Million Hands, Im Tirzu, Nahala and Project 61 are just several prominent examples which utilize a variety of techniques ranging from door-to-door canvassing to cyber-activism). Heretofore quiescent groups — including senior security personnel as well as Mizrahi intellectuals have made their voices heard. Citizens throughout the country have reengaged with politics as a counterpoint to the hegemonic control exercised by politicians over public discourse. In many respects, the 2015 elections have come to mark the political coming of age of that diverse Israeli majority which rallied behind the social protests of the summer of 2011.
And third, this election season has magnified the deep schisms within Israeli society. The acrimony between Arabs and Jews — purposefully manipulated by certain parties — has sadly stained intergroup relations. The ethnic divide — never far beneath the surface — has also been consciously (and at times opportunistically) brought to the fore in the relentless scramble for votes. Regardless of the results, on the day after the elections the expectation of change will be accompanied by a bevy of strong and divided civic voices for some time to come (as well as by the emergence of Arab citizens of Israel as a major political force in their own right).
The dynamics of the campaign are reflective of the issues at stake. On the most superficial level, inescapably, these elections have emerged more as a plebiscite on the Netanyahu incumbency than on the appeal of any one of his challengers. Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu is about to discover that the bravado that led him to call for snap elections may turn into his political undoing. Simply too many incidents — from inflated household accounts propping up an unapologetically flamboyant lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense to gross insensitivity to the plight of the average citizen under the guise of an overriding concern with external threats — have proven once again the limited shelf-life of underachieving leaders, however rhetorically nimble.
Personal attributes are playing an immense role — not only for what they reveal about leaders and their conduct but also for what they say about their substantive priorities. The key concern of Israeli voters today is what is loosely described as “life”. When Binyamin Netanyahu chose to interpret this preoccupation in terms of growing dangers emanating from Iran and militant Islam, he lost the sympathy of much of his constituency, immersed as it is in a daily struggle for existence given the alarming cost of housing, food and health care. Indeed, the understanding of the immediate challenges facing Israel (and, yes, its survival) varies widely — with the pendulum tilting towards bread and butter issues and the imperatives of societal cohesion.
Obviously, therefore, the appropriate balance (not to speak of the connection) between domestic and foreign matters has been in constant contention. Netanyahu’s appearance in Congress, designed to demonstrate his diplomatic agility to the Israeli voter, only magnified the problem. It raised, once again, the potentially deleterious strategic cost of a break with Washington, while highlighting the ruling party’s penchant (until the dramatic shift a few days ago) for avoiding uncomfortable realities at home.
The inability to reach a consensus on approaches to dealing with key issues on the national agenda is the outward manifestation of what is nothing short of a continuing crisis of identity in Israel. Beneath the standard items on the campaign trail lays a great deal of indeterminacy regarding the democratic character of the state, its human composition and its geographic boundaries. And while the vying versions of citizenship and democracy have yet to be addressed, the hegemonic linkage of recent years between power and a monolithic, hyper-nationalistic and narrowly ethnocentric view of what it is to be Israeli has increasingly been called into question during this election period.
The groundswell of civic interest and even empowerment induced by these elections will come to a head for each and every Israeli tomorrow — whether they cast a vote or, by purposely absenting themselves, give additional weight to the choices of those who do. The sense of political efficacy, the power of the ballot of the individual citizen, is as high as it has been in years. Indeed, in very critical and perhaps unanticipated ways, Israelis have themselves undergone substantial change as the 2015 election season has unfolded. The transformation they are undergoing will guide them for some time after the seats to the next Knesset are allotted and a new coalition is formed.
The 2015 elections are therefore critical elections in every sense of the term. Beyond significantly altering the balance of power in the Knesset, they are likely to usher in a new government with a different set of priorities and with alternative approaches on how these should be achieved.
Such a shift, however, would be just the first step in what is bound to be a long and arduous task of domestic reconstruction and international rehabilitation, involving a concerted effort to rebuild the foundations for a just society at home through the pursuit of an end to the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. These expectations — however high — are shared by most of the citizens who will cast their vote in order to wake up to a more hopeful tomorrow. Their realization depends as much on the ongoing engagement and the continuous vigilance of these Israelis as on the exact composition of any incoming government.