Barbara Diamond

Feeling the pulse of Israeli society

Israeli’s second round of elections has come and gone and where, in fact, do the results leave us all? My Jerusalem taxi driver, yesterday expounded for twenty minutes on the disaster impending when Benny Ganz will create a coalition with the Joint List Arab parties. He would not be consoled by my wise counsel that this was unlikely to happen in spite of his fears.

Today’s press conference at the Jerusalem Press Club with Dr. (Professor) Tamar Hermann addressed the realities of the complex voter base that constitutes Israeli society. As the co-editor of the monthly Peace index since 1994 she has become a specialist in monitoring Israeli public opinion. Her academic credentials are endless and her lack of bias in her analysis was impressive. Some of her points really crystalized the changes in Israeli attitudes since the previous elections.

A significant result of this second election was the turnout of the Arab voters. They are very disappointed with their own leadership and want to see more Knesset members and want Arab Ministers. In order to accomplish that – average Arab citizens want to see their own Arab parties join in a coalition government with Jewish parties. The chasm between the people and their leaders is substantial. Studies show that Israeli Arabs are quite satisfied living in Eretz and have almost no desire to go to any Palestinian entity should it evolve. Of course, there are improvements they would like to see, and they would like their Knesset members to help them in those issues. They certainly do not feel that they are living in an Apartheid state in spite of those who would have you think otherwise. My analysis (Not Dr. Hermann’s) is that the Arab leaders have once again shot themselves in the proverbial foot. By making excessive demands to join a coalition, they demonstrated- once again- their inability and lack of desire to work within the Israeli government in a legitimate manner. If they honestly thought their demands would be met by a Blue and White Party terrified of losing potential power, they calculated poorly. As they stubbornly make demands -they not only lose the potential to create any change from within, but they disappoint the Arab voters who put them into power. The Arabs are rightly proud of their election turn out, but will be disappointed ultimately with the real gains they have incurred.

Professor Herman clarified what we all instinctively know- that Israelis love politics and that each and every one of us has an opinion. Even worse, it turns out that while citizens of other nations agree on average of 30% that they “do not know “ about certain political subjects, only 3 to 6% of Israelis every admit that they “do not know.” Hence the heated conversations with our taxi drivers, beauticians, and butchers (…to name but a few).

Political analysts look at each election cycle to understand the prime motivation for the results. In 2011 the main divide between Israeli citizens was that of the rich and the poor. Then with the next election it became a split between attitudes towards Arabs internally and externally. This year it is different once again. The “cleavage” was not so simply, between “Left “and “Right.” The fascinating truth is that while this seems fairly obvious… the definition of ”Left and Right” has changed dramatically. In past elections it was about “land for peace.” Would one be willing to trade more land in the vain hope of a resolution to the Palestinian “problem?” Today that concept has totally left the mind of the electorate. Surveys show that there is only 17% of the public clinging to any hope of a resolution with the Palestinians at this point in-time. Now that 83% of the public is focused on other issues, they have shelved the old definitions of Left and Right. Now the concerns are domestic and social issues. The concerns about the influences of the Ultra-religious, or the rights of LGBT communities are high on the attention scale. When I asked how it is, that with a massive build up of Missiles in Lebanon and constant threats from Iran against the Jewish State- that security is not the primary concern of the electorate, Prof. Herman answered succinctly. “It is like living next to a volcano.” She responded. Israelis know that they live in a dangerous zone and are able to put to the side the fears of potential escalation in order to focus on their day to day lives. She pointed out that real estate investment is skyrocketing in Israel- as is building throughout the country. These are not signs of a nation in fear of tomorrow. They are signals of confidence in the future.

In spite of Avigdor Liberman’s increase of two more seats (now a total of eight seats) to his potential Knesset membership, his conversation about the rights of the religious vs non-religious only comes third in the list of concerns of the average Israeli. That is perhaps why his party did not win even more seats than it did. The last two additional seats are primarily credited to young non-Russian voters looking to change parties.

It is interesting to look at the experts’ analysis of the religiosity of the Israeli public. They determined that 43% of Israelis are secular, but among that 43% there are 80% who say they believe in G-d. How secular can one be if he/she believes in G-d? Among the balance of the Jewish population, 35% consider themselves traditional and 15% National- Orthodox, and 10% Ultra-Orthodox.
One of the biggest disappointments in Israeli leadership as a whole, is their constant fear of public sentiment. Before making policy decisions, a long hard look is essentially taken to assess public opinion. Is the public ready for a another war in Gaza or not? Strangely, this is often the deciding factor in critical decisions. Rather than leading from the front, government officials have been “leading from the rear.” This is the approach of persons wanting to be re-elected and not prepared to risk condemnation for decisions taken. This may also be the result of the “blame-game” and inquiries after every single military operation. Israeli politicians are studying the “pulse” of the electorate before going out on a limb.

According to Professor Herman, one of the severe detriments to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two campaigns has been the corruption charges against him. Those who support him feel that the charges have been brought forward simply to bring him to his knees. Many Israelis have a problem with the definition of what constitutes “corruption.” They can clearly understand if a local official takes a bribe or steals from the treasury, but the more subtle ‘perks” of office are far less easy to categorize. In the Middle East , “bakshish”… the paying under the table for special attention or favours, has been a long standing tradition which apparently still is quite prevalent today. That makes judging another’s actions more complicated in Israel than in Western nations. In the meantime, the accusations against Netanyahu, even unproven, have done their damage. Many have found him guilty before a court has heard the cases or made a determination. That of course pleases his nay-sayers tremendously.

If a Unity government cannot be agreed upon, the nation will go to a third election. I had hoped that either the Supreme Court or the President of Israel could re-design the process…perhaps limit the number of parties or the threshold needed to run. That is apparently not possible. Only the Knesset can make such laws and at the moment we have no Knesset.

At the end of the day, one must hope that this quagmire in which Israel finds itself will come to some good. While it is unlikely that Left and Right will be wonderful bed-fellows, there may be many areas of agreement along the way. Ultimately the critical benefit to the Nation would be a consensus in the next Knesset of major changes in the electoral process which could help to avert such horrid stalemates in the future. Change only results from necessity. We are at the edge of the cliff… with very little choice. The status quo is abysmal.

About the Author
Born in the Washington DC area, Barbara has been a pro Israel activist for over four decades, having had a radio show in Jerusalem called "Barbara Diamond One on One" , doing in depth interviews which aired in Israel and in the UK. She participated in missions to the USSR to meet with Refuseniks, to Ethiopia with a medical team to help the Jewish villages and to China to open up relations prior to China recognizing the State of Israel, She has been pro-active lobbying congress and helping to start a Pro Israel PAC in Los Angeles. She stays involved through the Jerusalem Press Club attending up to the moment briefings which she would like to share with the readers. Ms. Diamond is the author of the new website - and is the 2018 recipient of the "StandWithUs"-Israel leadership award.
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