Israeli Politics 2.0

This was a week that Israeli centrists thought they would be over the moon, only to crash land at the very last moment.

The Blue & White party posed the biggest challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu for some time. A fresh slate, with three former IDF Chiefs of Staff, merged with Yesh Atid, a party with some electoral success and an impressive grassroots network of centrist activists. Factoring in corruption allegations, Netanyahu had grounds for concern.

Yet despite garnering an impressive number of votes (1,123,929 – just 14,843 fewer than Likud), they failed to make a fundamental impact on voting blocs, which are crucial towards forming a coalition government. After factoring in votes from Yesh Atid and HaTnuah (representing the centrist arm of the former Zionist Union), most of their new votes came from decimating Labour: only 148,025 more people voted for left and centrist parties[1] in 2019 than in 2015. Put another way, the greatest centrist challenge to a scandal-ridden right-wing Prime Minister in recent years only gained a 3.5% swing from right to centre. And that’s not enough to change the coalition maths.

Party mergers, running a Netanyahu-style campaign, bringing in Chiefs of Staff for the best security credentials. Blue & White seemingly tried every trick in the book, but ultimately failed to secure victory. If this was the strongest campaign fought against Netanyahu, should the centre now be resigned to long-term opposition?

Their campaign, like that of the Zionist Union in 2015, assumed that the extra votes to be gained were in the centre-right block, made up of traditional, secular or perhaps Modern Orthodox Jews – just like the majority of the parties’ slates.[2]

But this strategy ignores two population groups, once marginal in nature but with every election, increasing in significance: Charedim and Arabs. The two Charedi parties secured 15 seats, reflective of an ever-growing population and high voter turnout. The two Arab parties won 10 seats, albeit fewer than 2015 perhaps due to lower than usual turnout, but nevertheless a strong showing. 25 seats represent around one-fifth of all Knesset seats – and this number is only set to increase in future elections.

Enter President Rivlin and his flagship project entitled ‘Israeli Hope’. Launched at the start of his Presidency, Rivlin has been highlighting these demographic trends to show that Israel will soon be a country made up of four similar-sized ‘tribes’: Secular, Religious Zionist, Arab and Charedi. All four sectors have distinct ideologies, societal norms and sensitivities. Rivlin contends that the way we react – or fail to react – to these demographic trends will be the defining feature of the next 50 years. In order to meet these challenges, the President’s office have created numerous initiatives designed to build awareness and create partnership in the areas of education, academia, employment and sport.

Perhaps it is time to add a fifth field: politics.

If the Israeli centre ground wants to truly unify the country and present a cohesive vision that appeals to a wide base of voters, it must start reflecting the future reality of what Israel is going to be like. This means championing policies demanded by the Charedi and Arab mainstream and working towards integrating Charedi and Arab representatives into the party.

Pushing back against Netanyahu’s anti-Arab rhetoric is an important gesture – but promising serious funding for developing Arab infrastructure, quality of life and employment chances is what is needed.

Rather than promising to draft Charedim en masse into the IDF, there should be a promise to the opposite effect. In the future there can be a discussion about alternative forms of national service. But at the outset, a guarantee must be made to the Charedi community that their way of life will not be threatened.

There will be many thorny issues and bitter pills to swallow, such as education, religion and state and benefits. But the key here is building trust. That starts at a grassroots level, engaging with communities and local leaders, and listening to people’s priorities and demands. Ultimately, it must result in a party, which is at most able to take votes from the Charedi and Arab mainstream, and is at least a palatable coalition partner for the Charedi and Arab parties.

And no less of a challenge will be convincing the (current) mainstream that this pivot is in the interests of the Zionist centre ground and is not aimed at turning it into the far left. This will require courageous leadership, which is able to show unwavering commitment to the traditional Zionist consensus whilst explaining to the public why improving the quality of life of the non-Zionist population should also be a consensus issue.

It may be hard to imagine the existence of a centrist, Zionist list comprised of Secular, Religious Zionist, Charedi and Arab candidates, divided equally between male and female, with a healthy dose of experienced politicians, successful business people and IDF generals. It may be equally unimaginable to believe that a majority of Arabs could vote for a party with security views anywhere to the right of Meretz, or for a majority of Charedim to place their trust in a non-majority Charedi party.

But that does not mean that progress cannot be made, and in electoral terms, some of the 25 seats cannot be won.

If the election brought home how there is so much division in such a small country, then two days later, as Israeli eyes gazed towards to the sky, Beresheet’s attempted moon landing offered the perfect antidote. Although the mission was not completed, this was a story of Israeli ingenuity, unbridled potential and the power of education unlocking the imagination.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try again”, said Netanyahu. As you read this, scientists are already starting work on Beresheet 2.0. It’s time the Israeli centre ground starts work on launching its own mission to new horizons – Politics 2.0.

[1] This figure is drawn from totalling votes in 2015 from Zionist Union, Meretz and Yesh Atid and votes in 2019 from Blue & White, Labour and Meretz.

[2] Blue & White’s list did feature Charedi and Druze women on their list – both of whom will be serving in the incoming Knesset – however they did not draw mainstream votes from either community.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and a member of the inaugural Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Scholars Programme. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours to Poland with JRoots. After making Aliyah from London, he directed gap year programmes for World Bnei Akiva and served as Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He is a former Mazkir of Bnei Akiva UK and teacher at King Solomon High School, London. He holds an MA in Jewish Education from LSJS and the University of London. All articles are written in a personal capacity.
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