Jonathan Dekel-Chen

New Elections in Israel? What Might be in 2021

Israel is headed for its fourth round of national elections in two years. I fear that this new round likely will bring more indecision from voters, made worse by the seemingly endless line of new splinter parties that often increase the political leverage of tiny minorities of the population to extort excessive benefits.

Given the structure of our parliamentary system, it’s likely that our electorate won’t deliver salvation from years of political chaos that produces almost no forward-looking policy. Israel’s parliamentary politics seem to excel only at increasing the number of costly, useless ministerial portfolios. In a perfect world, new elections would deliver a government with the courage and wisdom to confront our real challenges instead of whipping up old jingoistic ghosts. Such a government could muster the clarity of mind to stop eroding ties between Israelis and young, non-Orthodox, progressive Jews worldwide instead of perpetuating the myth of Israel as a garrison state. Perhaps then Israelis and the rising tide of disaffected Diaspora Jews could renew their sense of a shared destiny.

Like after previous rounds, I suspect that after this newest vote many Israelis will still view our political system with disgust, disappointment, dejection and rage.  We know that Israel deserves politicians with higher moral character, possessing greater skills and more commitment to our common good. This vacuum of serious, accountable leadership bewilders most Israelis as much as it does many Diaspora Jews. Shouldn’t “Start-Up Nation” be able to produce better, more enlightened leaders?  Whatever the outcome of the next election, Benjamin Netanyahu has never embodied the worldview of most Israelis who are non-Orthodox and do not support continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank. We are mortified and embarrassed by the manipulation of our coalition system through which Netanyahu and his allies amplify old suspicions in our tribalistic society as a means to preserve power. Along the way to extending his premiership despite securing only a minority of the popular vote, Netanyahu has repeatedly sacrificed equity and justice by forming coalitions with his “natural” allies among sectarian Haredi and far-right parties.  Most recently, he added a fragment of the Blue & White centrist party, offering empty promises in return for parliamentary support.

Some rays of hope precede the coming elections if indeed they occur. In these last months, smoldering frustrations among Israel’s non-Orthodox, non-settler majority – further stoked by the Covid crisis – have bloomed into widespread “Black Flag” movement protests. Perhaps a charismatic, competent leader will emerge from these demonstrations and inspire Israel’s angry majority in ways that a long line of retired IDF generals have failed to do since the murder of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995.

The much-heralded Abraham Accords are undoubtedly a refreshing accomplishment in recent months. They provide a morale boost for Israelis, a new destination for tourism and even a dose of sporting optimism with news earlier this week that an Emirati sheikh purchased a 50 percent ownership stake in the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club. Perhaps the Abraham Accords can facilitate lucrative deals with these desert kingdoms that will benefit the thin layer of Israel’s hi-tech industry and large commercial firms. But like with similar ventures across the globe, very little profit from contracts with Gulf states are likely to trickle down to wider strata in our society, where gaps between “haves” and “have-nots” have grown exponentially since the early 1990s.

Further in the shadows, Israel’s security may not be meaningfully enhanced by the Abraham Accords given what we know about the probability of U.S. weapons sales to the UAE and Bahrain as well as what the Accords might require from Israel in future conflicts with Iran. Most ominously, the Accords allow Jerusalem to ignore a stubborn fact: we cannot rid ourselves of the moral stain of occupation until Israel comes to terms with our Palestinian neighbors. Only then can daily life in our region truly normalize and Israel perhaps can attain its goal of being a light unto the nations.

If new Israeli elections are indeed coming in 2021, here is a short list of hopes for my country and for world Jewry on “the day after.” These hopes arise somewhere between my home on a border kibbutz in a chronically underserved corner of Israel and my workplace inside the ivory tower at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. First, perhaps there can be an unexpected fringe benefit behind the headlines of the Accords. If a new political constellation somehow emerges from new elections, the Accords may allow Israelis to transcend a perpetual state of fear of attack from external enemies and refocus on what many of us realize: the persistent underfunding of the country’s peripheries (both geographic and socioeconomic) looms at least as large a threat to national wellbeing than military threats from Hamas or Hezbollah. The gaps separating “center” and “periphery” are also a larger risk to Israel’s internal solidarity and economic vitality than any barbs flung by the BDS movement or other anti-Israel campaigns.

If we’re talking about elections, there is also cause for hope bubbling up from the transition of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Trump’s exit, together with the politics of grievance and blustery illusions of strength that he popularized, can perhaps help reduce the global appeal of vulgar populism masquerading as righteous nationalism in many countries, including Israel. With a Biden Administration willing to resume international leadership roles, a new agreement on Iran might be reached. One is hard-pressed to imagine a Netanyahu-led government reassessing its rejection of internationally negotiated agreements on Iran. Again, I loop back in hope that new Israeli elections might produce a governing coalition that would engage constructively with international partners to forge an agreement that more holistically addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns, going beyond the relatively narrow parameters of nuclear weapons.

A bit less concretely, I pray in advance of Israeli elections that Trump’s exit will nudge our next government to detach itself from unnecessarily warm ties with bully nationalists in Brazil, eastern Europe and elsewhere.  These relationships do not strengthen Israel’s national interests. On the contrary, embraces from strongmen only move Israel further away from the moral high ground and our own sense of self.  Further down this column on my post-election list, I wish for an end to the “cronyization” of our most sacred institutions. A particularly awful, cynical distortion of our communal consensus seems to have been averted by the disintegration of Netanyahu’s cabinet and current political realignments. This was the attempt by government ministers to install an unqualified, politically toxic former politician with racist tendencies to the chairmanship of Yad Vashem.
Given the deep divisions plaguing Israel, it may be a “bridge too far” to wish that new elections could allow our country to (finally) confront with compassion the challenges it faces as long as the Haredi and Arab communities continue living largely outside mainstream Jewish-Israeli society.  The suffering wrought on these communities by the Covid pandemic, some of which was avoidable, have highlighted the public health dangers to everyone posed by these divisions and perhaps will push all Israelis to prioritize greater societal inclusion.

And finally on this wish list for 2021, perhaps a change of government in Israel can facilitate a healing of relations with non-Orthodox, progressive communities in the Diaspora. As a first step, Israeli leaders and citizens could listen more intentionally to our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora and lead from a place of cooperation, not preaching. From their side, perhaps progressives in the Diaspora could be more open to what some may find surprising: large swaths of Israelis hate Netanyahu’s corrupt tribal populism, do not identify with the politically empowered intolerance of the calcified ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, would like to end Israeli occupation in the West Bank and find a reasonable solution for the deadlocked humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Perhaps then, Israelis and Diaspora Jews can speak at eye level about concerns and common goals, restore our faith in one another and build better Jewish futures everywhere.

About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a member of the History Department and the Department of Jewish History & Contemporary Jewry. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol (relocated at Kibbutz Ein Gedi in 2021), which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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