Naomi Chazan

Use your vote wisely

Thanks to the Israeli elections, we're facing a year of choices -- and we can change the lay of the land
An Israeli secular woman votes at a Jerusalem polling station for the Jerusalem mayoral elections in a school in Jerusalem, November 11, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90/File)
An Israeli secular woman votes at a Jerusalem polling station for the Jerusalem mayoral elections in a school in Jerusalem, November 11, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90/File)

The Jewish New Year is a period of reflection, relaxation, and reaffirmation — especially so at the outset of these 10 Days of Awe that are now ushering in 5779. Along with the personal decisions confronting each individual, during the next 12 months Israelis, along with Jews throughout the world, will face a series of major public choices that will shape themselves and the environment in which they live. This coming year, perhaps more than usual, will accentuate the close connection between the personal and the political.

The outgoing year, with all its achievements in the eyes of some and setbacks for others, has been marked by three overriding patterns. First, Israel, however strong, is ridden with insecurity. It is unquestionably the dominant regional power, but its sense of intense vulnerability continues to soar. Second, it is more deeply divided in profound ways than in the past. As the adoption of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” and its fallout demonstrate, there is no agreement on the identity of the state, its human composition, and its guiding principles — a rift that transcends traditional political divisions and seriously affects the relationship of Israel with world Jewry.

Third, the link between those in power and the bulk of Israel’s citizens is unraveling. Hegemonic rulers use majoritarian arguments to impose their will, while traditional checks and balances are upset, individual and minority rights are curtailed, and the ability of constituents to hold their leaders accountable for their actions is undermined. Politics in Israel has moved increasingly either to the shady back rooms of the corridors of power or spilled out from the comfort zones of private homes into the streets where people gather more frequently to express their discontent.

This stormy — some would say jolting — year provides the setting for one of both very predictable and known, as well as possibly more opaque, choices. Most obviously, these coming 12 months are going to be filled with elections. The first round, at the local level, are set to take place on October 30th, barely a month after the holiday season is over. At stake is the composition of 251 municipal, local, and regional councils throughout the country, as well as the identity of those at their helm. But these elections are much more than that: they will also provide a glimpse into the extent of citizen involvement and prospects for broader change.

Local elections traditionally do not generate much excitement in Israel. Participation rates in the last round (2013) were paltry: on a countrywide basis, barely 51 percent of voters turned out at the polls (47% in Jewish locales, as opposed to a resounding 87% in Arab authorities). This year, however, might be different. For the first time in Israel’s history, Election Day is slated to be a national day of rest in the hope of raising voter turnout.

Much more pertinently, more people are aware that to make reasoned choices, they have to expand the offerings. Literally hundreds of slates are contesting the some 700 places on local, municipal and regional councils. Many of these are made up of young people, women, and disadvantaged groups, who have studiously shunned such involvement in the past. In several key places, incumbent mayors are being challenged by newcomers; in some cities — Jerusalem stands out above all others — the withdrawal of long-serving leaders means that those who participate will decide the identity of the new figures who will hold sway in their city halls.

It is still unclear whether all this motion will indeed result in real movement. Will more voters turn out this time? Will the issues at hand bring out those who doubt their own efficacy? Will they be given real choices? How many will be content to support what they are familiar with, regardless of consequences? At this stage, there are no clear answers but one: the local elections are bound to stir the already swirling waters on the eve of the general elections that will take place later this year.

By this, as yet indeterminate, event, mid-term elections will have been held in the United States, where, too, a groundswell of new and different candidates is challenging the status quo. They are trying to carve out a different link between voters and their elected representatives, while proffering alternatives to existing norms, policies and leadership models. The forthcoming Israeli elections may yet predate those for the European parliament, slated for May of 2019. They will undoubtedly be affected by these plebiscites and the parameters they draw; but mostly they will build on domestic dynamics and figures.

It is much too early to know who will be the contestants in the next national elections in Israel, let alone how the main issues will be framed. It is not, however, too presumptuous at this early stage to suggest that the prime minister’s highly crafted message that the results are a foregone conclusion may be open to question. Even at this early stage, the mantra of “what was is what is going to be” is arousing discomfort in a variety of quarters — not least within the camp of his own ruling coalition. And while the precise picture of the alternatives has yet to gel, the party map — along with the personae at their helm — may yet undergo a major reshuffle: it is likely to diverge from past presentations.

Many Israelis approach the next elections with reluctance (if not outright despondency). They have lost faith in the power of the ballot box to make change and they are fraught with doubt about their capacity to make any difference whatsoever. Many also bemoan the striking sameness of it all: they have still to push for real options and to make sufficient efforts to insist on meaningful choices. They may, once again, retreat into indifference or, as some seem to be demanding already, seek more decisive alternatives. What is clear is that any choice — including opting out — has vast personal ramifications.

Rarely are so many formal options with such widespread consequences on both the societal and individual levels presented during the course of a single calendar year. This is what faces Israelis in the months ahead. Such opportunities invite personal agency: an opportunity to partake not only in the selection of representatives, but also, through them, in molding a preferred vision of society and the values on which it rests.

Israelis therefore, by their actions and inactions, will have more of a say on their destiny in this new year than they are willing to acknowledge. Whether and how they take advantage of these opportunities and the responsibilities they entail will have a direct bearing on how they define themselves and how they are seen by others. They may give a hand to deepening already troublesome patterns or they may actually begin to establish salubrious new trends. In either case, they will have to deal with the knowledge that their personal actions will leave their mark on their collective future: on its safety, its image, its actions, its morality and its ultimate viability. This is, then, the year that personal choices mesh with and nurture the overall course of the Israeli state and its complex society.

Shana Tova and choose well.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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