Every citizen’s vote counts equally in Israeli democracy, which is different than the constitutional republic of the USA. As a first time voter in the 2013 Israeli elections, I felt empowered by my vote and very invested in the outcome.
America’s electoral college renders most votes for President statistically irrelevant, as indicated by this map from Vox.com‘s “40 Charts that explain money in politics” that highlights which states Obama and Romney prioritized with their campaign spending. Many of the pros and cons of electing Presidents via the US electoral college system can be found on Debate.org, if you’re interested.
Israel’s coalition-based system of governance is also markedly different than the two party system that I was raised with. As a right-of-center voter in the USA, I would generally vote for Republican candidates, and prioritized national security, economic policy and USA-Israel relations over my other political concerns. My mentality was “either-or” – either a Republican or a Democrat would take office.
Accounting for the coalition system, my political calculus in the 2013 Israeli elections became more nuanced. Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party was projected to win the most Knesset seats, and I felt assured that my national security interests would be addressed by his government. My question became: which parties aim to address my other political interests (religion & state matters, housing, education, etc.) that also stand a chance of entering the next coalition and shaping policy? My vote went to Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
My intention was to shift the coalition’s priorities towards social issues. The words of Lior Akerman, a former brigadier-general and division head of the Shin Bet, reflect many of my concerns:
Police salaries are at an all-time low and there’s no budget for police cars or basic equipment. The educational system is on the verge of collapse due to lack of funds despite the lofty plans to decrease the number of pupils in each class. The health system is imploding due to lack of funds and nurses and doctors do not always receive their full salaries.
Transportation and infrastructure lag decades behind the population growth. Taxes continue to rise, real estate prices are sky high and the national deficit gets bigger and bigger each year.
I never dreamed that Yesh Atid would win 19 Knesset seats, or that the ultra-Orthodox (UTJ and Shas) parties would not be members of Netanyahu’s government coalition, but I was thrilled with the unexpected election results.
The ultra-Orthodox parties had provided previous coalitions with political stability for many years, in exchange for government funding for their religious institutions and communities, for maintaining the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious life, for insuring that ultra-Orthodox boys’ schools would not be required to teach math, English and civics, and for perpetuating the draft exemption for yeshiva students, etc. These policies are damaging to the State of Israel, and do damage to its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
In ways of example, Rabbi Moshe Gafni (UTJ) had used his authority as Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee to allocate billions of shekels to his favored religious institutions, making enormous changes to the national budget that were never approved by the Knesset. Further, Minister of Housing and Construction Ariel Atias (Shas) deliberately ignored the Trajtenberg Committee’s affordable housing guidelines that favored families willing to participate in the labor market, and set criteria that favored ultra-Orthodox families. (note: this was not about public housing for the very poor)
Unfortunately, once elected, Yair Lapid proved politically inept, using his clout to push for measures that were impractical at best. He insisted that the ultra-Orthodox draft law include criminal penalties against draft dodgers (instead of the economic sanctions that Hiddush recommended to the Shaked Committee), and the compulsory draft was set to take effect only four years later – well after the next elections. Even the implementation of the much acclaimed core curriculum in ultra-Orthodox schools, which the Knesset passed into law in 2013, was deferred until after the next elections. Much of what Yesh Atid promised was not accomplished.
Of course, positive changes did occur. Governmental monies for yeshiva budgets and child allowances were reduced (encouraging ultra-Orthodox men to seek gainful employment), major reform in marriage registration was passed (reducing the Chief Rabbinate’s total control over religious life), teachers did begin training to teach English and mathematics, measures were taken to counter gender segregation, and women were appointed to positions in the religious administrative hierarchy.
My vote in 2013 was not against Netanyahu. But by now breaking up the coalition over squabbles about the Nationhood Bill, and dramatically firing Livni and Lapid from their posts over accusations of an unsubstantiated “putsch”, at just such a time when polls indicate that the right-wing stands to make gains in the next elections, the Prime Minister has made clear to me that he doesn’t intend to address my concerns.
Netanyahu would rather eject the centrist secular parties from his coalition and return to his ultra-Orthodox political partners, bartering religious freedom and the government’s monies to the ultra-Orthodox power brokers in exchange for uncontested political dominance. He would rather spend nearly 2 billion shekels of tax payer money on elections and leave Israel without a budget plan.
So what Atid can I hope for?