Those conversant in the vernacular of Talmudic Aramaic will know that, following a legal or aggadic teaching, the Talmud will often ask “Mai Ka Mashma Lan? Loosely translated, it means, “What is this coming to teach us,” or, the more frequently used “what do we learn from this?”
As I contemplated the results of Israel’s elections this past week, that is the question that gnawed at me, and still does. What are we intended to learn from this? Depending on one’s political orientation and interest in Israel’s byzantine political system, the surprisingly successful re-election of Prime Minister Netanyahu elicited either pure elation or serious depression, with very little variation between. I have friends who are convinced that Netanyahu’s victory was the best thing that could have happened for Israel and the Jewish people, and others, myself among them, seeing it quite clearly as something totally other.
What are we to learn from this?
First, it seems clear that, as many have already opined, more Israelis than one might have expected voted their fears, as opposed to their hopes.
There's been a lot of talk about the gap between Israel’s richest and poorest citizens being a huge problem, and also that Netanyahu's emphasis on Iran and external threats to Israel has blinded him to what his own citizens care about. Well, when push came to shove, Israel voted security over housing. If, indeed, the pre-election polls were right, and Likud went into the final week of the campaign trailing by a possible three or four seats in the Knesset, it was Netanyahu’s furious and repeated invocation of the dangers of a left-of-center government that turned the tide.
This scare tactic of his was deeply troubling to me. For my own conscience to be clear, I am obliged to point out two things that the Prime Minister did that I hope will not be swept under the rug.
One was warning Jewish Israelis to get to the polls on Election Day because the Arabs were voting in large numbers, and his right-wing government was in peril. I had always thought that Israel is a democracy, and Israeli Arabs are citizens, and Israel’s Declaration of Independence grants equal rights to all citizens regardless of race, gender, religion.
The second was stating that a Palestinian state would never be created under his watch. Again, (though he has already begun to roll this back!), I thought that the two-state solution is Israeli national policy, as Netanyahu himself declared it to be. The word “pandering” (not to mention irresponsible and reprehensible) is not strong enough to describe his frantic efforts to draw in right-wing voters, and no amount of backtracking will change this.
But it worked, and that is significant. One is left no choice but to conclude that the Israeli electorate, or at least large sectors of it, is highly susceptible to appeals to their worst fears. Let me hasten to add, lest you think me some wild-eyed left-winger, that I would never, ever deny that there is an awful lot to be fearful of, and Israelis have every right to be focused on their security (like they need me to say that). The only question that needs to be asked is, at what price?
A second take-away from these election results, perhaps better put as a result that one might ignore only at great peril, is that the third largest block of seats in the Knesset is now held by Israeli Arabs, many if not most of whom are actively opposed to the government of Israel, and the very idea of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. No party, not the Likud nor the Zionist Union, could bring them in as coalition partners, effectively taking their large block of seats out of contention for any major party. In a political system as severely dysfunctional as Israel’s, with an electorate so fractionalized, that only increases the likelihood that any coalition formed will necessarily involve the coupling of parties farther to the right of center than any Israeli government in recent memory.
Which leads me to the third take-away, and for me personally, separate and apart from the foreign policy implications of the election results, the most difficult to abide.
It seems, as of this writing, quite clear that in order for Prime Minister Netanyahu (assuming President Rivlin asks him) to form the next government, he will be forced to align himself not only with parties that are far to the right even of him politically, but also with the ultra-Orthodox Charedi parties.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu was willing to roll back his stance on the two-state solution for the sake of votes, and call Israeli Arabs voting in large numbers a threat, also for the sake of votes, how many nanoseconds do you think it might take for him to roll back all the painstaking work done over the past few years to improve the status of non-Orthodox Jews, and particularly women, at the Kotel? For the Women of the Wall, this is obviously a painful development. But as a man, I, too, find it profoundly depressing. Some might answer, “You never know.” But as I am inclined to say in situations like this, no, you never know. But sometimes you have a pretty darned good idea.
And that’s what we learn from this. We are looking at the strong likelihood of a government farther to the right politically than any Israel has known in a very long time (unless Kachlon’s Kulanu party chooses to join the effort), and religiously rigid and inflexible on most of the issues that matter the most to large swaths of Diaspora Judaism.
No, you never know. But sometimes you have a pretty darned good idea.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.