Why you should not see Israel’s new elections as a repeat episode

A man walks past an election campaign poster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 1, 2019.  . Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
A man walks past an election campaign poster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 1, 2019. . Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI

Did that really just happen? We had the sight on Wednesday evening of the Israeli Knesset voting to dissolve itself only 50 days after the election.

As Israelis prepare to return to the ballot box in September, we must avoid seeing the forthcoming elections as a Groundhog Day scenario. Whilst it might feel as if we are simply winding back the clock and repeating the last elections, the reality is that the political landscape in Israel has changed remarkably and in ways we should be alert to.

The most proximate reason for PM Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a coalition was not reaching a consensus between Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the hard-right, largely secular Yisrael Beitenu party, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. They were unable to resolve their differences over Israel’s military draft law. Nobody knew what Lieberman, a former close associate but now a bitter rival of the prime minister, was really up to. Was he bluffing or was he truly willing to torpedo the formation of a new right-wing government? Lieberman did not budge.

So with the next election scheduled, we should not write it off as a simple replay of April’s. Two main things have changed. Firstly, the last election campaign was sullied by incitement and racism: mistrust of the ‘other’ became the norm, e.g. Arab citizens of Israel experienced outright attacks on their political participation. One (Jewish) MK even depicted himself literally shooting an Arab MK. This continued up until Election Day with the Likud Party seemingly intent to deter Arab voter turnout by secretly installing cameras in polling stations. The scars do not easily disappear.

We have also learned through the failed coalition negotiations what the terms were for the next prospective government. We learned the scope of the assaults on an independent judiciary and the balance of powers contemplated as the basis of a coalition. The prime minster tried to assemble a government premised on unconditional immunity from criminal responsibility, constitutional reforms to dismantle the power of the Supreme Court, and a commitment to some annexation of the West Bank. All of these challenges to Israeli democracy hang in the air as Israelis prepare for yet another round of elections.

It takes a minute to really appreciate the gravity of this.

Any one of these changes would transform Israel’s democratic structure and standing. Earlier this month Israel’s Supreme Court President Esther Hayut warned that democracies are not invincible to the designs of those who seek to dismantle them. She is not the only concerned voice, as exemplified by the tens of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets last Saturday night to protest the planned ‘Immunity Law’.

At the New Israel Fund we are proud to support Israelis who are defending Israel’s democratic institutions, protecting minority rights, and the integrity of the democratic process and the rule of law. They stand for the right of every citizen to exercise their right to vote. They stand for civil society and for a robust Arab-Jewish partnership on behalf of a democratic future for all Israelis.

One small step we have taken is to launch an immediate response to the elections: a new and exciting Shared Society Grassroots Fund. This will give small grants to local initiatives in Israel doing high impact work to help bolster critical partnerships and rebuild trust between Jewish and Arab citizens. It will help ordinary Israeli citizens seeking to strengthen ties with their neighbours and set the right example for their children. The hundreds of proposals we have received speaks to the many, many Israelis far removed from the glare of national politics who are working to rebuild trust.

These Israeli voices of tolerance and democracy are the future that NIF is betting on. And it is the path that we know will prevail whatever the coming months and September’s Knesset elections will bring.

About the Author
Adam Ognall is Chief Executive of the New Israel Fund.
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