Israelis Head to the Polls – Again

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After the coalition in the Israeli Knesset fell apart, Israelis found themselves looking at yet another round of elections, for the fifth time in three years. It remains to be seen whether the new elections, scheduled for this October, will  be any different than the ones before.  

In 2021, Naftali Bennett, with just seven of his own Knesset members,  cobbled together an unlikely razor thin majority coalition of 61, which included Arab parties. (The 120 seat Knesset is required to have a majority coalition of at least 61 members to govern.) Two members of the coalition recently resigned, triggering another attempt to form a government.  

After Naftali Bennett finished his term as prime minister, the rotation government agreement stipulated that Yair Lapid would follow. Lapid is now the interim prime minister, although there is no coalition in place. The last election taught us was that anything can happen, and therefore, there is no telling if another politician will take the top spot. According to i24 News the price tag for new elections is a whopping $840M. One factor that differentiates these elections from the previous ones is the post-pandemic economic recovery, which could influence votes. 

To get an idea of Israeli’s take on the prospect of yet another round of elections, we interviewed seven Israelis from various backgrounds. Each one was asked to give his opinion on the following: the issues of the day, the new election, what he thought of the last coalition, and what he believes might be the next chapter in Israel’s political history. 

Rabbi Shmuel Veffer 

A former Canadian, Rabbi Shmuel Veffer is an inventor, computer scientist, entrepreneur, lecturer, and novelist. He invented the Kosher Lamp and is the founder of Kosher Innovations. He lives in Tiberias, where he and his wife run Galilee Green, an olive export company.

Veffer believes the last coalition taught Israelis that “small parties can control the prime minister’s office. You can’t trust even the sincerest sounding politician, like Bennett, to stand by his most unbreakable principles. The country can function without Netanyahu. And, we still don’t know what the fundamental values of the State of Israel are.” 

Former Prime Minister Bennett and sitting Prime Minister Lapid, unified, but for the wrong reason – to end Netanyahu’s career, Veffer contends. “We should be unifying under Jewish values. If all the religious parties would unite together, they would be the biggest party in the Knesset, and things would be totally different.” 

Veffer says that the straw that broke the coalition’s back was the vote to extend the law that applies Israeli law to Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria. It was set to expire in June, and right-wing members of the opposition refused to vote with the government, against their own interests, in order to create this crisis, and bring down the government, Veffer believes.

“If the law (which was established in 1967) expires, Israeli citizens living in the territories will be forced to live under Israeli military law under the IDF, which is the actual legal authority in the territories. Among other things, that means the Israeli government would no longer be able to collect taxes, conscript soldiers, nor investigate crimes of Israeli citizens in the territories.” 

The Answer to Current Politics: Trust in Gd 

When asked about the political front, Veffer stated that he believes the current process of government is not just flawed, but is dangerous.  

“[It] ultimately leads to terror-supporting, anti-Israel Islamists sitting in the Israeli Knesset, deciding what the law of Israel should be. It allows us to elect a prime minister who can not only be a transgressor of Torah Law, but he or she doesn’t have to be Jewish! This system is not sustainable. And the sooner the people of Israel realize this, and put their trust in Gd and Torah, the sooner we will become secure in our Land and gain the respect of the nations.” 

However, Veffer asserts that the many elections are not frivolous and unnecessary, but are all a part of Gd’s Plan. “I feel the political chaos in Israel is here to teach Israelis that ultimately there is no one to trust other than our Father in Heaven,” he says.  

“As a Torah Jew, I view all events as occurring as a result of Divine Providence. Therefore, everything has meaning and a message in helping us move toward our ultimate destiny. So, another election is not a waste. It is happening for a reason. I hope we learn the lessons.” 

Igal Hecht 

Israeli-born Igal Hecht is a documentary filmmaker, involved in the production of more than 60 documentary films and over 20 television series. He has covered the previous four elections. Hecht’s latest film, featuring interviews with the major Israeli leaders, will soon be aired as a five-part series about what he describes as “the fragility of democracy, and a rare look at Israel’s most historic and turbulent political period.”

“The fact that Israel is heading into its fifth elections in just over three years is a very sad and telling reality, of the state of Israeli politics,” he says. “Aside from the fact that the politicians are placing their own lust for power over the needs of the everyday Israeli, the sheer vast waste of money is also frightening.”

To add insult to injury, he adds, the treasury minister is refusing to increase pay for teachers. And he did not increase the budgets for the health care system, sorely needed due to the pandemic. “But they had no problem finding the 12 billion shekels it took to run the elections.” 

Coalition Downfall Due to Arab Parties 

Hecht believes the dissolution of the coalition was inevitable, due to the coalition’s inclusion of the Arab parties, and those parties’ affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.  “At a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was being outlawed in Egypt, its Israel branch was receiving 53 billion shekels to be a part of this coalition. It was a shakedown by the Ra’am party and [PM] Bennett to achieve the dream of the left and the media of ‘anyone but Bibi.’”

Uri Gobey  

Uri Gobey from Yavne concurs. He feels that “Bennett’s continuation of doing things his voters, and other voters, would never expect him to do (such as giving a huge amount of money to the Arab sector, while neglecting the Jewish religious sectors) was only because he wanted to keep the coalition together,” Gobey says. 

The government could not bring about the changes promised, with so many lawmakers holding opposing views, he adds. 

“Most Jews in Israel want peace and unity, no doubt, but it is impossible for a single coalition with such extreme ideological differences to all sit together and agree, and more importantly to take action. The reason is that all of these opposing ideologies conflict way too much, to the point that almost nothing can ever be done the way it should be done, and the majority would always be catering to the minority, which is not democratic,” Gobey says.  

“A coalition’s goal should never be to only bring down one person and nothing more. This is unintelligent and a terrible way to vote, too,” Gobey added. However, he does not fault the system. Rather, he says, the voters need to understand the problems of giving their ballot “to parties that make impossible promises.” 

Outside of Politics Israelis Get Along!

Interestingly, while the parties change and the government changes, the issues for average Israelis have not changed in decades, he says. “Your average Israeli gets along just fine with every other Israeli, on a day-to-day basis. Nobody cares here whether you are left wing or right wing. Friendships and relationships here can have mixed ideologies and people get along just fine that way, as there is a general mutual respect between people, and most Israelis simply avoid talking politics to each other. If there are opposing views, it will only cause non-stop arguments.”  

Jason Swirsky 

Jason Swirsky is a former Canadian living in Haifa. He works as a vice-president for the Online Development and Services Division for a business based in the U.S. He says that “it is easy to overlook what a huge accomplishment passing the budget is,” and the political deadlock adversely affected his community, that has many students in medical school. “Not having a budget created a defacto hiring freeze, because employers didn’t know if they would have the budget to keep their new hires once a budget was passed. This was when there were staffing shortages due to fighting Covid. I am sure there are other professions that were similarly affected.”  

Despite claims to the contrary, Swirsky feels that Bennett and Lapid have demonstrated they can be effective on the diplomatic front. “For the most part we have had quiet on the Gaza border, including Hamas backing down on their threats to once again start a fight on Jerusalem Day over the flag march.” 

Swirsky notes that with the political system, any changes for improvement “tend to be motivated by short-sighted political gain, rather by than meaningful reform.” In 2014, the electoral threshold was raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent and “the last five elections have demonstrated why there is a need to reform the political system.” 

Aryeh Green  

Aryeh Green is an American Israeli activist and businessman based in Beit Shemesh. He is the former advisor to Natan Sharansky, and is the author of My Israel Trail: Finding Peace in the Promised Land. Green is the Chief Strategy Officer of Gigawatt Global. He felt that the elections were “unfortunate, costly, but ultimately the expression of a robust democracy at work. There is a need for reform of our political system.” Yet, Green also says he is one of the few who were “incredibly impressed” by the coalition.

“Not because I supported all its policies, not certainly all its constituent parts – I did not – but as it demonstrated a number of elements recently lacking in Israeli politics, namely, a sense of national mission, a recognition of the need to compromise on some principles in order to achieve others and to govern, an understanding that the time has come to find practical solutions to some of our complex social and political challenges, and a belief that there is more that unites us than divides us,” Green says. “And this is true most specifically regarding the historic inclusion of an Arab Islamist party in the governing coalition, how ever challenging that has been.” 

Moreover, he notes that the coalition was tougher on security issues and held a hard line on not allowing a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem. “This is an achievement ironically possible only due to the inclusion in the coalition of left and far-left parties.” Continuing issues are the economy, Iran, terrorism, and improvements in education and social welfare, Green says. 

Changes in the Political System Still Needed 

Green asserts that the political system does need to change, including raising the threshold for inclusion in the Knesset, “to reduce inordinate power of small single-issue or sectarian parties to hijack the government.” He also favors restructuring the process for appointing and approving Supreme Court judges to give the public more input and oversight “thus ending the self-perpetuating nature of the elitist, activist Court and leaving the job of legislating law to the parliament.”

Mordechai Ben Avraham  

Jerusalemite Mordechai Ben Avraham says that “most Israelis are frustrated about having a new set of elections – however the Israelis are still optimistic about forming a government. It’s being able to meet the needs of all the different ideologies existing in Israeli society. Regardless, if you’re on the right or left, amongst Israelis, there’s a sentiment that we can do better.” 

In that regard, better government also means tackling the rising cost of housing – near-unaffordable for regular Israelis, but attractive to foreign investors, he says. As always, the Iranian threat is a constant, but there is hope that the Abraham Accords will foster even more normalization with other Arab and Muslims states in coming years, says Ben Avraham. 

Rabbi Aryeh Leifert  

Rabbi Leifert, originally from Teaneck, NJ, is a tour guide, and Prager University editor. He thought that the government was bound to topple sooner than later, particularly given “how many on the right felt betrayed” by Bennett’s broken promise, that he would not partner with the Islamist party, Ra’am. The higher they raise the election threshold for entry into the Knesset, the better, he says. “I’m tired of small parties with a handful of seats holding a potential coalition hostage. Learn to compromise with those who share most, not necessarily all, of your values and concerns, and join forces.” 

Leifert felt his own sense of betrayal from the last coalition, as the Bennett government ended the monthly financial grants of about $2,000 offered to small businesses, like Leifert’s. 

“Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman told my fellow tourism industry professionals and me that we should look for new professions. Our response at our next protest? ‘You first, Lieberman!’” 

To make matters worse, the government twice canceled scheduled re-openings of Israel to foreign tourists, “which made our company look foolish, after we twice advertised these target dates to tourists.” 

Real Issues? Palestinians – No – Housing – Yes 

Although there are political messes to clean up (domestic issues as well as foreign issues), Leifert is quick to note that there is one thing that most outsiders think is a problem, that really isn’t: Palestinians. 

 “It’s rarely discussed anymore,” he says. “We seem to be fine with the status quo. We’ve moved on to making peace with many other of our regional neighbors.”  

What is a big issue? The cost of housing.  

“It just keeps going up. The supply is artificially kept down by the government, while the demand continues to rise. Especially in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where building is booming. That’s not a good combination for those without tremendous financial means.” 

In Conclusion 

In the United States, with our two party system, the main question of how the government will rule has to do with how much support is garnered in the House and the Senate. In Israel it’s an entirely different ball game, with a number of parties vying for votes and political power. Elections have become a wildcard, with outcomes almost anyone’s guess. 

But, we know Israelis can turn a drought into a water surplus, make a desert bloom, turn themselves from an energy importer to an energy exporter, and outpace most First World democracies in technology. So, one hopes that, with Jewish and Israeli sechel (ingenuity), they can soon come up with a clever way to solve the political deadlock plaguing the system, and finally be able to have a leader serve a full term.