There is a clear change happening on the Israeli political landscape. It is a time of transition and a time of hope. Having been fraught with scandals, the traditional large political parties and their leaders no longer have the backing of the majority of the Israeli electorate. Labor and Likud’s combined showing in the elections gives them only 46 of the 120 seats in Knesset.
Already in the previous elections, Kadima, a new party, won the largest number of seats. However, their own in-fighting and societal changes saw to it that in these last elections Kadima barely made it into the Knesset winning only two seats. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu bloc, while retaining the largest number of seats, was dealt a severe blow tumbling from 42 seats won in 2009 to only 31 seats this year.
If Kadima and Likud-Beytenu were the big losers this year, former television anchorman Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) was the big winner. A new party which brings 19 all new members of Knesset is now the second largest party after Likud-Beytenu. Yesh Atid is closely followed by Labor (15 seats) which until recently was the other large party for many years. Trailing behind them are both the national-religious party Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) with 12 seats and the Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox party Shas with 11 seats.
Not only did this election see the decline of the large parties and a rise of new smaller parties, but much of this year’s campaign agenda did not concern the security issue, but rather domestic policy. The security issues which have dominated national politics for decades took a backseat to the issues which will determine what type of state we are. These include topics such as social reform, economic policy, education, the role of religion and state, civil rights and national service. Thirty-four parties ran in the elections, each submitting a list of candidates who are elected dependent upon the percentage of votes their party receives in a nationwide election. Of these, only 13 received the minimal threshold of 2% of the electorate required to enter the Israeli legislature.
Most people with whom I spoke were largely undecided until close to election day. Several people told me that they voted for their “default party,” not entirely happy about it, but resigned to not having a better choice. The indecision in the electorate was both a result of the confusion of trying to navigate the labyrinth of new parties and indecision in trying to decide between so many alternatives which had valid points, but which were not exactly in-line with all of their ideals.
In the end, over 67% of Israelis voted (a rise from the turnout in 2009) and they pretty much divided the Knesset in half giving the right block 61 seats and the left block 59 seats. Labor has said that they will not join the coalition government and instead be part of a vigilant opposition.
There is hope that while the left and right sides of the political spectrum seem pretty evenly divided within the Knesset, there may be the opportunity in this Knesset for the majority of Knesset members to come together over a new set of issues which the electorate has put on the agenda. This does not bode well for the peace process which is likely to continue to be stalled by a Netanyahu-led government, but it does offer hope for solving some of Israel’s domestic policy problems which are bubbling to the surface and making headlines during and between elections.
It is refreshing to me that the voice of the electorate seems to be heard. I was recently in a meeting with about a half-dozen colleagues. We spoke about the elections and discovered that none of us had voted for the same party. To me, this is a celebration of Israel’s democracy. All of us have representatives in the Knesset with a wide range of views and priorities.
Indeed, election day had a celebratory, festive atmosphere. It is a national holiday when offices and schools are closed. Walking to the school where I voted at the end of my street felt like I was attending a block party, seeing friends and neighbors gathering to perform their civic duty. The country came together and my children were happy to take part in the process as well.
My three boys accompanied me into the polling station for the educational experience. They came with me behind the cardboard partition and selected the small post-it sized paper with the letters of the party for whom I voted. Osher who is seven, put it in the envelope. We all walked out together and Maytav who is eleven put our envelope into the ballot box, casting our vote and our hopes for 19th Knesset of the Jewish State.