On March 17, Israelis went to the polls in an election that was filled with drama and portent. Israeli voters knew that, whatever the result, it would have an intense impact upon the future of the Jewish state and upon the relationship between Israel and its most important ally, the United States.
About the process
First, let me caution you not to overlay the American political process over the Israeli system and think that you understand Israeli politics. We Jews don’t ever take the simple road. Israeli politics out-byzantines Byzantium. Israelis don’t directly elect their leaders. They vote for a slate associated with one of the numerous political parties. The candidates are ranked in order of their importance, as set by the party’s leadership. To qualify for one of the 120 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), a party must meet the minimum of 3.25 percent of the votes cast. Once that obstacle is crossed, each qualifying party is allocated seats pursuant to the proportion of votes that it received. Who is seated depends on the party’s number of allocated seats and their ranking by the party.
If you have grasped this so far, wait until the next stage. After the election, the government must still be formed. The only substantive duty of the president of Israel is to ask whomever he deems most likely to be able to form a government to do so. The person named by the president will be the prime minister — if he is successful in forming a government. That person then proceeds to wheel, deal, bargain, cajole, sweet talk, threaten and romance various parties to convince them to accept ministries with various portfolios in the government. This process can take lots of time, with all sorts of speculation being floated by every single person inside the boundaries of Israel … and outside the boundaries of Israel.
It is a spectator sport similar to watching a barely visible negotiation in an oriental bazaar where every spectator considers himself an expert and offers advice or criticism — loudly — from the sidelines. That is the process in which Israel is engaged right now. The election was only the first round of a cage match straight out of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
What does it mean?
I think that it is worthwhile for Americans to get a glimpse of the way ordinary Israelis look at this seminal election, so I asked a selection of my Israeli family and friends to provide me with their thoughts. It is important to understand the fact that there are about eight million Israelis — about two million Arabs and about six million Jews. Of the six million Jews, there is a division between those “on the right” and those “on the left.” The divide is huge and to a significant degree, one group wants nothing to do with the other. As a side note, my wife and I have some family members who are “on the right,” and some who are “on the left.” We love each and every one of them and each and every one of them loves Israel. But they see things so differently that the distance between them is, in some matters, unbridgeable … kind of like here in America.
Here are the results of my unscientific poll: Although many of those “on the left” are in a state of deep mourning and a large number of them share a deep antipathy for those who are “on the right,” the majority of those with whom I spoke were overjoyed by the election results.
What I learned
One of my close friends, Elie, has a significant position with the YESHA Council, the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. It is fair to say that the residents of Judea and Samaria are primarily “on the right.” He is beside himself with happiness about the victory of Netanyahu’s Likud party. He believes that the election was primarily a referendum on Netanyahu. He said that the left made the mistake of believing that Bibi was seriously damaged as a result of Obama’s open antagonism. He thinks that Obama overplayed his hand. Had Obama not been so “childish” (his word), Netanyahu’s speech to Congress would not have helped Bibi anywhere near as much as it actually did.
By talking the speech down, Obama convinced Israelis that he was the uncivil part of the equation. In Elie’s view, even those Israelis who think that Bibi is arrogant or too aggressive were turned off by Obama’s behavior and impressed by Bibi’s demeanor in Washington. They especially appreciated Netanyahu’s invitation to his primary opponent, Isaac Herzog, to join him in Washington to show unanimity. The fact that Herzog did not appear to know how to react made him look weak, something Elie believes was not lost on the Israeli electorate.
My cousin Anat is a teacher who is a religious Zionist. All observant Jews, members of her family have proudly served in every one of Israel’s wars. She doesn’t believe that the sour relationship between Obama and Netanyahu had any impact on the elections. As to the speech to Congress, she says that it “occurred two weeks before the elections and two weeks are more than a lifetime in Israeli political terms.” When I asked her if the elections were about economics, as so many members of the American media have stated, she replied, “Israeli elections are always about security. Security is first and only then does the economy enter the picture. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.”
She believes that relations between Obama and Netanyahu will not improve. However, she says that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is extremely important to every Israeli. Israelis know the tremendous debt of honor that Israel owes to the U.S. They know that there are ups and downs, but the relationship will remain strong because it is not only in Israel’s interest, it is vital to the U.S., as well. In the final analysis, she stressed that Israelis strongly believe that only Israel is entitled to make the decisions that will affect their lives and the future of the Jewish state.
Anat’s son, Shmuel, was just released from active duty with an elite commando unit in the Israeli army. He was married in December and is beginning his life on his own. He is the future of Israel. He is a religious Zionist with all the accoutrements — head covering, tzitzit (fringes), etc. He and his wife live in Ariel, a beautiful new town in Samaria with a magnificent university and a fabulous future. As a young married man, Shmuel says that everything is expensive and the economy is a big concern. However, he says that he would “rather go to sleep feeling safe without worrying about rockets flying in from Gaza every day, than worry about the economy.”
He said, “Lets keep our citizens safe first and then we can take care of the economics.” According to him, there was concern about Obama’s antagonism towards Netanyahu. However, the Israeli public is well aware of the leftist bias of almost all of the Israeli media. So they discounted the media’s preference for Labor entirely. Shmuel agrees with his mother that even though it may seem that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. has gone downhill, it will stabilize because America knows that Israel is its only true friend in the Middle East.
The opinion shared by several sources is that, for the remaining 22 months of President Obama’s term, while the Israelis will try to work closely with the Democrats in Congress, they will keep the contacts with Obama’s people to whatever minimum is possible, given the undeniable fact that Obama is still the president. They will continue to maintain their good relationship with Republicans.
The consensus is that the polls were dead wrong because the pollsters couldn’t stand the results. Furthermore, the left’s campaign was based on the concept of “anyone but Bibi.” As stated above, unlike in the U.S., Israelis don’t vote for an individual, but for a party. Many voters didn’t like the nasty campaign that was directed personally against Netanyahu and his wife. In addition, Israel is a democracy and its voters don’t like it when other countries/organizations (such as V15, President Obama’s political consultants who allegedly went to Israel to work against Netanyahu) try to influence the elections.
The reason that I have not included more voices from “the left” is because they didn’t want me to quote them. Period!
I learned one other interesting fact: When it comes to the issue of an Iranian nuclear capability, there was little difference between the left and the right. All agreed that Iran represents an existential danger to the state of Israel and all agreed that President Obama’s “negotiations” with the Iranians bode nothing but evil, not only for Israel, but for the U.S. and western civilization.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.