The Winner of the Israeli Election: Democracy

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Israelis have woken up to a dawn of new hope, for the winner of Israel’s 2013 election is its democracy. After four years in which illiberal politicians tried to pass one anti-liberal law after another, this danger has now dissipated. More than anything, Israelis have voted for civic values: They want accountability, transparency and politicians who serve the citizenry rather than taking care of their own interests. In this respect, the social protests from the summer of 2011 have succeeded in transforming Israel’s political landscape.

Benjamin Netanyahu is this election’s great loser. Israeli voters have made clear that they are sick of Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s politics of fear and inaction. Crowned “King Bibi” by Time magazine, and looking unassailable for years, Netanyahu has emerged battered. Israelis are beginning to realize that Netanyahu’s policy of disrespect for the country’s allies is running Israel into dangerous isolation, and Obama’s recent statements that Netanyahu doesn’t know what is good for Israel has reached the public’s ear.

Netanyahu has lost a quarter of the combined power of his Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. If Yisrael Beiteinu’s seats are deducted from the joint list, Netanyahu got only 15 percent of the popular vote. The election results do not allow Netanyahu to use his favorite tactic of first establishing a narrow right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition and then add fig leaves from the center while dictating the terms.

Israelis have punished all politicians who ran on a platform of hatred and voted the two most racist and extreme right-wingers, Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad, out of the Knesset. Instead, Israelis have embraced parties that ran on unifying platforms, rather than divisive ones. They are tired of the profound polarization between left and right and want to live normal lives, even though they are placed in the midst of one of the world’s most dangerous and volatile neighborhoods.

This is the background of Yair Lapid’s historically unprecedented achievement: A brand-new party without a single acting politician has won nineteen seats - as many as Netanyahu’s Likud! Lapid, rather than Netanyahu, will be able to dictate the next government’s agenda, because nobody could form a coalition without him. He ran a consistent and disciplined campaign based on two themes: “No” to politics that disregard the voter’s interests and “yes” to the rights of Israel’s middle class - who works hard, serves in the army and never sees any fruits to its labor.

Lapid’s campaign was for a normal Israel. Its people are tired of being run by sectorial interests and by ideologies, whether from left or right, and are sick of being scared into voting for politicians who forecast Israel’s annihilation. They want to pay normal rates for apartments and cars, they want their children to study in good schools and get decent medical treatment. They no longer want sectorial parties extorting tax money for their constituents, so they created a new situation in which ultra-Orthodox parties would no longer decide who will rule Israel or where the taxpayer’s money goes.

In this election, the public focused on a civic agenda, and seemingly Israel’s great existential questions, primarily the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did not play a role in the major parties’ election campaigns. Nevertheless, those interested in fostering Middle East peace can learn much from the results of this election. The settlers’ power in the next government will be far more restricted, and they will no longer dictate the Israeli policy.

Lapid made clear he will not allow the next government to expand settlements outside the large blocs, to pour money carving up the West Bank, making a future peace agreement impossible. And he will have the clout to insist on this demand – particularly if further moderates like Tzipi Livni will be a part of the next government.

Moreover, it is worth paying close attention to recent polls which showed that two thirds of Israel’s general public, and 57 percent of the right-wing voters, would back an agreement with the Palestinians, which includes the partition of Jerusalem, provided that Israel’s security is maintained. But anybody who thinks that Israelis are willing to rush back tomorrow to the 1967 borders does not read the map. Israelis want assurances they will not experience another violent intifada or more rocket attacks on Israel’s south. This means that as long as Hamas maintains its stated goal to destroy Israel, Israelis will be reluctant to take the chance that the Islamic movement may one day rule a Palestinian state that could launch rockets at Israel’s population centers.

Yes. Israel needs to stop settlement expansion. But Palestinians need to realize that Israelis will not agree to anything short of a position that assures the country’s long-term security. They will have to make clear that they recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and they will have to renounce the right of return into pre-1967 Israel. The free world must make clear, that once Israel stops settlement expansion, the Palestinians and the Arab World must commit, unequivocally, to these conditions, if they really want peace.

The free world, led by Obama, would do well if it were to listen to the voice of the new Israel: Less ideological, with more intent to live a normal, decent life. The free world leaders are now bound to meet an Israeli leadership that is committed to civility and civilization, and if they will bring some fresh thinking to the table, a brighter horizon of believable hope could rise. 

An Israeli soldier arranges ballots in a voting booth at a polling station in southern Israel January 21, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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