In a Vote With Something to Vex Everyone, Glimmers of a New Israeli Electorate

While the election may only enhance the disenchantment of many, the campaign also pointed to new and significant trends emerging within the Israeli electorate.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Ayman Odeh casts his ballot in the 2015 election.
Ayman Odeh casts his ballot in the 2015 election.Credit: Rami Shllush
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

The results of Tuesday's election suggest a new definition of democracy in Israel: Something to disappoint everyone.

There are many clear losers, in particular Israel's smaller parties – one of which, the extreme right Yahad, appears to have been eliminated altogether. Two others, the dovish Meretz and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, barely survived the election.

For most Israelis, who, polls have shown, never believed that the election was necessary in the first place, the bramble of coalition politics stemming from this election may appear more dismaying than ever.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who outperformed predictions with a late surge at the ballot box, can little afford to take comfort in the results.

His choices of government coalitions are sub-optimal at best. There is tremendous bitterness against him within the right-wing parties he bruised, undermined, and sapped for the sake of his Likud party.

And then, among a wealth of other miscalculations, there is the matter of how the incumbent prime minister managed to place himself so deeply in the position of being an underdog.

After all, Benjamin Netanyahu began the campaign last December as that Man Who Could Not Lose, facing a challenger who, by all reckonings, could not win.

While the results of the election may only enhance the disenchantment which many Israelis feel regarding those who govern them and the peculiar system which puts them into office, the campaign also pointed to new and significant trends emerging within the Israeli electorate, voting groups which could have growing impact in the years to come.

First and foremost was the impact of the votes of Israeli Arabs.

In a country where it often seems that the only reliable natural resource is irony, the great irony of the 2015 campaign was that the formation of a Joint List of Arab parties and their remarkable showing in the election, came as a response to a Lieberman-inspired bill to eliminate Arab parties from the Knesset.

To the horror of Lieberman, who has often traded on anti-Arab racism to boost his party's electoral standing among hardline Jews, the "Governability Law" not only had the effect of boosting Arab representation to unprecedented levels, but nearly resulted in the elimination of Lieberman's own party.

The law raised the minimum number of votes necessary for a party to enter the Knesset. It was based on the assumption that fractious Arab parties would never band together – and even if they did, Israeli Arabs would refrain from voting in large numbers.

The election proved both assumptions to be dramatically wrong. The Joint List galvanized voting in Arab communities, and had a powerful effect on the election as a whole. Not least, the high Arab voter turnout may have led directly to the elimination of Yahad, a party which included one of Israel's most glaring anti-Arab racists, Kahane disciple Baruch Marzel.

Two other trends of note: A marked rise in the involvement of women in leadership and activist roles across the political spectrum, and a surprising apparent shift in attitudes among Israeli young people.

Although sexism played a role in much of the political discourse – especially in Netanyahu and the Likud's relentless, often acrid disparagement of the Zionist Union's Tzipi Livni – women played key roles in most parties, with ultra-Orthodox women breaking with tradition to found a party of their own.

At the same time, it had long been assumed that younger Jewish Israelis were overwhelmingly right-wing, and the younger the voters, the more hardline they were likely to be. But a surge in younger voter interest in centrist parties may be a sign that the assumption no longer applies.

Although these trends are nascent, they may prove of decisive importance in coming elections. And, given the nature of the results of Tuesday's voting, a new election – which would put that theory to the test – may come sooner than anyone would like.

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