NEW YORK — At 3 P.M. last Tuesday, a small group of Israeli colleagues gathered around a large TV screen in their Midtown offices and watched the election exit polls being broadcast live in their homeland.
What they saw, with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan predicted to be the largest party in the 22nd Knesset and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly incapable of forming a governing coalition, left them feeling hopeful.
One of the workers, 33-year-old Noam Gissis, is a digital marketer who has spent the last few years in New York. “I am first of all happy that Bibi didn’t get a clear-cut victory and that the right-wing bloc isn’t bigger,” the self-proclaimed left-winger told Haaretz by phone on Friday, referring to the Israeli premier by his nickname. “I’m not celebrating as if the [left-wing] Labor Party and Meretz got 56 seats together, like in the 1990s. But I hope something will change at least.”
Gissis’ main concerns for this do-over election were the preservation of democracy and the judiciary, which he regarded as being “in great danger” if Netanyahu won and pushed for an immunity law that would protect him from likely indictments in three separate corruption cases. “Now I believe that Kahol Lavan will at least set the tone and defend that aspect,” he says.
With almost all of the votes now counted, Kahol Lavan has 33 seats compared to Likud’s 31, with the predominantly Arab Joint List the third-largest party on 13 seats. President Reuven Rivlin must now decide which party gets the first chance to form a government, with many permutations still possible.
As Israel does not permit absentee voting (except for the 5,000 or so citizens who are working abroad on behalf of the state), any expats who want to vote must fly back to Israel to do so. This is how, for the second time this year, Maya Ben-Meir — a singer who lives in New York — found herself on a long-haul flight to Tel Aviv to take part in the democratic process. Spending all that time and money was worth it, she told Haaretz after returning to New York, adding that she is encouraged by the latest results, which offer “a bit more balance.”
Ben-Meir would ideally like to see a center-left coalition that includes the Joint List. “But I know that’s problematic for different reasons,” she says. “More realistically, it would be [a unity government of] Kahol Lavan and Likud — but without Bibi. The time has come for him to go home; it’s enough.
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“The way I see it, he is so desperate and those who are paying the price for his efforts to avoid going to prison are the people,” she adds.
Gissis also believes the time has come “to let the Arab parties sit in the government, but I don’t think it’ll be stable on a national level. It’s not something that can last. In that situation, there will be new elections in a year or two, and then the right will be much stronger. I think that in order to achieve calm and stability, [the new government] will have to be based on Likud and Kahol Lavan,” he says.
Doron Barzilay moved to the United States 30 years ago and currently lives in Jackson, New Jersey. He also believes that a unity government is the “best” option, but that removing Netanyahu from the equation is not wise.
“They can’t do it without Bibi,” the 53-year-old courier says in a phone interview. “A huge amount of people voted for Likud and Bibi, and you can’t say that this half of the country doesn’t count. There has to be a certain compromise.
“The only ones who wouldn’t want [a unity government] are the extremes,” continues Barzilay. “They have to sit together — otherwise this will never end.” He says he wants the next government to work for everybody: “There are a lot of groups in Israel, including Arab Israelis, including settlers. Everyone needs to be represented in the government. We are a democracy and the right thing to do is for no one to feel like it’s not their country,” he says.
As an emissary to Jewish organizations from New York’s Reform and Conservative movements, Karin Lagziel was among the 800 or so Israelis able to vote at the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan two weeks ago.
“There is a feeling of progress,” the 32-year-old says in a phone interview as she reflects on the results. “It feels like, no matter what, we are going to see something we have never seen before. Progress and change are always significant and positive — because the current options are going to represent groups of people who were not represented in the past few years,” she says. “It opens new opportunities, and we can imagine a different reality looking forward,” she adds.
Lagziel’s ideal scenario for the next government would be one where “the biggest possible portion of Israeli society is represented. “In my opinion, this will happen with the two big parties [Kahol Lavan and Likud] uniting and whoever else wants to join the coalition. Even if there will be more of a mess and more arguments within the coalition, I believe a wider government is the way to go,” she says.
The September 17 election was called when Netanyahu failed to form a ruling coalition in May, after Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman made the issue of drafting yeshiva students into the army a decisive factor. Gissis says he views the do-over election, in which neither the left-wing or right-wing blocs have a majority, as a “terrible waste of money for the country.”
Barzilay, who also holds U.S. citizenship, concurs. “The political system in Israel is a mess. I prefer the two-party system,” says Barzilay, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and says he will do likewise in 2020. In Israel, he says, “everyone wants a piece of the pie — it’s not normal, it will never end. I’m worried there will be another election. No one will want to go vote anymore, they will get discouraged.”
Indeed, if no new government is formed within three months, the Israeli president will have no choice but to call another Knesset election for early 2020.
Lagziel admits to feeling anger that the do-over election was “using resources that could go toward other goals.” The actual cost of staging the election is estimated at some 450 million shekels ($128 million), although the government must also pay an extra billion shekels to cover workers’ salaries since Election Day is a public vacation in Israel.
Whether they flew over to vote or followed events from afar, the expat Israelis Haaretz spoke to were all attuned to their country’s politics. That mood was encapsulated by Gissis, who says he remains “emotionally invested” in his homeland. “It’s my country, I am planning on going back someday. My family and friends are there.”
Lagziel, who has represented Israel in various “soft diplomacy” positions over the years, says there was never any doubt in her mind that she would vote. “At the end of the day, it affects me, it affects my job in the Jewish communities,” she observes. “Right now, there is a lot of anger and grudges held toward [Israel]. It’s not easy being an emissary in such times. It’s been hard to explain why our political system doesn’t allow for representation of the majority of the people, or the fact that a certain government is established doesn’t mean it won a popular vote,” she says.
“I feel like a good citizen,” Ben-Meir laughs, reflecting on the two unplanned flights she has made this year. “I fulfilled my right and duty to vote twice this year. It’s true I don’t live in Israel, but all of my family is there, my friends are there, my colleagues, people I grew up with, studied with, people I talk to and I keep in touch with remotely,” she says. “It matters a lot to me what happens. It matters to me that my home, the place I grew up in, the place I was born in, that it is a place I can think of positively.”