Israel in all of its complexity
Israeli journalist Natasha Mozgovaya highlighted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s stinging setback in the January 2013 parliamentary elections and a new political focus on simmering domestic issues.
Perhaps the most salient fact of the elections was that a record number of Israelis voted for small parties (a total of 32 parties offered candidates) that did not clear the electoral barrier of two percent of the vote.
UCLA International Institute, March 14, 2013—If you didn’t already know what a complicated place Israel is, you certainly had a better idea after completing “Israel in 3-D,” the one-day university organized by the UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies on Sunday, March 8, at the UCLA Faculty Club.
The annual outreach event was attended by close to 200 people. Its goal is to share the latest research on Israel with the off-campus community of greater Los Angeles, providing information about Israeli politics, society and culture that is rarely covered in depth by major media outlets.
Keynote speaker and journalist Natasha Mozgovaya, formerly of Ha’aretz newspaper, offered a comprehensive analysis of the January parliamentary elections in Israel, in which the right-wing Likud government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, running in coalition with the nationalist Israel Beytenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman, suffered a stunning loss of one-quarter of its Knesset seats (winning only 31).
Netanyahu has yet to form a new coalition government with the center-left Yesh Atid (19 seats) and the nationalist, far-right Ha-Bait ha-Yehudi (12 seats) parties. Nevertheless, Mozgovaya claimed that the elections had produced a heartening change in national political discourse in Israel, bringing key domestic issues to the forefront that are frequently hijacked by urgent security concerns.
Perhaps the most salient fact of the elections was that a record number of Israelis voted for small parties (a total of 32 parties offered candidates) that did not clear the electoral barrier of two percent of the vote. As a result, 70 percent of the Israeli population now has no representation in the Knesset. The speaker noted that the election results were doubly surprising because both Israeli and western media anticipated a big win for Netanyahu.
According to Mozgovaya, Netanyahu’s slogan—“A strong leader for a strong Israel” —fell on deaf ears for four reasons. First, an economic report published two weeks before the elections showed a larger budget deficit than expected, anticipating both higher taxes and spending cuts. Second, the military operation in the Gaza strip initiated by his government in November 2012 had no clear outcome. Third, the Prime Minister focused on himself, not his electoral slate, during the electoral campaign. And fourth, his campaign offered no vision for Israel’s future, concentrating instead on fear of turbulence in the region (i.e., in Egypt, Syria, and Iran).
In contrast, the well-known popular former television journalist Yael Lapid led the newly formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party to win 19 seats. Mozgovaya observed that Lapid was representative of a new trend in Israeli politics: the entry of journalists into the political fray. Some 1 out of every 10 members of the new Knesset is a former journalist, she added.
In what she labeled a very “American” campaign, Lapid barnstormed across Israel, building an ardent network of supporters in a technology-based campaign. Rather than attack his competitors, he promised “hope and change” and offered plans to solve Israel’s problems. By asking Israelis if they were working hard but not getting ahead and whether they were tired of supporting thousands of men to study the Torah who do not serve in the Army, Lapid gave voice to growing domestic resentments.
Dismissing the criticism of Lapid as “pretty,” Mozgovaya remarked that as an immigrant, she felt that he offered a new image of the “proper Israeli” that immigrants have typically striven to become—one that reflects the contemporary melting pot that is Israel today.
Lapid’s partner in the coalition talks is Naftali Bennett, leader of the Ha-Bait ha-Yehudi (Jewish Home) party. As leader of the Jewish settlement movement, Bennett comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, Mozgovaya noted that the two men (known as the “two brothers” in Israel today) had found common ground and presented a united front to Netanyahu—either he took them both or he wouldn’t have a coalition.
Mozgovaya cited a number of issues that may preclude the new government from advancing social change in Israel, including the possibility of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the consequences of the expected fall of the Assad regime in Syria, and the possibility of a third intifada.
Identifying the last scenario as “the biggest elephant in the room missing from the elections,” she claimed that President Obama’s visit to Israel later in March could raise expectations among Palestinians that could lead to an explosion if no concrete action follows his visit. Finally, she noted that Israelis have lost trust in the peace process, with 87 percent of respondents in a recent poll not expecting peace even if Israel were to withdraw to its 1967 borders. The continued escalation of Hamas improving its weapons in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli Army improving its own armaments calls out for a political solution, she argued.
On the domestic front, the speaker identified a number of contentious issues. Resentment over state support of Ultra-Orthodox scholars has become acute, with women in these communities increasingly earning degrees and entering the workforce to support their husbands. Clearly, argued Mozgovaya, Israel cannot afford an educational system for the Ultra-Orthodox and a secular education system that excels in science and math. Advertisements critical of conversions to Judaism among Russian immigrants have, meanwhile, enraged their community.
Turning to another issue, Mozgovaya noted that Lucy Aharish, an Arab-Israeli television news anchor, recently expressed the enormous frustration of Arab-Israelis, who feel that Israeli society simply rejects 26 percent of its citizens. Arab parties have 13 seats in the current Knesset, said the speaker, but that if more Arab-Israelis voted, that number could easily reach 20.
Finally, Mozgovaya pointed out that Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party (also a former journalist) had enunciated a long-ignored truth in a recent Knesset speech: women constitute only 25 percent of the Israeli parliament, but are paying the price of decisions made by men. In a sign of the changing times, Michaeli also argued that Israelis must move beyond being victims of the Holocaust—that nothing positive can come from that discourse—and that criticism of Israel is criticism, not betrayal.
The coalition still being negotiated, which will exclude the Ultra-Orthodox parties, may last only two years. Nevertheless, Mozgovaya saw a positive note in the election results. “You can see that the discourse is changing,” she said, “which gives me great hope.”