Israelis are optimistic, moderate and cautious, and they reward positive politicians. But they are also impatient with the country’s many economic and social disparities.
The results of the January 22 Israeli election tell us that our society is dynamic and healthy, and that Israelis are optimistic about the country’s future, yet impatient with the pace of change. The election result also reveals our concern about regional developments and deep wariness of dramatic diplomatic escapades.
To begin with, proof that Israelis are optimistic can be found in the high level of political engagement. More than 75 percent of Israeli Jews and 56 percent of Israeli Arabs (resident in the country) voted in the election – which is far above the average rate of election participation in the democratic West. Furthermore, 47 freshmen from nine different parties will be entering the Knesset, amounting to a full one-third of parliament. The jump into public life of so many new (and many young) figures – including social activists, journalists, educators, rabbis, municipal officials and new immigrants – is a sign of optimism and renewal.
Secondly, our body-politic is dynamic. Israelis elected one dozen parties to parliament, out of more than 35 political parties that stood for election. Some 250,000 voters even cast their ballots for tiny ideological parties – even though voters knew that these parties were unlikely to pass the minimum electoral threshold for entering Knesset (and they didn’t). Pollsters say that at least 20 percent of the public decided who to vote for only during the final four days of the campaign. Moreover, we’re constantly making and breaking political parties. Lapid and Bennett understood the need for new social-political scaffolding, and established new parties within which to express their values (although Lapid built himself on the ruins of Kadima and Labor, and Bennett on the ship-wrecked National Religious Party).
Thirdly, Israelis reward positive politicians, like Lapid and Bennett. The two upstarts campaigned on Zionist commitment and civic devotion, and shied away from attacks on their political adversaries. The public rebuffed those politicians who sought to delegitimize and defame Netanyahu.
Fourthly, the Israeli public is moderate and centrist. Society is not torn apart by a right-left diplomatic schism nor is it shifting dangerously to the radical right – as much of the global media was alleging with a smirk on its face. In fact, the primary concerns of Israelis at the moment are domestic and economic, not diplomatic.
Fifthly, caution is the diplomatic watchword. Israelis are very concerned about the upheavals in the Arab world, and wary about jumping too quickly towards grand diplomatic accords. They especially seek a go-slow approach on the Palestinian issue, and for now this means that they adopt Netanyahu’s diplomatic approach. Israelis are saying to their leaders (and to the world): ‘Hold off with diplomatic adventures for a while, while the Arab world sorts-out its political identity, and we Israelis sort-out some of our social and economic disparities.’
Sixth of all, Israelis are impatient with the country’s many economic and social disparities. The gap between wealthy and poor in Israel is too large. The cost-of-living for the middle class too high. The burden of military service too inequitable. Enter Mr. Lapid.
Finally, Israelis crave unity. Polls show that they want a unity government with broad representation of the public through a coalition of seven or eight political parties. It’s a healthy instinct.