Israeli Elections Bring a New Knesset

Just over three weeks ago, the State of Israel voted for its 19th Knesset, or parliament. The agenda put forth by most political parties focused on social policies rather than the peace process or geo-political issues, and the makeup of the 19th Knesset reflects the changes in Israel’s demographics and social trends. We see now that these elections were the delayed result of the social protest of the summer of 2011. More than the protesters wanted to lower the price of cottage cheese and apartments, they wanted to change the priorities of the State of Israel and the manner in which the country was being run. The next Knesset will include many parliamentarians who are an expression of this determination to change, including two past leaders of the protest movement.

Talks now are focused on equal sharing of the national service burden, social justice, and the pluralistic aspects of Jewish identity. Even at this early stage, we can assume that the third Netanyahu government will move forward with a series of major civil reforms.

The politician the voters distrusted the most was Netanyahu. Although he won the elections and will most likely form the next government, in reality, he lost. it’s not just the more than 10 mandates that were lost due to the merger of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, which was supposed to strengthen, not weaken the prime minister; it’s the general feeling that the prime minister isn’t a leader, doesn’t have a stable vision, and isn’t trustworthy. That makes Netanyahu Likud’s least successful leader since the party rose to power in 1977.

So what will the next coalition look like? The big question is will Netanyahu be able to establish a government without the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas. Many in Israel feel that this is a historical window of opportunity. Although the alliance between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox is not ideological, it is functional and pragmatic. Netanyahu knows the Haredi parties are not built for coalition crises and resignations. Only by being a part of the governing coalition are they able to deliver what they promised their voters. The ultra-Orthodox parties do not really exist if they sit in the opposition.

The two big surprises of these elections are two relatively young, successful and extremely charismatic leaders: Yair Lapid, a former journalist; and Naftaly Bennett, a native American, modern Orthodox Israeli, a successful high-tech businessman who lives in the bourgeois city of Raanana (and not in one of the settlements as many would guess) . Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, which has no real political agenda that anyone understand in regard to the peace process, a party that won the second highest number of seats (19), just because they represent something different–hope, moderation, a new Israel. Their main stand is for a universal draft to the army and pluralistic Judaism.

On the other hand, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) came in fourth and very successfully brought back to life the national religious Israelis who share most of Lapid’s ideology, but were looking for a religious frame for their ideas. Both are ambitious parties. Their leaders are looking to the future. Lapid and Bennett are coordinating their positions, and both parties want a government without the Haredim.

In a typical election cycle, Israel can expect about one third of its Knesset members to be replaced. This time, however, 48 new politicians (40%) will join the parliament and be responsible for decisions that will impact our future. The 19th Knesset features some very interesting, colorful figures, which will no doubt brighten some of the most boring meetings.

Here is a short 19th Knesset trivia list:

The 19th Knesset will contain 120 members representing 12 parties. Altogether, 32 parties ran for these elections, but as mentioned, only 12 parties passed the minimum barrier. The 19th Knesset average age (50) is 10 years younger than previous Knessets. The senior MK with 29 years in office is 77 years old, while the youngest is 27 years old, both from the same Labor party.

The 19th Knesset will look substantially different than its predecessor. It will feature more journalists, more women (23%) and more representatives who are religiously observant (33%).

A few famous figures join the 19th Knesset, including Dr. Ruth Calderon from the Yesh Atid party. A Jewish scholar best known for founding the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem in 1989, one of the city’s first Jewish study houses where secular and religious Israelis can learn Torah together, Calderon recently founded Alma, a center for Hebrew culture in Tel Aviv with a mission to combine Jewish, Israeli and universal culture.

Stav Shaffir from the Labor party is known not only because she is the youngest Knesset member, or probably the only one living with roommates in a rented apartment, but because she was one of the 2011 Social Protest leaders.

Erel Margalit, from the Labor party as well, is a former kibbutznik, one of Israel’s wealthiest and most successful venture capitalists.

Orit Struk from the Habayit Hayehudi party lives in one of the most stridently ideological communities in the West Bank -Hebron–where she runs the Jewish community’s legal and diplomatic division and has made her home for 30 years.

Shimon Solomon from Yesh Atid has come a long way to the Knesset. When he was 12, Solomon set out on foot with his family from Ethiopia, traveling to Israel via Sudan.

At the moment, six parties representing 82 MKs recommended that President Shimon Peres ask Netanyahu to form the next coalition. Netanyahu has 42 days to do so, starting from the beginning of February. If he can’t form a coalition, President Peres will ask the next party leader with 61 MK recommendations. Most likely, the new government will be announced mid-April.

In tomorrow’s Torah portion of the week, Terumah, we read: ” …They (the cherubim) shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” Exodus, 25, 20.

The cherubim are to be “shielding the cover with their wings.” They cover the ark, which contains the Pact, the Ten Commandments, our Jewish essence.

Let us pray that our cherubim (whoever they are) hold together our Jewish being, and know how to confront each other, or as the original Hebrew text reads: “פניהם איש אל אחיו”- “face one another as brothers standing face to face.”

With wishes that our 19th Knesset will responsibly lead us to a better future, together, as brothers, shielding our Jewish essence.

Shabbat shalom,
Leah Garber
Vice President, JCC Association Israel Office leah@jcca.org

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