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Israel’s Elections: May Three Be the Charm

Weary and divided, frustrated and disappointed, the Israeli people went back to the polls yesterday for the third time in under a year.

As a reminder, the elections for the 23rd Knesset (Israel’s parliament) were called under unprecedented circumstances: the two previous Knessets, elected on April 9th and again on September 17th, failed to form a government. This is the first time in Israel’s history that required three elections be held within 11 months—all under the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s trial will begin on March 17th.

Forcing three elections in one year takes its toll. The Israeli public is showing clear signs of fatigue and disgust with the political system.

This round of election campaigning has been more tumultuous than ever. New fields of grudge were sowed, spreading animosity and hostility, reflecting the people’s despair. All this with President Trump’s Mideast plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the background, as well as another vicious round of fighting in Gaza that kept tens of thousands of Israelis in shelters for two days, culminating with the Coronavirus and its attempts to disrupt these elections and normalcy in general.

It was all too familiar, all too expected, and nothing we haven’t heard through the first two rounds of elections. We saw the same pointing fingers, the same accusations, the same pointless interviews and polls, loathed speeches, empty promises. the State craves a functioning government, yet its politicians favor their personal political survival.

Ironically, 71 years ago today, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister formed the country’s first government with 12 ministers. With Israel’s 29 ministers in 2020, Ben Gurion gazes down at us, with no envy for our political system.

Our Jewish homeland is based on Jewish values as stated in the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948.  His dream to build a Jewish State, to make the desert bloom, and to have Israel excel as a modern country has become a proud reality, but we are not completely there yet.

As with most democratic elections, these past 11 months proved once again that our own internal disputes, tensions, and lack of tolerance have the potential to destroy us no less than external threats—and weaken us even more.

We should keep investing in this amazing, miraculous land and proudly see it shine, even as we keep dreaming, hoping, and praying for days in which harmony among us and among our neighbors becomes a solid reality, and together we strive for a better, brighter future, or as Ben Gurion envisioned it: “to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”

As of this morning, 90% of votes were counted, it is now clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won with 36 seats.  Along with other right-wing parties, Netanyahu has an estimated 59 out of the 120 Knesset seats, however still short of the 61 seats needed to form a rightwing and religious coalition. Blue & White got 32 seats only.

Netanyahu now needs to roll up his sleeves and delve into tough negotiations, once again.

The people of Israeli clearly expect the two leaders to form a unity government between their two parties, which together are expected to control a solid majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

However, Gantz declared he will not serve under an indicted prime minister and Netanyahu won’t give up his seat in any unity deal, especially not after a clear win.

And while the left and the right, the secular and the Orthodox, the Jews and Arabs argue, defame, and slander one another, in just one week, the Jewish people will replace the face masks protecting them from the Coronavirus with festive masks to celebrate Purim, the happiest day on the Jewish calendar. Purim reflects the story of our lives today—keeping faith, standing for what is just, and believing in the power of unity.

The beauty of our times, unlike in the days when Mordechai and Queen Esther lived, is that today, most Jews can choose where to live and how to celebrate their lives as Jews.

We in Israel demonstrated this privilege yesterday. 71% of Israelis voted, highest turnout rate since the 1999 elections. Although the system exhausted us, we still believe in our democracy. No, our political system is not without its faults, but for nearly 72 years, it has led the Jewish State through troubled waters and turbulent waves to unprecedented achievements—to be the Jewish State Ben Gurion envisioned.

Although I’m greatly disappointed with today’s lack of leadership in Israel, one that I can look up to with trust and admiration, but I do have deep faith in the people of Israel and I am grateful for the sovereign state I call home and for my civil right to determine its future through democratic elections, even if they occur more often than we would hope.

The Book of Esther, which we will read next week, ends with this passage:

…. in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them. Overturning from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday (Esther 9:22).

Here in Israel, the first flowers are already in bloom, and spring is on its way. I pray for fields of unity and care, spreading hope and joy overturning the bitter fields we sowed this past year!

Chag Purim sameach!
Happy Purim!

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement, Director, Center for Israel Engagement

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