Israel’s elections a “crucial juncture”

Supporters of Israel's Likud party hold up a banner depicting its leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a tagline in Hebrew reading "only Likud can", at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on October 31, 2022, one day ahead of the November general elections. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The last time I was in Israel for elections, it was 1996 not long after the assignation of Yitzhak Rabin. There were mixed feelings at the time. Shimon Peres was up against Benjamin Netanyahu in the only instance of separate votes, one for the Prime Minister and one for a political party. Peres’ Labour party won the most seats, but he lost to Netanyahu in the PM vote, handing victory to the leader of the Likud.

The election was on the back of the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians, a peace treaty with Jordan, but also against a backdrop of murderous suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP. Netanyahu’s win was in part due to Israelis fearing for their lives.

This year, I was in Israel on a conference with KKL-JNF (Jewish National Fund) which ended a day before the November 2022 elections. The conference focused on much of what KKL-JNF does for Israel, its sustainability approach, addressing climate change, and monitoring and dealing with forest fires. Notwithstanding a full-on agenda (and incredible Israeli cuisine), the up-and-coming elections were always in the background.

One of the first things you notice about Israelis during election time is that everyone tells you for whom they are going to vote. In the UK and New Zealand, my experience is that many people keep who they vote for close to their chest. Not in Israel. Driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the day before the election there was junction after junction, bridge after bridge of campaigners, urging drivers to vote for their party. A noticeable difference during the drive was the overwhelming posters in Jerusalem of Netanyahu exchanged for overriding posters adorning the photo of the incumbent Prime Minister, Yair Lapid. The political divide between these two major cities of Israel was clear.

Apart from the usual debate and openness about politics, regardless of whether or not you asked, there permeated a feeling that the results of this election were a crucial juncture for Israel’s future. Every election in Israel’s history seems to be the most important one yet, but to me this one seemed different. For it wasn’t just a particular party’s approach to the economy, or peace with the Arab world, or social issues, but for those with whom I spoke, it was about the core of Israel’s identity.

This was the first time that I had heard those on the left talking about leaving, or those on the right about the fundamental identity of the world’s only Jewish state. It wasn’t about national unity or broad-based governments, it seemed to go more to the heart of what people believed Israel should stand for. Maybe it was for this reason that despite five elections in three years, this was a record turnout since Ehud Barak’s One Israel Party won in 1999.

Benjamin Netanyahu has now been given the task to form the next government of Israel, and it would seem inconceivable that he won’t manage to do so. Who will get what Ministry and who will hold key influential positions is yet to be decided. Netanyahu declared in his victory speech that he wants to be a PM for all Israelis. With the chasm between those on the Israeli ‘left’ and those on the ‘right’, he will need to pull out every trick in the book, and more, to bring people together. Time will tell if this Government will or will not last its full term, recent history suggests it won’t. However, the thing most Israelis want is stability and the opportunity to get on with their day-to-day lives without the distraction of further elections.

Back to my conference. Despite the makeup of the next Israeli government, Israel will need to focus on wider global issues. KKL-JNF are making great strides in the areas of sustainability, climate change and urban forestry. They are trying to not just maintain the Israel they have helped to build, but to continue making it the ecological success story it has become. Hopefully, the incoming Government will also be looking to what Israel can or wants to be in the future, and not just respond to the daily whims of politics.

Rob Berg

President Zionist Federation of New Zealand
President Jewish National Fund New Zealand