Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

More facts from Israel's election - the only free election in the region

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From the outside it may seem that Israelis voted, went to bed on March 17 and woke up with the same Prime Minister and potentially a similar looking government, but there were some significant achievements in this election that celebrate Israel's democracy.

Firstly, voter turnout in this election was 72.3% - the highest it has been since 1999. Secondly, there is a record number of female members of parliament, 28 in 2015 . And importantly, there was an increase in the Arab-Israeli vote, with turnout reportedly up 10% over 2013, and with 13 seats allocated to the Arab Joint List, making it the third largest political party in Israel, and an increase in the total number of Arab-Israel MKs from 12 to 16 - with Arab-Israelis elected to represent the Zionist Union, Likud, Meretz, as well as the Arab Joint List. 

Among centre-left voters, the election results brought disappointment, because despite polls that predicted a win, the Zionist Union received only 24 seats to Likud's 30, enabling Likud under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu to seek to form a Coalition.  However, it's worth noting that the combined vote of centre and centre-left parties - Zionist Union (24), Meretz (5) and Yesh Atid (11), Kulanu (10) equals 50 seats.  Some supporters of the Zionist Union expressed frustration towards Yesh Atid for dividing the centre-left vote, in contrast to Labor and Hatuna, which came together as the "Zionist Union".

However, voter turnout also shows that cities in Israel vote very differently (see Ynet for a summary). The blog Israellycool, also notes the places with the highest vote for Likud, Zionist Union and the Arab Joint List, as well as those with lowest and highest turnout and most spoiled ballots.

If it were up to Tel Aviv, Herzog would have been Prime Minister.  But the rest of Israel does not necessarily think like Tel Aviv.  As William A. Galston and Yishai Schwartz wrote on Brooking's website:

"Pundits hoping for a major shift in Israeli politics also undervalued fundamentals. In recent years, the Israeli left has become a Tel Aviv-centric force, largely ceding the smaller, more working-class and less-cosmopolitan cities to the right and the religious. In Tel Aviv, the Zionist [Union's] 34 percent trounced Likud's 18 percent, with an even bigger margin between the left and right blocks. But aside from a close race in the coastal city of Haifa, Likud won every other of Israel's ten largest cities-and mostly by wide margins. Until the center-left mounts a serious challenge to Likud dominance in so much of the country outside Tel Aviv, it will have a hard time assembling a governing majority."

Although interestingly, six months after the latest Gaza war, in the areas bordering Gaza the Zionist Union won the most votes. For example, in Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the western Negev, 56.75% voted for the Zionist Union, while Yesh Atid pulled in 16.22%.

Herzog announced that the Zionist Union is likely to be in Opposition, and will not join a Coalition with Likud.  The question now is whether the centre-left parties will move forward or fracture.

Haviv Rettig Gur commented on this in the Times of Israel:

"One of the more long-term questions that arise from this race is whether the left will be able to use this loss as a catalyst for future victory. If, as has been its wont, the left falls back on its traditional rhetoric depicting Netanyahu's Israel as wracked by famine, poverty and war, and facing imminent collapse, then it will be setting itself up for continued failure. Such talk is hard to take seriously when battling an election; it would be truly dangerous to take it seriously after losing one. The left now needs to build on its success, find new constituencies, develop a ‘ground game' not just in the two months before an election but in the three years that separate them. Despair will not get it from where it is now to where it needs to be to win... The left did better on Tuesday than it has in a long time. Yet it only really took its first step on the long road to rehabilitation and victory."

While many progressive pundits, including those in the White House, may be unhappy with the election results that will likely see Benjamin Netanyahu remain Prime Minister with right-wing and religious parties in a coalition government, it is important to remember that Israelis voted in a democratic election, which is more than can be said for almost anywhere else in the region.  

As Evelyn Gordon writes in Commentary:

"In the West, where regular elections are taken for granted, what interested people about yesterday's Israeli ballot was the outcome. But in the Middle East, many were envious of the very fact that it took place. Nowhere was this truer than among Palestinians, who haven't had an election in 10 years - not because Israel is preventing them from doing so, but because their own leadership is. And anyone who actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn't happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did.

A veteran Palestinian journalist from Ramallah summed up the prevailing sentiment succinctly. ‘We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy,' he told Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh before the election. ‘We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don't want elections. They want to remain in office forever.'

Ghanem Nuseibeh, an East Jerusalem Palestinian now living in Britain, put out an illuminating series of tweets throughout Election Day, including, ‘Over a million Arabs take part  in Middle East's most democratic elections today'; ‘The Arabs in Israel are the only Middle East Arab group that practices true democracy'; and ‘Israel is secure not because it will elect Bibi or Buji, but because of what it is doing today.' He was rooting for Isaac Herzog (‘Buji') and deplored Benjamin Netanyahu, but after acknowledging that his candidate had lost, he nevertheless tweeted, ‘Israel is the world's most vibrant  democracy' .... ‘If an Arab country had the same wide spectrum of political parties as Israel does, it would be fighting a civil war unseen in human history.'"

This year's Israeli election reminds us that Israel is the only country in the region where all citizens - including Jews, Muslims and Christians can vote in free and fair elections.  As the region remains engulfed in violence, terrorism and the abuse of human rights from Syria to Sinai, and Iraq to Iran, Israel's democracy shines even more brightly.

Sharyn Mittelman


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