Will This Be An Israeli Spring?

final resultsIt all started with a young woman, in the summer of 2011, who created a great fuss. She was thrown into the street because she could not pay the rent, so she set up a tent on one of Tel Aviv’s busiest streets, Rothschild Boulevard.  A few days later, the street was filled with tents of other frustrated tenants from every level of society. People protested that the cost of living was too high, that the burden should be equal, and that the middle class was broken. This was not the first time such statements were made, but it was the first time hundreds of thousands of people came out to demonstrate.
In response, a committee was formed and suggestions were made, and for a brief moment there was hope. But with new economic cuts and a peace process stuck in neutral, the feeling of helplessness returned quickly.
Cut to the winter of 2013 and the elections for a new Israeli Parliament. For the first time in recent memory, the issue was not defense – it was about the tent on Rothschild Boulevard.
What started as an easy win for the conservative Likud Party ended with a completely new political map. Twelve different parties received seats in the Knesset. Likud is still the biggest party, but not by the margin they had hoped for. And Prime Minister Netanyahu may have a tough time building a coalition from among the 11 other parties. The right-wing block that had around 50 seats when the campaign began, fell to around 40. The left-wing bloc fell short as well. The true winner of these elections are the parties in the political center, and the new leader of that bloc — Yair Lapid.
Currently, Netanyahu still has the best chance to build a governing coalition; but he won’t be able to do so without Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. Yair, the son of former Minister of Justice Yossef Lapid, is the new star of Israeli politics. Yair started his career as a journalist for Bamahane, the IDF Magazine. Later he became the most famous person in Israel when he anchored the Friday night news on the biggest television channel in the country. He decided to enter politics because he believed that Israel was being led down the wrong path with sectarian parties taking care only of their own interests. He started a new party filled only with new names to politics; nobody already from the Knesset could join him. He argued strongly for making the ultra-orthodox serve equal time in the IDF as their less-religious neighbors, as well as getting them into the workforce. He spoke about a pluralistic country and making life easier for those who contribute more.
These next few weeks will be interesting. Will Lapid do as promised and demand a governing coalition with no ultra-orthodox parties? Or will he back down and let them join? In the 65 year history of Israel, the ultra-orthodox parties — like Shas and Yahadot Hatorah (United Torah Judaism) — have been in every governing coalition except for one. Would Netanyahu risk excluding them in favor of Yesh Atid, knowing the price could be losing their support next election? Does he even have that option?
The Israeli public voted not about the conflict, not even the economic situation. The people voted for curing our community. They voted for fairness and opportunity for everyone.
A coalition that would leave the ultra-orthodox outside could create that change by putting religious authority back into Zionist hands, and by promoting pluralistic ideals and openness.
It really is a historic opportunity.  Our leaders need to take the mandate from voters and show that they are up to the task of changing Israeli society.
Was there a revolution in Israel this week? Did Spring come early? Some might say that nothing is new – we got the same right-wing government as before. But these election results might just send a message to the world. Most people voted at the center, demonstrating that Israel is not racist, is pluralistic, and foremost, is not anti-democratic.
Now the ball is in the hands of Netanyahu and Lapid. In a way they complete each other: Netanyahu has historical understanding, and Lapid has new ideas. Netanyahu has political and economic abilities, and Lapid has the ability to connect emotionally with average Israelis. If they can build mutual trust and work as a team, then maybe Spring will come.
This is a guest post by Roni Levin, St. Paul shlicha (Israeli emissary to St. Paul on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul). Roni was born and raised in Israel, but currently calls the Twin Cities home.
Photo: The Israel Project)