Israel has been stuck in a state of political deadlock for over two years – a stalemate that four successive rounds of elections have not broken. It is true that a short-lived rotation government assembled last May was an attempt to resolve this impasse. Yet, after eight acrimonious months, that effort ended in failure, forcing Israelis into their fourth elections in two years.
This is in part because the basic dynamic which underlies this dysfunction remains: Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is on trial for corruption – specifically, for bribery, fraud and the breach of public trust. This week, Netanyahu’s trial is again at the front of Israelis’ minds, as witnesses take the stand to give testimony in the Jerusalem District Court.
These legal proceedings are a dramatic backdrop to coalition negotiations, as the two opposing blocs which emerged from the March election—Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing-haredi bloc and the other the so-called “change” bloc led by Yair Lapid (comprised of parties from across the political spectrum that agree on little beyond the desire to end Netanyahu’s premiership)—are arrayed against each another for political primacy. It remains unclear whether either will muster a majority necessary to form a government.
Fifth elections loom as a distinct possibility.
Now, Netanyahu has less than two weeks remaining until he is required to return the mandate to Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and give a rival member of Knesset a chance to form a government. Thus far, as in past rounds, Netanyahu has so far been unable to cobble together a majority. In fact, the electoral math indicates that any majority for Netanyahu would need to include both the anti-Arab ultra-nationalist Kahanist factions he ushered into Knesset and the conservative Islamist party led by Mansour Abbas – or require Netanyahu to pry away defectors from rival parties.
Producing such an unlikely alliance may be a trick beyond the powers of the “magician” Netanyahu, as he has come to be known by both his admirers and adversaries. Yet, veteran analysts of Israeli politics know that public prognostication is an ill-advised pastime. No one knows what might transpire in the days ahead.
What is clear is that despite Israel’s political stalemate and dysfunction, this year Israeli society, like all of us on this planet, faced one of the most significant challenges in modern history.
In Israel, as elsewhere, the terrible virus has not affected all sectors of society equally. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted those from marginalized communities and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Vulnerable communities faced severe shortages of critical supplies, access to care, as well as vital public health information necessary to stay safe. The virus exposed severe inequality and fault lines in Israel’s society. It laid bare gaps between the center and periphery. We know that the vast economic burdens of the pandemic disproportionately fell on populations living at or below the poverty line, who were fired from jobs or put on unpaid leave at higher rates.
From the earliest days of the crisis, NIF realized the critical role that Israel’s civil society would play in making sure all Israelis had equitable access to healthcare and economic relief. With our grantee partners on the ground, we moved swiftly to assess and address the constellation of emergencies and allocate strategic funding accordingly.
Out of that effort, NIF built our Crisis Action Plan, our blueprint for strategic grantmaking designed to address urgent priorities—to protect the most vulnerable populations, to defend civil liberties and build an inclusive, and equitable economic response to the crisis—all while ensuring Israel’s civil society was positioned to address these immediate concerns and adapt to a new post-pandemic reality.
A year later, we are proud to share our Crisis Action Report, which captures the key strategies driving our investment in Israel’s civil society during a year of pandemic. It spotlights the work of just a small number of NIF’s grantees whose efforts typified our strategies.
I can say with confidence that the work of NIF grantees in Israel’s civil society this year saved lives. Our support helped our partners on the ground protect the core rights of Israel’s citizens and defend Israel’s democracy from those who hoped to use the crisis as a cover to trample key democratic norms and institutions. We put the needs of the overlooked onto the public agenda.
And in this crisis, NIF and our partners adapted to new emergent needs.
Take just one example. The wave of anti-corruption protests that followed the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu for abuses of power were spontaneous and overwhelming. As these massive civic mobilizations were met with police violence and restrictive regulations, NIF’s grantees worked to secure their freedom of expression—and made sure that in the midst of pandemic, Israelis retained the right to gather in the public square (safely) to protest and make demands of their government.
We responded to meet unforeseen needs, as well. While Israel’s government eventually did step in to sustain big cultural institutions, independent artists were hit hard by the crisis.
Through our partnership with Nathan Cummings Foundation, when Israeli performers and artists found themselves unemployed and struggling, we were proud to announce our “Essential Artists” relief grants for fourteen Israeli artists working at the intersection of art and social change, who spanned the gamut of the arts, from filmmakers to spoken word artists, choreographers, performance artists, musicians, and painters.
The challenge of protecting Israel’s democracy and securing an equitable and just future for all of Israel’s inhabitants is far from over. The pain and scars of this period of crisis will be with us for a long time – likely far longer than this period of political uncertainty in Israel, whatever the outcome of this coalition negotiation.
As I take a step back, and I think about all that has transpired over the last year, I am tremendously proud of the work that NIF and our partners on the ground in Israel have done. It is beyond clear to me that any democratic future for Israel – one defined by equality and justice – will be achieved not just through the political process, but by the heroic work of Israel’s civil society as well.