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Taking Stock as Israelis Face New Elections

30 May 2019

Israel, to everyone’s amazement, is poised to hold a second round of elections in 2019. Never before have Israelis gone back to the polls immediately following an election because the presumed winner – in this case, Prime Minister Netanyahu – was unable to form a governing coalition. If these past weeks are any prediction of what is to come, these next elections will be determined by the tensions inherent in Israel’s democracy.

This unprecedented development follows on the heels of a powerful moment for democracy. This past Saturday night, after Shabbat ended, Israelis exercised a core democratic right – the right of the people to peaceably assemble.

Israelis gathered in the tens of thousands, pouring into the streets around the Tel Aviv Museum and standing shoulder to shoulder from Shaul Hamelech Boulevard to Weizmann Street. These were citizens saying “NO” to a prime minister running roughshod over democratic norms. The protest was a resounding response to the very real threats to the independence of the judiciary – all in service of a desperate prime minister’s attempt to avoid criminal indictment. It is a showing that should stiffen the spines of champions of democracy in Israel and around the world.

But now we have new elections.

And while this news may make it seem like the clear and present threats to democracy have been put on hold for a few months, defenders of Israeli democracy must remain vigilant. Indeed, the message of Saturday night’s demonstration — “Defending democracy and the rule of law” — resonates powerfully in Israel’s public square today.

“I’ve…come to say out loud and clearly what everyone feels. The dream is being broken in front of our very eyes.” That is what MK Benny Gantz (Kachol Lavan), the leader of the opposition and former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told the crowd. “Now the fight is over our home. The fight is over the image and character of the State of Israel.”

The opposition parties – led by Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), Labor, and Meretz – alongside Israel’s vibrant and essential civil society organizations like Omdim B’Yachad (Standing Together) and Zazim — Community Action, Israel’s youth movements and labor unions, called Israelis to stand up en masse for the integrity of their democratic system and to insist upon their rights.

And they did.

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg declared, “Friends, now is the time for resistance. Now is the time for a parliamentary opposition and a civil opposition. In every place possible and by every means there is. In the Knesset, in the streets and in the city squares, in the courts — everywhere.” Israelis turned out to the square because they know their rights are only as strong as the public’s willingness to fight for them.

But equally as important was the other message that emerged from Saturday night’s rally: “Without equality there is no democracy.”

In planning the roster of speakers for the protest, the organizers left out a key voice – Israel’s Palestinian minority and its public representatives. Ultimately, due in no small part to the firm insistence of civil society on a fully inclusive and equal demonstration, the elected representatives of Israel’s Arab parties took part in the demonstration.

MK Ayman Odeh, chairperson of the Hadash Party, attended the rally, and shared the podium with the leaders of Blue and White, Meretz and Labor. Arabs and Jews together, standing on the same stage speaking out for justice, democracy and equality. And the earth did not stop spinning.

Ayman Odeh used his platform to speak of partnership: “Jewish-Arab partnership is the only way to affect change in this country. It is an achievement that I am speaking here now, but it is not enough. I want to be part of a real change in this country.”

Real change does come. But it comes slowly. And it most often does not begin with politicians. It begins in the streets. It begins with civil society. It begins with citizens standing shoulder to shoulder. That is where democracy is built.

What Saturday’s protest tells us is that democracy for Jewish citizens alone is no democracy at all. There is no hope of protecting Israelis’ fundamental rights without counting every citizen who shares a stake in democracy.

These are the same choices Israelis will face again as they head once again into elections. As Israelis stand up for a just society, a resilient democracy, and equal protection for all Israelis, it is incumbent upon us all to stand with them. The New Israel Fund will be there supporting those Israelis bravely fighting – together – for a just, democratic future. Ready for the day after — whenever it comes.