Last week’s elections were a disappointment to many who support those Israelis working for social justice, human rights, peace and equality. But despite the hopes that were raised in recent weeks by pre-election polls, the results were not a real surprise. In fact, compared to the results of the 2013 election, not much has changed at all in terms of the relative strength of the various political blocks in Israel. The right stayed exactly the same size, as did the center; the center-left and left actually increased a bit; the Palestinian-Israeli sector gained more mandates; and the ultra-Orthodox lost ground. The one party that was explictly and avowedly Kahanist did not meet the threshold for Knesset representation.
Of course, the shift between the various parties that make up these broad blocks means that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud has more seats and the thus perhaps the potential for a more stable right-wing coalition. All in all, however, the 2015 elections provide a snapshot of an Israel that is more or less in the same place it was in 2013.
But some things have shifted, changed. And while we must respect the decision of the Israeli people, we must also give voice to our unease and concern. Sentiments that used to be confined to the extreme margins took center stage in the rhetoric leading up to Tuesday’s vote, and some of Israel’s leaders said things that cannot be unsaid. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s now infamous warning to his constituents that Arab Israelis were voting “in droves” did further damage to the already-frayed relationship between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens, and to the relationship Arab citizens have to their state. That relationship had already been badly damaged by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s invoking the specter of “transfer” and his repeated calls for Israeli Arab communities to be ceded by the State. “There is no reason for Umm al-Fahm to be part of Israel,” he said at a campaign event. But Mr. Liberman outdid himself in the days before the election, when he said that Arab citizens who were “disloyal” to the State ought to be beheaded. Yes, you read that correctly.
And now, as the negotiations to form the next coalition get underway, the extreme-right, pro-settler Jewish Home party of proud One Stater Naftali Bennett is demanding revival of the so-called “Nation-state Bill” – an attempt to forever codify the democratic aspect of Israel’s identity as subservient to the Jewish aspect- as the price of admission.
In addition to this explicit and implicit invocation of racism – and the terrible and chilling message it sends to Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up more than 20% of the population – the weeks leading up to the election saw, on the part of the leaders of Israel’s government, repudiation of the two state solution, a commitment to reintroduce some of the worst and most pernicious pieces of anti-democratic legislation and an apparent disregard for Israel’s relationship with the United States and the American Jewish community. Not to mention barely a mention by anyone of the 47-year old Occupation. Yet another election cycle passed in which millions of people whose lives are controlled by Israel had no say in choosing Israel’s leaders.
All of this is of great concern to the New Israel Fund. As the leading partnership of Israelis and supporters of Israel around the world working to realize the vision and values of Israel’s founders, we recognized several years ago that the strategies that we had employed since our inception in 1979 were, while still necessary, no longer in and of themselves sufficient to meet the challenges that a changing landscape in Israel revealed to us. And so last year we unveiled our New Initiatives for Democracy (NIFD), new strategies aimed at strengthening and expanding progressive civil society, building the power of Israel’s pro-democracy camp, and focusing our resources for ever-greater impact in building a better Israel.
As I mentioned earlier, elections are a snapshot of where a country is at certain moment in time. What we saw last week showed that the Board of NIF was absolutely right in its analysis of where Israel is now and what is needed to promote the prophetic and democratic values of egalitarianism, openness, equality and justice that NIF stands for and upon which Israel was founded. Last week provided a strong validation of the direction NIF has taken. And let’s remember this: NIFD was launched last September, and it wasn’t designed to achieve its goals in just a few months. Rather, it – and all of our work to strengthen civil society to build a better Israel – is a longer-term project. A marathon, not a sprint. Progress in the social justice sector is not measured by the outcome of the next election.
Now, as we anticipate the formation of an even more hardline, right-religious coalition, perhaps one without even the moderating influences included in the last two ruling coalitions, we are preparing for a new onslaught of anti-democratic legislation; a climate of incitement and racism that targets minorities, peace activists and human rights organizations; increased power of the ultra-Orthodox establishment over the lives of Israelis; and increasing tensions between Israel, the United States and American Jewry.
But this is why NIF is here. It is the moment we were created for. It is why we launched NIFD, why we do what we do. Because NIF represents the other vision of Israel. The one envisioned by those founders who refused to compromise between the need for a Jewish homeland and the need to create a liberal democracy. This is a vision shared by millions of Israelis, and those of us who support them around the world, who reject the notion that standing for human rights, equality, social justice and religious freedom is treasonous or anti-Zionist.
And so together with our partners and allies in Israel and around the world we will do what we always do during difficult times: we will consider the challenges that lie ahead, consult and strategize, and then roll up our sleeves and get to work. For our values. For our brothers and sisters. For the Israel we believe in.