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What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Week of July 7

8 July 2019
Elections Box What to Watch in Israeli Democracy

NIF does not support or oppose any candidate or political party for election; What to Watch in Israeli Democracy is a look at the big picture and a clear presentation of the most important stories about issues that affect Israelis from all walks of life.


What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Elections v2.0

During the previous election, the New Israel Fund provided regular updates about issues affecting equality and democracy in What to Watch in Israeli Democracy. Now, as Israel gears up for a second election within a year, the New Israel Fund will continue to provide regular updates on the issues that matter most.

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Analysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change

Last week, Israel’s streets raged. In the wake of the killing of Solomon Teka last Sunday, an unarmed, Ethiopian Israeli youth shot to death by a police officer in Kiryat Haim in northern Israel, thousands demonstrated across the country. Protesters shut down the main arteries of Israel’s transportation system, bringing the country to a standstill and focusing public attention squarely on the question of equality for Ethiopian Israelis. Teka’s killing is the latest display of institutionalized discrimination against the Ethiopian community in Israel, which has, all too often, included violence at the hands of police.

Meanwhile, Israel’s election for the 22nd Knesset is proceeding in virtual contrast to the drama out on the streets.

While the left and center parties have undergone a shake-up in the past two weeks, these shifts have aroused neither enthusiasm nor public engagement. The Meretz Party elected a new chairperson, Nitzan Horowitz, replacing Tamar Zandberg, who served as the party’s leader for just over a year. The Labor Party also selected a new leader: Amir Peretz, former chair of the party, replaced Avi Gabbay, beating out his younger competitors Stav Shafir and Itzik Shmuli. Finally, Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister and decorated Chief of Staff, announced that he is establishing a new party, Yisrael Democratit (Democratic Israel).

Parties will shift, merge, and split until the deadline for submission of full candidate lists on August 2. This leaves the average Israeli citizen — who does not follow the intricate shifts in party politics — with a chaotic electoral map to assess. A confused Israeli voter, facing elections a mere handful of months after she last cast her ballot, understandably asks herself: does my vote still matter? After all, Israelis cast their vote in April (at a comparatively high turnout rate vis-a-vis other advanced democracies) but the only thing it led to was new elections in September.

This contributes to the relative drowsiness of this election so far, which also takes place during Israel’s sleepy summer months. It is fair to say that to date, no party has yet launched its campaign in earnest, even though we are just three months out from Election Day. (Compare this state of affairs to those in the United States, for example, where parties and candidates prepare for the next elections years in advance.

There is, instead, a yawning gap between the relative political quiet of the campaign trail and the ferocious protests riling the Israeli public square, which have managed to bring the country to a virtual standstill and dominate public attention completely. What we can understand from this is that while the Israeli public appears tired and exhausted from elections, it is not politically disengaged.

The fact is, these elections may prove to be among the most consequential in the history of Israel’s democracy — in terms of the potential impact on the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the prospect of West Bank annexation. The Israeli public is not currently asleep, politically-speaking. But they are not fully engaged in electoral politics. It is our job to wake them up — and to make the public understand clearly that the most important thing is to get out and vote. The future of our democratic institutions is hangs in the balance.

Michal Sella
Director, Shatil Center for Policy Change

  1. Solomon Teka, an 18-year old Ethiopian-Israeli was shot by Israel police in Kiryat Haim leading to massive protests. Thousands of protestors led by Ethiopian Israelis and allies from across Israeli society took to the streets, blocking traffic in the main highways,bringing the country to a standstill and dominating national attention.
  2. The Labor and Meretz parties held primaries to select new party chairmen: Labor and Meretz parties held primaries this week to select new leadership.
  3. Talk of canceling elections is cut short by legal constraints. Late last month, the Likud Party raised the concerning possibility of canceling the elections called for September 17 by repealing the law which dissolved the 21st Knesset — though it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party who orchestrated dissolution of Knesset after his failure to form a government in May. Cancelling an election would be an unprecedented act in the history of Israeli democracy. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said he had “found a parliamentary framework and there is an option to cancel” the elections by reversing the Law for Elections. Legal adviser to the Knesset Eyal Yinon deemed such a move not legally permissible absent a national emergency, bringing to an end to the discussion.

New elections mean new party lists. Parties have until August 2 to formulate new lists, each according to their own internal rules. What can we expect?

  • DEMOCRATIC ISRAEL — New Party of Ehud Barak: On June 26, former IDF Chief of Staff and Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched a new center-left party that will run in the upcoming elections. Barak launched his new party, Yisrael Democratit (Democratic Israel) alongside Maj. General Yair Golan, former IDF deputy chief of staff, and several others, emphasizing the importance of strengthening the center-left bloc and focusing bringing to an end the rule of Benjamin Netanyahu. Since then, Barak has continued to recruit candidates to his party. Noa Rothman, the granddaughter of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s, attorney Eldad Yaniv, and Yair “Yaya” Fink, former parliamentary aid of ex-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, (who would have ranked 9th on the Labor Party list) along with MK Sarit Peretz Deri (Jewish Home) have recently joined the ranks of the new party. Barak is positioning the party as center left and seeking to unify with another list. Labor and Democratic Israel are currently undergoing talks to determine whether a unification is possible.
  • JOINT ARAB LIST: The Arab-majority parties have committed to re-unification. Many credit the poor performance of the Arab-majority parties in the last election to the breakup of the 2015 Joint Arab List combined with the potent effect of voter suppression and delegitimization of Arab political participation. The leaders of the four Arab factions announced this week that they are committed to reestablishing the Joint List ahead of the upcoming September 17 election, however they have yet to reach a formal agreement.
  • MERETZ: On June 27, the Meretz party Central Committee selected Nitzan Horowitz as its chairperson, with a voter turnout among party members of 81%. Outgoing chairperson Tamar Zandberg served in the position for just over a year. The party will vote to determine its full slate on July 11.
  • LABOR: Labor Party voted Tuesday to select a new chairperson while otherwise maintaining its existing slate of candidates after its outgoing chairman, Avi Gabbay announced his resignation. MK Amir Peretz, who led the party previously was elected with 47 percent of the vote, beating his younger competitors MKs Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir. Among Labor’s 65,000 eligible voting party members turnout dropped to 45.6 percent, down from 59 percent in the previous primary election.
  • BLUE AND WHITE: The largest opposition party, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, will run again with its list intact.
  • UNION OF RIGHT WING PARTIES: On the right, the question is whether the Union of Right Wing Parties, a list orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanayhu to expand the size of the right wing bloc, will run again in its current form. In the last election, the expanded party included overtly racist candidates, devotees of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane. The leader of the Jewish Home Party, interim Education Minister Rafi Peretz, has said that he will not reunify under the Union of Right-Wing Parties with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, if its list includes the racist provocateur Baruch Marzel.
  • NEW RIGHT: Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett New Right party failed to clear the electoral threshold in April’s election. According to Yedioth Aharonoth Naftali Bennett is considering joining forces with Moshe Feiglin, former Likud MK, whose breakaway party Zehut (Identity), included the legalization of marijuana and radical libertarianism economic policies married to a radical settler agenda. Like Bennet’s New Right, Zehut failed to meet the electoral threshold in the last elections. Reportedly negotiations have stalled. How former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked will fit into the structure of the right wing bloc remains cause for speculation. She may opt to rejoin Bennet in a union with Feiglein, or alternatively, she may seek second place on the Jewish Home list alongside Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich.
  • LIKUD: The Likud Party incorporated former Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party into its list. The hope that the merger would bring additional seats to the Likud is no longer reflected in the polls.
  • YISRAEL BEITEINU: Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, whose refusal to join the Netanyahu government led Netanyahu to dissolve the Knesset and forced new elections, said for the first time to Kan Radio that he would insist on a national unity government between the Likud Party and Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) that excluded Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties.

WOMEN IN POLITICS

With Tamar Zandberg’s loss in the Meretz Party primaries, currently there are no women leading any of the major existing parties. This may change if there are political shifts that allow former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked to lead a united right wing bloc. However, in the face of that prospect, there is opposition from within the religious Zionist camp to the very idea of women leading in the political realm. A public statement of leading rabbis from the national-religious stream of Zionism has opposed Shaked’s leadership of the right wing bloc on the basis not only of her religious observance, but also her gender.

The short-lived 21st Knesset elected in April saw a decrease overall in women’s representation, dropping from 35 in the previous Knesset to just 29 women MKs out of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

OCCUPATION AND ANNEXATION

In reaction to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s inflammatory participation in the dedication in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al) protested via Twitter: “Friedman showing why he’s the ambassador of the settlers, turning the US embassy into a center for extremism rather than diplomacy.” The move was widely seen as U.S. recognizing Israel’s claims in East Jerusalem, and particularly its controversial archaeological projects and settlements within the Palesitnian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, relating to a report in Haaretz about the Falic family, the American family from Florida and owners of Duty Free Americas shops, who donated at least $5.6 million to settler organizations in West Bank over the past decade, MK Ayman Odeh leader of the Hadash Party, tweeted: “Netanyahu’s Kahanists are not only in the Knesset, they are also in the United States and donate millions to the extreme right. We all pay the price for their dirty money – in deepening the occupation, turning racism, hatred, and separation.”

Read more: The Presence of the American Ambassador at the Dedication Ceremony for the “Pilgrims’ Road” in Silwan and US Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty Over the Old City Basin (Emek Shaveh)

In the first 2019 election which concluded in April, the issue of annexation of West Bank settlements became a major theme, with parties on the right endorsing annexation in various forms. Most notably, on the eve of the elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced on Israel’s Channel 12 News that he would begin to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. His announcement, a departure from prior stated positions, reflects growing pressure within the right flank of the Likud and especially among the party’s right wing competitors, to apply Israeli sovereignty to area C of the West Bank, where most of the Jewish settlements sit. With new elections — and an effective green light from the Trump administration — candidates and parties continue to reiterate and clarify their positions on annexation.

EQUALITY AND INCLUSIVE CITIZENSHIP

In the early hours of July 1, an 18-year-old Israeli of Ethiopian descent Solomon Teka was shot to death by an off-duty police officer in Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa in Northern Israel. The officer claimed his gun was pointed at the ground when he was discharged it. The Israel Police’s Internal Investigations Department will conclude its investigation soon, which will hinge on a determination of whether they find that the officer’s life was in danger at the time he discharged his firearm as he claims. Meanwhile, thousands protested racist treatment by police throughout the country, shutting down twelve highways, include the coastal highways and the central Ayalon Highway. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and dozens injured by police, who used physical force, including tear gas and stun grenades, against the crowds. Politicians from the right have emphasized the episodes of violence, and tried to characterize the protest as inorganic.

  • Labor Party MK Shelly Yachimovich said “If the policeman had seen a group of white-skinned youth squabbling, his hand would never have gone to his gun.”
  • Ehud Barak (Democratic Israel) said at a press conference last week regarding the killing of Solomon Teka: “Israelis of Ethiopian descent have experienced [sustained] discrimation and excessive [over-policing]. I demand an emergency investigation that undertakes a full investigation…Solomon’s death was painful, outrageous and unnecessary. As a society, we must do everything in our power to ensure that such [terrible] and heart-wrenching incidents” do [not repeat themselves].
  • Benny Gantz, co-chairman of Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) credited two Ethopian members of his faction Gavi Yevarkan and Pnina Tamano for their leadership, and called the protest by the Ethiopian Israeli community “justified.”
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayhau (Likud) said in a video on Twitter regarding the problem of police violence and discrimination facing Israelis of Ethiopian descent: “I know that there are problems that still need to be solved, we have worked hard and need to work even harder in order to deal with them. But I ask you one thing–stop blocking the highways. We are a nation of laws.”
  • MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash-Ta’al) taking part in the demonstrations alongside the Ethiopian community, held a picture of Solomon Teka, alongside a photograph of the math teacher Ya’akub Abu Al-Qi’an who was killed by police during the demolition of the Negev Beduoin village of Um al-Hieran. Odeh said, “The racism of the police kills…All victims of racism must struggle together.” Odeh told the news anchor Lucy Ahrish that if it was Israel’s Arab citizens who shut down the Ayalon, Highway, “We would have been killed.”

Read: Brutality Against Ethiopian Israelis Has Reached a State of Emergency, by Efrat Yerday Chairwoman of The Association of Ethiopian Jews (Haaretz)

My Fellow Israelis: Black Lives Matter Is Your Fight, Too, by Avi Yalou (Forward)

LGBTQ Representation
After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu installed the first openly gay minister Amir Ohana (Likud), the Meretz Party’s election of Nitzan Horowitz made history, as well: Horowitz, the newly elected chairman of Meretz, has become the first openly #LGBTQ head of a party to run for Knesset.

RELIGION AND STATE

It was Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former Defense Minister and staunch rightist leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party who refused to join the coalition — forcing the collapse of Netanyahu his effort to form a government. Lieberman, apparently, refused to enter a government premised on an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox that would have allowed yeshiva students to continue to evade the draft. His refusal exposed a rift in the right: between the secular, ultra-nationalist right and the ultra-Orthodox, and put conflicts over religion and state center stage. Lieberman’s campaign issued an ad featuring the Prime Minister in the garb of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, flanked by members of the right wing religious parties. The message was clear: tensions over religion and state will continue to play out within this election.

Meanwhile, in a press conference held last week, Ehud Barak addressed the issue of ultra-Orthodox exemption from the military draft. Referring to the issue as a “Gordian knot” that must be cut, Barak proposed instead an integration plan, designed to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to enter the workforce even if they have not served in the army, ending the requirement that they need to be enrolled in yeshiva study in order to justify draft exemption.

Meanwhile, at the IDC Herzliya Conference, Yair Lapid (Blue and White) seized on the same narrative–that another Netanyahu government would mean an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties. He contrasted his plans with those of Smotrich to “smash the Supreme Court in order to annex 2.9 million Palestinians” and with Lintzman to “a halakhic state” and more budgets for the ultra-Orthodox with the Kachol Lavan party’s plans to strengthen democracy and the middle class.

DEMOCRACY AND THE RULE OF LAW

Late last month, there was a short-lived campaign led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party to cancel the September 17 elections by repealing the law which dissolved the 21st Knesset. After this effort ran aground in the face of seemingly insurmountable legal obstacles, the Prime Minister chose to characterize the effort after the fact as a mere “trial balloon.” But such a move would have been unprecedented in the history of Israel’s democracy. In a time when democratic norms are under strain in many arenas, such a breach of norms surrounding elections must be taken seriously.

The legal adviser to the Knesset, Eyal Yinon while not issuing a formal opinion on this matter, made clear to those members of Knesset considering such an endeavor that the law dissolving the Knesset cannot legally be undone, and that in such an event the High Court of Justice would likely rule it unconstitutional.

In the context of eroding norms–around elections, rule of law, and the very legitimacy of the judiciary as a coequal and independent branch of government, Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit warned forthrightly about the erosion of Israel’s founding democratic principles: “Recently, unfortunately, the most fundamental basic principles of the rule of law, foremost among them the principle of equality before the law, suddenly became a legitimate question to discuss and examine…initiatives to weaken the legal system have become so conspicuous and tangible that many in the Israeli public understood that the central element of the country’s national resilience may be significantly weakened.”

This unexpected election finds most political players exhausted. Political parties and civil groups spent money and resources on the last elections, and we can expect this weariness to influence the tenor of these déjà vu elections. Furthermore, a significant portion of the campaign will take place during the summer and Jewish high holidays, when many Israelis are abroad. But these new elections come after the right-wing camp suffered an unprecedented blow. Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a coalition can only be seen as his most magnificent failure. Netanyahu faces the most serious battle of survival in his political life. Israelis can expect to see a doubling down on the maneuvers they saw in the last month of the recent election including:

  • Voter suppression targeting Israel’s Palestinian citizens;
  • Political campaigns premised on racism, incitement against and political delegitimization of Arab participation in Israel’s democratic system;
  • Bots networks activated to influence the election;
  • Foreign meddling, fake news and other threats to Israel’s electoral integrity;

Democracies all over the world are figuring out how we can best protect democracy from these troubling trends. This time we know what to watch. As the leading defender of liberal democracy in Israel, the New Israel Fund will be watching closely for the telltale signs of anti-democratic practices to make sure Israelis have a free and fair election. We will be fighting back against the hallmarks of illiberalism and authoritarian populism. We know what we are fighting for — during the election and on the day after.