There were plenty of surprises in this week’s Israeli election. Despite predictions of a status-quo outcome, voters showed they were ready for change.
The biggest upheavals were the loss of Knesset seats for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud–Yisrael Beitenu list (down from 42 to 31 seats) and the remarkable rise of the centrist Yesh Atid party (led by former news anchor Yair Lapid), which came out of nowhere to win 19 seats, making it the second largest party. The new pro-settler Jewish Home party also came on strong, picking up 11 seats.
Even though it is almost certain that Netanyahu will form the next government, many analysts view him as the night’s biggest loser. In a stinging column, Haaretz’s Bradley Burston wrote, “King Bibi has managed to plummet to victory.”
Voters rejected Netanyahu’s coddling of the ultra-Orthodox minority, his intransigence on settler and Palestinian issues and his scandal-plagued Cabinet (most notably Avigdor Lieberman, the now-disgraced former foreign minister). They also rejected ideological and religious extremism, one-issue campaigns and sectarianism in general.
Instead, they voted for economic change, transparency and a more equitable society.
The biggest winner in the 2013 election was democracy itself.
Dashing predictions of a relatively low turnout, an astonishing 70 percent of the Israeli electorate went to the polls. In this country last November, only 57.5 percent of eligible voters showed up.
That shows Israelis believe things can change.
Pre-election polls showed that nearly half of the voters cited socio-economic concerns as their top priority, while a minority ranked peace talks with the Palestinians as their No. 1 issue.
That shows Israelis are tired of politics and policies that hurt their day-to-day lives.
Not all is rosy. The secular, centrist gains could lead to social upheaval, especially if the ultra-Orthodox are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Rabbi Yosef Ovadia, spiritual leader of the religious Shas Party, threatened to leave Israel and take his followers with him if that happens.
And of course, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and Iran have not gone anywhere. Security concerns remain a constant, and any Israeli government has to keep them uppermost in mind.
But let’s take a moment to throw a little post-election confetti to congratulate Israel for its ever-vibrant democracy. Now if we can only get Bibi and Obama to patch up their fractured relationship.