Shalom Goldman: The Israeli Elections — How Pundit Predictions about Jewish and Arab Voters Were Dead Wrong

[ 0 ] January 24, 2013

by SHALOM GOLDMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 25, 2013 (updated):

Before the January 22 Israeli elections media pundits in the US and Israel were predicting a sharp rightward shift by the Israeli electorate. According to these analyses Netanyahu wasn’t hawkish enough for the Israeli public, and the voters would choose someone more assertive on settlements who would push to deny the Palestinians the possibility of statehood.

Netanyahu’s 2009 speech, in which he left open the possibility of a demilitarized Palestinian state, was seen by many on the right as betrayal of his Likud party principles. Now, three years later, the far right — the pundits thought — would have its revenge and weaken Netanyahu.

The pundits agreed that as leader of the Likud party, Netanyahu would be able to form a ruling coalition with other political parties, but that these would be parties of the far right. Writers as astute as David Remnick, reporting from Israel in the January 21 issue of The New Yorker, chose to write a long “letter from Jerusalem” that profiled Naftali Bennet, the young leader of the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. Bennet is an avowed enemy of Palestinian statehood. He has said “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” Consistent with this view is his apparent aspiration for the Israeli government to annex the West Bank, a move that despite pressure from the settlers and their many supporters, all Israeli governments have thus far refused to make.

Along with many Israeli pundits Remnick predicted that Habayit Hayehudi would get a big boost in the election and that Naftali Bennet’s rise would be “the central story of this political moment” in Israel.

As it turned out, Remnick and his colleagues were dead wrong. The central story of the election was the triumph of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. Headed by its charismatic leader, Yair Lapid, the party got 19 seats (out of 120) in the Knesset, making it the second largest faction in parliament. In an article for The New York Times on Jan 23 written by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner, Lapid was dubbed  “Israel’s new power broker.” Lapid is a secularist who has called for a gradual drafting of ultra-Orthodox young men (currently exempt from service) into the Israeli armed forces.  And since Lapid and his party do not oppose — on ideological grounds — a ‘two state solution’ and the establishment of a Palestinian state, his rise to prominence is sure to be greeted by the Obama administration with a sigh of relief.

A second false prediction, constantly repeated in the weeks before the election, was that Israel’s Arab citizens, who constitute 20% of the Israeli population, were so disillusioned with their inability to affect Israeli politics and policies that they would stay away from the polls. In early January in fact, the Economist predicted that “Arab Israelis are too disheartened to take the forthcoming election seriously,” and the Israeli press was predicting an Arab participation rate of far below 50%.

But despite their frustrations with what is often described as their  ‘second or third class citizenship,’ Israeli Arabs did vote in larger that predicted numbers — numbers approaching 60%, while Israeli Jews voted in numbers approaching 70%.

Greater electoral participation was to some extent generated by changing patterns of women’s activism and voting patterns among Israeli Arabs— and by the emergence of women in the political leadership. Among the most remarkable of these new leaders is Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party. First elected to the Knesset in 2009, she has opposed Israeli government policies from within the Knesset and has called on her Israeli Arab fellow-citizens to join her in changing the country from within the system.  A week before the elections, Zoabi urged women and men in the Arab sector to get out the vote.

As she told the British newspaper The Guardian:

“Part of my vision is to have a modern, liberal, secular society. For me, that’s not less important than fighting against Israeli racism. The issues of equality and injustice between men and women are as important as issues of equality between Jews and Arabs. I want my freedom as a woman – I cannot say no to inequality with Jews but yes to inequality with men. Dignity is very important to human values, and part of that is my dignity as a woman.”

Like Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, Zoabi’s vision is liberal and secular, though in today’s Israel the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ would, of course,  have different resonances for Jews and Arabs.

As Jodi Rudoren reported in The New York Times yesterday, Yair Lapid on Wednesday “went out of his way to say that he would not ally himself with politicians like Hanin Zoabi.”
So don’t expect secular liberal Jews and secular liberal Arabs to join together in the new Israeli political alignment.


Shalom Goldman is professor of religion at Duke University. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).


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