All of the advance doom-and-gloom public opinion polls notwithstanding, the true result of Israel’s election this week is a country that is far less conservative than its government has been, and far more desirous of progress in the areas of economic growth, social equity, and even peace with Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with his politically odd bedfellow, Israel Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman, jointly held 42 seats in the just ended Knesset session. In the Knesset about to be sworn in, the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list may not even make it to 32 seats.
Many pundits believe that this steep decline – the joint list was meant to increase representation, not diminish it – was due to the rise of a more radical right-wing party, Bayit Hayehudi, which translates as Jewish Home. This party does not advocate a two-state solution. Indeed, the party leader actually said in a televised interview that he would advise Israeli soldiers to disobey a direct order to vacate settlements if ordered to do so by govrenment or court decree. He craftily insisted moments later that his remarks were misinterpreted, or that he misspoke, but his message was very clear. Here was a man seeking to be prime minister of the State of Israel who was advocating that the army of the State of Israel disobey the orders of the legitimate government.
According to the pundits and the polls, that stance endeared him to a “large size” of the voting public. According to the only poll that counts, the one on Tuesday, it endeared him only to the more radical elements within the ruling coaltion. If the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket comes in, as predicted, with a mere 30 to 31 seats, and Jewish Home garners the 12 the exit polls say is its share, those 12 seats will come at the expense of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition. Rather than Israel becoming more radicalized, Netanyahu’s support has become more centralized; his most radical backers have found a new voice.
The bottom line of this election is that a coalition of all conservative right-wing parties at best will have either the barest minimum of 61 or perhaps 62 seats – an extremely unhealthy cushion upon which to govern Israel in the coming years. There is only one way that Netanyahu can govern for any length of time without having to call new elections anytime soon, or to be effective in any way in addressing the very serious problems facing Israel. It is to eschew the more conservative elements in the Knesset, and even the religious parties for the first time in memory, and turn to the centrists and the moderates.
Those same exit polls show that a new party led by a popular former TV news anchor, Yair Lapid, took 18 seats; the Labor Party, meanwhile, under Shelly Yacimovich, took 17. That is 35 seats between them. Add to that the seven seats of Hatnuah, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and that means that a Netanyahu-led coalition of the center-left would give the new government between 72 and 73 new seats. That is a far more workable arrangement, which would pave the way for serious reforms in the economy, in housing, in education, in religious coercion, and even in Israel’s electoral process. Increasing the threshold required for a party to enter the Knesset from two percent to perhaps four or five percent would limit the stranglehold smaller otherwise insignificant parties have on the future of the state.
Tuesday’s election gives Netanyahu a tremendous opportunity. He has it in his grasp to become one of Israel’s most memorable, most productive, most progressive national leaders ever. Netanyahu is a very smart politician. He must see how eroded the conservative base truly is. He must also see the advantages available to him by moving to the center. We pray that he has the wisdom to do so, because he has it in his power to secure a far better Israel for tomorrow than anyone hoped and dared to predict until now.
As for President Barack Obama, who formally began his second term on Sunday, it is time to reassure that if he does in fact move to the center, he will find a friendlier environment within the administration than he could possibly have with a coalition that includes Bayit Hayehudi and its incendiary political positions.
The people of Israel have spoken, just as the people of the United States spoke just two months ago. Both countries voted for a change from the status quo.
Now is the time for wisdom on both sides of the great ocean. It has been said that neither country has great leaders today of the caliber of the leaders of yesterday. That is not true. There never were such leaders. There only were circumstances in which good leaders became great ones.
Good people, here in the United States and there in the State of Israel, have before them the circumstances to seize greatness for themselves.
For the future of our two countries, for the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, for the future of the American republic and the democracy that shines like a beacon into the darkest corners of this planet, we pray that our leaders choose greatness.