Jerusalem — When Israeli voters go to the polls on Sept. 17 in a do-over election, they will enter the ballot box with very personal agendas.
For some, nothing less than the future of Israeli democracy will be on their minds as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu courts Otzma Yehudit, a far-right party that favors a total annexation of the West Bank, characterizes the country’s Arab citizens as “enemies of Israel,” and supports a ban on abortions.
Others will focus more on security issues, especially now that tensions along Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria are heating up.
Still others may be casting a glance across the Atlantic toward an erratic American president who seems willing to negotiate with Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy; and to the relationship with American Jews, which has soured as the country’s ruling coalition has lurched to the right both politically and religiously.
But judging from conversations with a wide range of Israelis, the high cost of living and a yearning for change could play an equally prominent role.
Polls taken a week prior to the election showed Likud slightly trailing Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, but both parties struggling to form a government with the required 61 of 120 Knesset seats.
This election is sure to be a nail-biter that revolves around three questions:
First, will Avigdor Lieberman, the secular, Russian-born politician who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, agree to join either camp? His refusal to join a Netanyahu government that includes ultra-Orthodox parties largely led to new elections.
Second, will the Arab parties, which have always sat in the opposition, join a Blue and White-led government?
And third, in the event of another stalemate, will Netanyahu and Gantz grudgingly agree to form a national unity government, perhaps alternating terms as prime minister?
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said voter participation is the fourth variable.
“The turnout is a big question mark. It’s expected to be lower” this time around, given that April’s election failed to produce a government. “This could create a dramatically different outcome” from what the polls suggest, Plesner said.
While the stakes are high in any election, Plesner believes that a government led by Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and at least one far-right party could endanger the delicate religion-state status quo and severely limit the independence of Israel’s judiciary and democratic institutions.
If these political parties deliver on their campaign promises and enact laws, Plesner said, “there is a risk of creating irreversible damage” by politicizing the way judges are appointed and limiting judicial review over decisions made by governing authorities as well as the Knesset.
“These, combined with the fact that Israel has no constitution that secures the rules of the game, poses a serious risk to the nature of our democratic institutions,” Plesner said.
If a narrow right-wing government that includes the ultra-Orthodox parties comes to power, “those parties will continue to monopolize decision-making on religion and state,” he said.
Such a government would almost certainly try to pass a law that would all but exempt young charedi men from mandatory IDF service, limit training programs to encourage ultra-Orthodox Jews to enter the skilled workforce, and perhaps float legislation banning all non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, including the southern wall that currently serves as a de facto pluralistic prayer space (although it is increasingly being used by religious nationalists who want to ban all non-Orthodox prayer).
In contrast, a Blue and White government might honor the government’s 2016 agreement to fully fund the pluralistic prayer space and — more importantly — allow the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall to determine policy there.
Sara Hirschhorn, visiting assistant professor of Israel studies at Northwestern University, is concerned about the emergence of a far-right-wing party similar to Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach party.
“We’re seeing the resurgence of [Kahane’s] acolytes, who represent a hateful, xenophobic version of the State of Israel that I think should be intolerable in a democracy,” said Hirschhorn, author of “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement.”
That Netanyahu is counting on the party to form a government “is a move beyond cynicism to ensure he stays in power and receives immunity from prosecution in case he is indicted. It shows that Netanyahu has no red lines — and that’s a threat to Israel,” Hirschhorn said.
On Tuesday, in a last-ditch effort to win the election, Netanyahu asked Israeli voters to give him the mandate to extend Israeli law to all Jewish settlements.
“Out of respect for [President] Trump, I am waiting to do this in maximum coordination with Trump. But there is one place where the diplomatic circumstances are ripe to do this very soon.…
“If I am elected I commit to annex the Jordan Valley. It is our eastern border, our defense wall,” the prime minister promised in a press conference.
This announcement came on the heels of a Netanyahu video intended for English-speaking right-wingers who might decide to vote for Otzma Yehudit. The video warns voters that unless they vote for Likud, and not some smaller party, the “left-wing” Blue and White party and Arab parties will form a government.
“You can’t vote for other right-wing parties,” Netanyahu warns in the video. “They either don’t cross the threshold, or they already cross the threshold anyway, and the Likud will have fewer votes. We need more votes than [Blue and White leaders Yair] Lapid and Gantz, and we need the 61st vote.”
If some Israeli voters are abandoning Likud and moving right, others have decided to move to the center.
During this year’s first election, Sivan Lynn voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party. This time she plans to vote for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, the Likud’s more centrist rival.
“Netanyahu is passé. Nothing’s changed for the better since he came into office. I want someone new,” said Lynn as she warmly greeted customers in the north Tel Aviv dry cleaning store where she works.
Like many Israelis, Lynn, 43, and an immigrant from Uzbekistan, is as concerned about the high cost of living as she is about security. Maybe more so.
“I have a neighbor who is in her 70s who is working at Global Telecom,” a cell phone company. “Why? Because she has no pension. Plus, how can a young couple that’s not working in high tech afford a home when a starter home will cost NIS 1.3 million to 2 million?” — $367,000 to $565,000, she asked.
Noa Azoulay and her friend Ana Pivnev, both 21 and former soldiers who work for an environmental organization, commiserated over the high price of housing and everything else in Israel.
“I’ve been living on my own for five years,” said Pivnev, who lives in the working-class city of Lod. “Everything I earn goes to pay for food and rent. When I walk into a mall I just look. I can’t buy. F— Netanyahu. Whatever he does, it’s for his own benefit.”
Azoulay, who lives with her parents in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot, dreams of being able to live in Tel Aviv, even though she can’t imagine ever being able to afford it.
“When you live outside [the city] it’s lonely. People need a social life. I’m thinking of moving out of the country,” she said.
Einat, a woman in her 50s who declined to give her last name, said she prefers to see the glass mostly full.
“Israel has existed for 70 years and look where we are,” said Einat, who works in a little shop that sells wine and cigarettes. “We’re leaders in high-tech. Our economy is doing well, even despite our huge security budget.”
She’ll be voting for Netanyahu.
“Yes, there are [corruption] allegations against him. He’s a politician, just like Putin or Trump. They’re not Golda [Meir] or Menachem [Begin] from the old days, when politicians had integrity. But at least with Bibi at the helm, I can sleep at night.”
Michele Chabin is a contributing editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.