There's lots of talk today about what happened in Israel's elections, why it happened, and what it means. A lot of this remains in the realm of speculation - as in, it is not clear yet what the next Israeli government will look like. Likewise, the big winner in this election - Yair Lapid and his new party - remains something of a cipher, with Lapid's views on the full range of issues, including Israel-Palestinian peace-related issues, unclear and possibly as-yet unformed. Nonetheless, there are clear reasons to view yesterday's election results as good news, from the perspective of those of us who care about Israel's character as a progressive democracy and who believe in the vital importance of ending the occupation and achieving peace through a two-state solution.
(1) They demonstrate the narrow attraction of anti-peace, anti-democratic, racist policies and agendas.
People watching Israel for the past four years could be forgiven for concluding, or at least becoming very worried, that Israel is turning into a nation of racists and extremists. We've seen political rallies and pogroms against migrants and refugees from Africa. We've seen the Knesset pursue a raft of anti-democratic initiatives. We've seen the tepid response to Price Tag terror both in the West Bank and inside Israel. We've seen racist, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab sloganeering. Etc...
But this election showed that the core of Israeli voters isn't buying into this ugliness. The Likud party lurched far to the right, ejecting from its ranks those members devoted to a democratic Israel (like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin) and joining with Avigdor Leiberman's hardline Yisrael Beiteinu. The two parties were rewarded for their pandering to the far right with a categorical "no" from the very people they were expecting to support them. Similarly, Naftali Bennett, whose avowedly anti-peace, anti-Palestinian, pro-settlement party was expected to be the big winner in these elections, failed to significantly attract votes beyond his hardcore extremist base. And the party to Bennett's right - Otzma Yisrael ("Power for Israel") the openly racist party led by unapologetic devotees of Meir Kahane - failed to attract enough votes to get even a single seat.
(2) They demonstrate that there is a resurgence of support for the view that ending the occupation and achieving Israel-Palestinian peace must be national priorities.
Yesterday's elections took place at a time of deep cynicism/skepticism in Israel about the prospects for achieving peace. They also took place at a time when many pundits were reporting the death of the Israeli left (and forecasting the victory of the radical right). In this challenging context, two parties - Meretz and Hatnua (the new party led by Tzipi Livni) -campaigned on platforms that put ending the occupation and pursuing peace with the Palestinians front-and-center. And while parties on the right did worse than expected, Meretz and Hatnua did far better than anticipated. This is highly significant. In the last Knesset, Meretz, as the sole peace-focused party, held only 3 seats. In the next Knesset, Meretz and Hatnua will together have 12 seats - one more seat than was won by both parties on the far right, combined (as in, Bennett got 11 and Otzma Yisrael got zero) [UPDATE: Final results put Bennett's party at 12 seats].
(3) They demonstrate that Israelis are not apathetic and want change, and they want it in the direction of progressive values.
After four years of Netanyahu, Israelis came out in high numbers to vote. This turnout was the first big story yesterday, and it is the key to the other big story, which is, of course, the results. The big winner in yesterday's election was of course the party of Yair Lapid. The vote for Lapid was both a "yes" vote for change, and a double rejection. It included Israelis who view themselves as nominally right-wing, but who reject the poisonous, self-defeating, increasingly extremist policies and politics of the Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government. By voting for Lapid, these Israelis sent a message that they want something different, and by different, they don't mean Naftali Bennett and an Israeli government that views its primary role as achieving Greater Israel. The vote for Lapid also included Israelis who traditionally vote for Labor, but who reject the new version of Labor that has abandoned the peace agenda and become increasingly politically neutered. By voting for Lapid, these Israelis sent a message that they want Israeli leaders who are energized, unafraid, and who will have the courage to stand up for progressive values - including, or at least not excluding, in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
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(4) They demonstrate that the dynamic of change has taken hold in Israel.
For the past four years, the lack of any real opposition in the Knesset, and the absence of any real danger of losing the coalition, has been a disaster for Israel. This situation gave Netanyahu and his fellow travelers free reign to pursue policies that contradict Israel's own best interests, including in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and in terms of undermining Israel's own democracy.
Following yesterday's elections, it is clear that the next Israeli government, whatever its composition, will be far more fragile, far less stable than the coalition that governed Israel for the past four years. It also means that the next Knesset will have to deal with a far feistier Knesset - one that is home to an energized, empowered opposition. In the short-term, this new reality will limit the power of the next government. In the longer-term, it makes it likely that there will be new elections sooner rather than later. In those elections, the opposition will be in an even stronger position to challenge Bibi (and speculation is already growing that this opposition could include prominent new faces from the Israeli security and intelligence communities).
(5) They offer an historic opportunity for President Obama and the international community.
These elections come only one day after Obama was sworn in for his second term in office as the president of the United States. They come just over two months after Obama won that second term in an election in which he again received the overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote. They come just two months after the Palestinians went to the UN and gained upgraded status in that body. They come to the backdrop of a growing chorus of criticism over the Netanyahu government's settlement policies, growing concern over the viability of the two-state solution, and growing pressure for a new and serious peace initiative to break the current dangerous deadlock. In the context of all of this, Israelis yesterday sent a powerful message to the world: we reject the status quo.
These elections thus represent an historic opening for Obama and other friends of Israel in the international community to strike a new course toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israelis have rejected the status quo policies and agenda of the Bibi government; it is incumbent on Obama and the internationally community - morally and politically - to do the same. This requires addressing the Israeli people directly and adopting far more muscular policies that are consistent with longstanding U.S. positions and with international consensus, like taking a much harder line against settlement construction. In doing so, Obama and friends of Israel in the international community can support and bolster the pro-democracy, pro-progressive values, pro-peace trend that made itself apparent in yesterday's election. And in doing so, they can salvage and re-accredit the two-state solution and put the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace back on the agenda.