At 10 Tuesday night at the headquarters of the Joint (Arab) List in Nazareth’s industrial zone, a crowd of expectant hundreds issued a collective groan. A few moments later, they shouted in joy.
The Zionist Union had not garnered more votes than the Likud, as polls had forecasted it would in the days leading up to elections for the 20th Knesset. Hence the groan. Arab voters would probably not be given the chance to recommend Isaac Herzog to President Reuven Rivlin as the man who should form the next government coalition.
In the coming hours as the final results came in, Likud would widen its gap with Zionist Union, making a right-wing government eschewing any cooperation with Arab lawmakers all but a done deal. But there was also cause for celebration: The Joint List had proven that the whole was more than the parts. The union of the major Arab parties together in a single list had created a potentially formidable political power. After the Likud and Zionist Union, the list was now the third-largest in the Knesset.
Meanwhile, the haredi political parties were experiencing mixed electoral results of their own. On one hand, Shas and United Torah Judaism were battered via the ballots: Shas dropped from 11 Knesset seats to just seven; UTJ shrank from seven to six.
Despite the dismal electoral results, Shas and United Torah Judaism could also be pleased. The two parties would almost certainly be called in from the political wilderness of the opposition to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. And this was a victory for the haredim.
Both Arabs and haredim have reason to celebrate – Arabs for their impressive electoral showing and haredim because they will probably be part of the government coalition. But will these successes translate into positive developments for Israeli society as a whole? This is an important question to answer, because one of the biggest challenges faced by the State of Israel in the coming decades is how to address the crippling poverty, inadequate education and cultural alienation of the Arab and haredi populations.
These two populations are Israel’s fastest-growing. Tremendous potential can be unleashed if the two groups can be successfully integrated into the economy. Conversely, failure to tackle the social problems of these groups will have negative ramifications for all.
Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that the relative successes of the Arab and haredi communities in the elections will ultimately be pyrrhic victories.
Record numbers of Israeli Arabs came out to vote, galvanized by a unity deal and a charismatic new leader, Ayman Odeh.
That the communist Hadash, the nationalist Balad and the Islamist United Arab List-Ta’al managed to put aside their differences and form a united front was a net boon for Arab political representation. Those who abandoned the list in protest of the watering-down of messages inherent when a staunchly Muslim bigamist and a secular women’s rights activist join forces were more than offset by those encouraged by the message of unity.
But though it is the third-largest party in the Knesset and though it represents one-fifth of Israeli society, the Joint List will have little impact on Israeli politics. The party’s radically anti-Zionist message – Odeh refuses to publicly denounce the declaration made by Balad MK Haneen Zoabi that IDF soldiers are no better than Hamas terrorists – would make it impossible even for a center-left party like the Zionist Union to form a coalition with it.
There is real danger that the Arab population will grow increasingly alienated as a result. If the list fails to leverage its impressive success at the ballot box into an effective political offensive against discriminatory budgetary allocations and services for the Arab population in fields such as education, housing and job placement, Israeli Arabs might grow pessimistic about the entire political process and opt out in the next election. They might even resort to less peaceful means of achieving their demands. That is why it is imperative that the next government recognize the Joint List’s significant gains and make an effort to translate them into tangible political influence.
Arab MKs should be given the chairs on Knesset committees that deal with social affairs, education and economics, so that a more constructive political culture develops that focuses more on bread-and-butter issues, and less on radicalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the next government looking to be decidedly right-wing, and with Arab MKs continuing to make politically charged declarations against the very existence of a Jewish state, however, there is little hope of this happening.
After a long exile, Shas and United Torah Judaism will almost certainly be incorporated into the government coalition. This is a victory from the perspective of these two parties and their constituents.
But it is important to remember that the absence of these two parties in the previous government facilitated perhaps its single greatest achievement – the ending of religious men’s entitlement to opt out of military service, while their secular male peers were obligated to commit themselves to three years in the IDF.
With the return of Shas and UTJ, there is a real danger that not only will religious men be allowed to once again skirt army service, they will succeed in resisting, or slowing the process of integration into mainstream Israeli society – particularly the labor market. Transforming the fast-growing, overwhelmingly poor haredi population into an economically productive segment of society that contributes to economic expansion instead of being a drain on it is one of the main challenges of the State of Israel in the next decade.
The poor showing of Shas and UTJ in the election reflects major changes taking place within the haredi community. Ultra-Orthodox leadership has become increasingly fractured. Towering Torah sages who commanded the nearly undivided loyalty of their faithful, not just with regard to Shabbat and kashrut but also in the mundane realm of worldly politics, have left this world. Men like Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the nearly unchallenged spiritual leader of haredi Ashkenazi Jewry, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Jewry’s shepherd, are no longer with us.
The haredi population has always been made up of diverse groups – but now this diversity has led to fragmentation of political leadership. Anyone who wandered around Bnei Brak in the days before the election could see this on display. The faces of Eli Yishai and Baruch Marzel of the Yahad party were almost as ubiquitous as ads for UTJ and Shas. Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who commands the radical “Jerusalem faction” of the Ashkenazi yeshiva world that numbers several tens of thousands, announced he would boycott the elections.
A list of ultra-Orthodox women called Ubezchutan (In Their Merit) calling for political representation for women – as mainstream haredi parties claim women are banned from rulership roles – are challenging old arrangements.
Increasingly, the devout are thinking for themselves – if not in strictly religious practice, at least with regard to the political. The diversity that has always existed within the haredi population is increasingly being given articulation. This can have important implications for the integration of this population into the labor market. With haredi parties back in the coalition, the gradual process of integration taking place within haredi society might be slowed.
A renewed battle to enable larger numbers of haredi young men to opt out of IDF service might prolong the inevitable. Perhaps one way of defusing the conflict is by reconsidering the model of universal conscription. By gradually professionalizing the IDF and offering those who volunteer a high salary and prestige, the haredi population would be freed to enter the labor market. This would end the inherent discrimination that presently exists between the religious, who can indefinitely postpone military service to study Torah, and secular Israelis have do not have that option for, say, university studies.
But don’t hold your breath.