Starting Over

Israel has much to gain from our two major parties joining together – and everything to lose from deepening the divisions in our society.

Herzog and Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Herzog and Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yesterday, several million Israelis cast their ballots at thousands of polling stations across the country.
With 25 parties running and more than 1,200 candidates, the electorate had quite a choice.
According to the exit polls published last night, the Likud has won this closely contested race – and now the real work begins for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new coalition. We must remember that this election came about last fall when Netanyahu grew frustrated with his previous coalition partners.
Unfortunately, that left a state budget unpassed and left legislation about army conscription incomplete. That means the new government must immediately begin looking at the economic challenges of the budget and answer tough questions about who will shoulder the burden in the IDF.
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The new government also faces a housing report that shows there have been massive, rising costs in housing around the country. This puts home ownership out of reach for many young families. Although the housing issue did not catch fire this time around, it is only a matter of time before the electorate will begin to demand answers about housing and the prices of other consumer goods.
Israel has a good economy, but wages are stagnant, and many people live paycheck to paycheck without the ability to save money. Various initiatives, such as canceling the burdensome television tax, must be followed through with more reforms to open up the market to competition and to reduce punitive taxes on imports.
There is almost total consensus in Israeli society on security policy. It is only a matter of time before the new government will be tested by terrorist groups. These groups tend to see Israeli democracy as an opening to press their advantage; and they think a change in government can signal weakness. They will find themselves facing a formidable and unflinching response from a country that may disagree on politics, but agrees wholeheartedly on defending itself vigorously.
The new government will face an uphill struggle in healing relations with the EU and working with Washington to meet common security threats. One of the key issues in this election campaign was Netanyahu’s demand to give a speech in Washington. Some saw that as controversial, while others applauded his indomitable commitment to the Iranian issue. Nevertheless, Washington is pushing ahead with negotiations and that means Israel must pay close attention.
There will also be an opening to the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The new foreign and defense minister will have a chance here to find common ground with new allies in the region.
Despite our differences in Israel, this diverse, sometimes chaotic country can come together for a relatively peaceful vote, despite reports of some skirmishes and voting irregularities.
Many people across the region should look at our democracy for inspiration.
Israel’s democratic process has been witnessed by Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians, and many others. Palestinian parties such as Hamas and other commentators at Arabic language websites wrote about and debated the elections, with many pointing to the presence of a large and united Arab list as a sign of hope.
This has been a rancorous campaign at times. Both sides threw dirt at one another and depicted their political enemies as charlatans and dark forces. There were racially tinged comments made and outlandish statements about hanging traitors that did the Israeli public no good. Now is the time to talk about internal consensus rather than conflict.
This election saw several firsts. It was the first time the parties had to run with an electoral threshold of 3.25 percent.
And as a result of that bill, it was the first election that saw a Joint List of two Arab parties and a joint Arab-Jewish party running together. It was also the first time that an Arab judge, Justice Salim Jubran, presided over the Central Elections Committee.
The Joint List pulled off a major revolution in Israeli politics and it is time to speak with its leaders as members of Israel’s democracy, rather than excluding them.
Israel has much to gain from our two major parties joining together – and everything to lose from deepening the divisions in our society. Therefore, perhaps the best way to heal these divisions and move forward would be with a government of national unity, including both the Likud and the Zionist Union.