Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: The Vaccination Nation votes

Mar 30, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein

Israeli voters walking by political posters and slogans outside an election polling station in Holon, Israel, 23 March 2021. (Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock)
Israeli voters walking by political posters and slogans outside an election polling station in Holon, Israel, 23 March 2021. (Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock)

As widely predicted, Israel’s fourth election in two years appears to have failed to provide a clear and decisive winner. 

After all the votes had been counted, neither incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu nor his rivals appeared to have anything like an easy path to a governing coalition.

Outgoing President Reuven Rivlin has until April 7 to select a prime ministerial candidate to try to form a coalition, and has hinted he is in no rush. The person given Rivlin’s mandate then has 28 days to form a government and can potentially receive an extension. If he or she fails, the mandate can then be given to someone else. In other words, in a best-case scenario, Israel is at the beginning of a process likely to last more than a month, but which may last considerably longer than that.

Most Israelis will understandably find this outcome very frustrating after the two-year political logjam that has created a situation whereby their representatives in Jerusalem seem to have spent more time campaigning than governing. 

Yet perhaps the upcoming weeks will allow passions to cool, and encourage political parties to tone down their rhetoric, iron out differences and find a way to avoid a fifth election that is surely the last thing the country needs.

Perhaps it will also allow Israeli political and opinion leaders to reflect on the self-evident need for intelligent electoral reform to prevent the country from continuing the chronic political instability of recent times. A governing coalition that could unite for the express purpose of developing and passing such reforms, thus guaranteeing the current impasse could never recur, would likely win the lasting gratitude of much of the weary Israeli electorate.

Meanwhile, there are numerous other important takeaways from this election campaign.

Firstly, the disappointing turnout among Israel’s Arab voters should not overshadow some genuinely encouraging signals coming from this sector. Most Zionist parties included Arab Israelis high on their electoral list, while Arab party politicians openly discussed the prospect of working with an Israeli government, rather than reflexively opposing them, as in the past. As Tzvi Fleischer notes in this month’s Scribblings column, Arab voters today appear to be overwhelmingly in favour of Arab political parties either joining the next Israeli government or supporting one from the outside “in order to achieve benefits for the Arab community.” 

The result is the small Arab Ra’am party, which does have a worryingly Islamist outlook, looks to be in a position to potentially play kingmaker, post-election. 

Already guaranteed equality under the law since Israel’s founding, Israel’s minorities are increasingly asking their leaders to enhance their political and socio-economic engagement with the Jewish majority, and the entire country stands to benefit. 

On the other hand, the relative electoral success of the controversial Religious Zionist party, projected to receive six seats, is troubling. RZ is an amalgam of three smaller parties, two of which – Otzma Yehudit and Noam – frankly should be beyond the political pale. Otzma Yehudit consists of the disciples of the late racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, while Noam promotes anti-LGBTQI views. 

The possibility that representatives of these parties could now find their way into positions of influence in a potential government is anathema to most Israelis and virtually all friends of Israel. 

Finally, this election was understandably centred on the coronavirus pandemic; Israel’s mixed performance in handling this crisis last year; and Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign to bring it under control this year. 

Netanyahu rightly sought political credit for working tirelessly to secure supplies to make the vaccination success story possible. However, it should not be forgotten that much of the credit for Israel’s stunning vaccine success must also go to Israel’s robust, modern, hi-tech health care system that ensured that the lifesaving shots were administered to the populace efficiently and that data on the vaccine’s effects could be collected in real time for scientific study to benefit the world.

The big picture is that, while the Israeli political system has been suffering from dysfunction, the country’s core institutions in the economic, social, health, education and defence spheres have risen to the occasion.

Israel’s defence agencies have overcome the challenge of operating without an annual budget and maintained vigilance against an array of threats, particularly from Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza and, of course, never taken an eye off Iran’s dangerous and illegal nuclear program.

Israel’s improving relations with the Arab world have continued apace despite ongoing political uncertainty, demonstrating that the ties transcend simple politics. As the Emirate’s former Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash recently tweeted, “from the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region,” independent of the composition of the Israeli Government.

Meanwhile, after being on track to be the world’s first fully vaccinated country, the “start-up nation” is also poised to spearhead a global economic revival and apply its knack for innovation to health and medi-tech, COVID-safe commerce and other pursuits that will meet the needs of a post-pandemic world.

Israel is much more than the 120 representatives it voted into office on March 23, or the prime minister that these individuals will ultimately select. These are simply part of a larger enterprise and broad-based social contract in which every Israeli, whatever their multiethnic and multicultural background, is a stakeholder. 

Over the past year, in particular, those bonds have been tested, and sometimes strained, through lockdowns, protests, and accusations and recriminations between different sectors. Regardless of what happens in the political sphere over the coming few months – a Netanyahu-led government, a different government, or even yet another election campaign – Israel will doubtless not only muddle through but manage to thrive. 

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