Despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the Israeli election last month by getting the most votes for his party (although tied with another party) and having the pledge of 65 Knesset members (out of 120) to recommend him for leadership, he has failed to form a governing coalition and new elections are now set for September. How is it that voters can send a decisive message at the polls and the result be inconclusive?
Parliamentary democracy, and in particular coalition horse trading, can be tricky. The breakdown in negotiations was the result of the demands of Avigdor Lieberman over the drafting of Orthodox into the military. Netanyahu’s potential coalition is made up of right-wing and religious parties, who mostly agree on many issues, but one area of contention is the separation of religion and state.
Lieberman’s party is secular in orientation and opposes religious coercion, while the ultra-Orthodox parties seek to maintain Judaism’s status in the public sphere. Lieberman campaigned on the promise to make sure yeshiva students would serve in the Israel Defense Forces, but the ultra-Orthodox parties gained seats in the last election and strengthened their position.
The 5 votes of Lieberman’s party are few, but crucial. Without them, Netanyahu has only 60 seats in his coalition, not enough to form a government, and rather than let someone else try and get 61 votes, he pushed through a law to dissolve the month-old Knesset and go to new elections.
If it’s hard for us to imagine voting for your leadership a mere 5 months after you last did it, we are not alone. This would be the first time in Israel’s history that snap elections are called after the failure to form a coalition so we are in uncharted territory. What will the Israeli electorate do? Will the results be the same? If so, where does that leave things?
A few weeks ago at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention, I sat in on an Israeli election update from the Conservative movement’s point of view, which assumed that a coalition would be formed. The prospects for religious pluralism were grim then since the political situation seemed to be mostly unchanged from the last elections. Lieberman’s stand against religious coercion may change the calculation, although his concerns often differ from the Conservative movement’s. He hasn’t shown much interest in an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall or official recognition for Conservative rabbis.
At the election update we discussed an intriguing question: should the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel form their own political parties? The Orthodox have several and have reaped the rewards of power for their sectors. Why shouldn’t the liberal movements follow suit. Even if this new party only got a few seats, it could still have significant influence, as Lieberman has shown.
There are at least two reasons this party has never been created. First, unlike the Orthodox, liberal Jews are less likely to vote only on religious issues. Second, while Conservative and Reform Jews may agree on the question of pluralism, on issues of security polling indicates they are divided. Conservative Israelis trend to the right, while Reform Israelis trend to the left.
Although it is unlikely we will ever see a liberal Jewish party in Israel, this sector does make up a significant portion of the electorate. Hopefully they can continue to influence the parties they vote for to bring our vision of Judaism to the Jewish state in the next election and beyond.