On April 8, the evening before the elections in Israel, members of the Jewish community came together to celebrate Israeli democracy with a panel of experts and a mock election of their own at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s offices in North Bethesda, Maryland. People cast their ballots on site, but the final tally included votes cast at area shuls over the course of the month.
The event marked the conclusion of the Federation’s IsraVote project. Organized by the local Israeli emissaries, the project engaged synagogues around the Greater Washington area, teaching the community about Israel’s electoral process, its political parties, and the issues at hand.
In the mock election, the new party led by former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (Blue and White) carried 58 percent of the vote. Meretz followed with 17 percent, then Likud with 14 percent.
“I was surprised Meretz won second place,” said Yael Shafrir, a shlicha (Israeli emissary) at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland. “We definitely feel in our congregation that many people feel would like to have a change, but other people still believe in the Likud.”
Things played out differently in real life: On April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party secured a fifth term for the Israeli leader. The race initially appeared to be close, with the Likud party and the Blue and White party each commanding about 26 percent of the vote. Yet, a strong showing from Orthodox and religious Zionist parties, coupled with a lackluster performance from left-wing strongholds like Labor and Meretz, practically guaranteed Netanyahu would remain in power.
While the results of the mock election ultimately did not align with the Israeli electorate, Haaretz correspondent Amir Tibon and Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen from the U.S. Institute of Peace shed light on the intricacies of the Israeli electoral process and examined the possible outcomes during their panel discussion at the IsraVote event.
Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said that the makeup of a Netanyahu coalition will have “strong implications” on the shape his government will take, as well as support for it in the Jewish diaspora.
“If he goes right wing looking for legal immunity against his indictments, he will lose Democrats, the Jewish community, and a lot of supporters around the world,” she said. “If he goes for a centrist coalition, these trends will be slowed down.”
Netanyahu is now slated to overtake David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. At the same time, he is facing indictments in three different corruption cases that could see him in court.
Tibon said that this creates a unique situation where, despite his re-election, “Netanyahu will probably be prime minister tomorrow,” but not necessarily “a year from today.”
When asked about the involvement of the American Jewish community in Israeli politics, Tibon said that he is “personally happy” that American Jews care for the country and that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk dugri -- slang for talking directly.
“During the campaign, two mainstream Jewish organizations spoke out about Israeli politics in ways that might have been unacceptable in the past,” said Tibon. He was referencing AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League’s statement denouncing Netanyahu’s courting of the right-wing Otzma Yehudit party earlier in the campaign. “I think many Israelis would appreciate it even more if the community starts saying exactly what it thinks, instead of issuing long, fuzzy statements.”
Aaron Bregman, a teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, Maryland, lauded the efforts of Federation and the engagement of the Jewish community in following the Israeli political process.
“From what I can read about Israeli politics, it looks like it was not the most uplifting campaign,” Bregman said, “but I really enjoyed seeing the community and my students being curious and getting involved in it.”
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C.