Israel could be on the verge of a political transformation that shifts the focus of elections from security to the pocketbook issues that dominate most liberal democracies.
Or maybe not.
That was the hopeful but uncertain message Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan delivered at a Center for Israel Education dinner June 29. The Dunwoody event brought together Atlanta supporters of the center, founded and led by Emory University’s Ken Stein, with more than 80 educators attending the CIE’s annual summer enrichment workshop.
Hazan showed one slide that he said explains Israeli politics. It broke the 10 current Knesset parties into blocs, with the hawks (led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud) on one side and the doves (led by Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union) on the other — and with a strong and stable group of centrists in between.
In 2013, a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, finished second with 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. In 2105, Yesh Atid dropped to 11 seats, but an even newer centrist party, Kulanu, grabbed 10 seats, meaning that the center rose to 21 seats.
The important thing about those parties, Hazan said, is that they have almost nothing to say about security. Instead, their focus is on domestic socioeconomic issues, such as more efficiency in government, improved education, and a better environment for small businesses and young people.
In fact, he said, half the voters in the 2013 and 2015 elections said domestic issues topped their concerns, and economic and social issues were twice as important as security in polls.
Half of Israelis are willing to cut the defense budget to close the gaps in social and economic programs, and three-quarters would cut funding for the settlements, Hazan said. All of that reflects a reality in which Israelis feel their nation is secure with no existential threats on their borders, but they’re nervous about the economy.
“You wouldn’t know any of this if you looked at the Israeli political map and saw Likud and Labor still focusing on security issues,” Hazan said.
You also wouldn’t know it if you only paid attention to Israeli politics during the elections — or only followed those elections through American media, which too often make the mistake of reporting on Israeli democracy as if its framework is the same as that of American democracy, Hazan said.
He pointed to a headline in a major newspaper after the 2009 elections that declared Tzipi Livni had been elected president, even though she was trying to become prime minister and didn’t come close to enough support to form a governing coalition. But her party had the most votes, and that’s all the newspaper understood.
“You have to understand what’s going on in Israel to take the pulse in Israel, but elections are a snapshot every three or four years,” Hazan said.
The lack of understanding of Israeli politics comes through when American Jews fret about Israel moving to the right or becoming less democratic. Hazan said neither claim is true, and he argued that the fact Israel, amid continual stress from enemies outside and terrorists and their supporters within, has debates over, for example, whether to kick out members of the Knesset who stand with terrorists’ families shows that liberal democracy is thriving.
“Political debate is so much more open and so much more vibrant than anything I saw in this country before Trump showed up,” Hazan said.
The big question is whether Israelis can truly subordinate the security debate to domestic issues. Hazan said he’s typical: He is more concerned about social and economic issues, but when he gets to a voting booth, his top concern is his child in the military.
“I think if we move away from security and begin focusing more on a domestic agenda, Israel will become more democratic,” Hazan said.
He explained that voters can’t hold politicians accountable for security policies because officials have no control over what Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority, Iran and others do. But when people are elected on a domestic agenda and fail to deliver, they have to answer to the electorate.
Such a shift, he said, “makes Israel more normal and more democratic.”
If, that is, it happens.