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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.



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