(March 20, 2015 / JNS)
As pundits and politicians sift through the election data, devise alternative scenarios for the formation of the next Israeli government, and warn about the implications for an already tense U.S.-Israel relationship, one key fact is getting lost: this was a great victory for Israeli democracy.
In a Middle East populated by clerical regimes like Iran, military dictatorships like Egypt, authoritarian monarchies like Saudi Arabia, and murderous despotisms like Syria—not to mention Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, and their barbarous ilk—democratic Israel stands alone. Although beset on all sides by countries and non-state entities sworn to its destruction, Israel has never abandoned its democratic commitments, and remains a beacon of hope for the world.
Israelis enjoy universal suffrage, with no distinction between Arab and Jew. The parties that vied in this election ranged the gamut from the extreme right, including some politicians who would recast Israel as a state only for Jews, to the extreme left, including some who would erase its Jewish identity entirely. Besides the 10 parties that passed the electoral threshold and entered the Knesset, there was a plethora of tiny parties with no hope of gaining seats, but whose single-issue campaigns added to the democratic atmosphere.
These included a party advocating legalization of marijuana, another pressing for the rights of haredi women, and a third asserting the benefits for Israeli society of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman, a hasidic holy man who died more than two centuries ago.
Disproving the outrageous charge that Israel discriminates against its Arab population, a new Arab party, constituted for this election out of several smaller factions, achieved 13 seats in the Knesset, making it the third-largest party in Israel’s 120-member legislative body and a potentially influential factor going forward. And, as a footnote, it was an Arab judge on Israel’s Supreme Court, Salim Joubran, who headed the Central Elections Committee that oversaw the conduct of the election.
Other signs of Israel’s vibrant democracy are evident in the makeup of the incoming 20th Knesset. One-third of that body—40 members—will be newcomers, 28 will be women, and 17 are Arabs.
In some ways, Israel’s commitment to democracy even exceeds our own. The final voter turnout figure for the Israeli election was 72.3 percent, a percentage not reached in an American presidential election since 1900. The most recent contest for the presidency, in 2012, attracted only 57.5 percent of American voters to the polls. Israel’s extraordinary commitment to full democratic participation is also evident in a little-known legal difference between our two countries that underlines the great importance that Israel attaches to voting rights. In the United States, prison inmates are barred from voting, removal of their franchise being viewed as part of their punishment. In contrast, Israel understands the right to vote as so fundamental to democracy that prisoners vote just like everyone else—and according to media reports, they voted at an even higher rate than other Israelis.
Whatever the results of Israel’s elections, the fact that they took place at all must not be taken for granted. The outcome surprised the experts and defied the pollsters. It was not the prognosticators but the people themselves, by depositing their ballots, who have determined Israel’s course. That cannot be said of any other country anywhere near Israel on the map.
In survey after survey, the American people have demonstrated overwhelming support for Israel in its struggle to survive and thrive. Those who wonder why have their answer in the Israeli election. Israel’s democratic political system, along with its commitments to human rights, the rule of law, free speech, religious liberty, and gender equality, echo what Americans hold dear. In a world where those concepts are increasingly defied and overridden, Americans care less about temporary points of friction between American and Israeli leaders—as intense as they sometimes become—than about the underlying values that link our two countries together.
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications (www.ajc.org).