The composition of the new governing coalition in Israel taken together with the outcome of the negotiations between the six world powers and Iran, does not portend an easy period ahead for the relationship between the new government and the American administration. Disagreements over religion and state issues may actually deepen rifts with the predominantly liberal North American Jewish community. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the election by a wide margin, an impressive personal achievement despite confrontations with President Obama and an emerging erosion of Israel’s traditional bi-partisan support in America.
Generally, the changes to the Israeli political map took place within the existing political blocs. On the right, Likud strengthened (from 18 to 30 mandates) and helped weaken both HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home party), headed by Naftali Bennett (which dropped from 12 to 8 mandates), and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) headed by Avigdor Lieberman (which held 13 seats when the 19th Knesset was disbanded and fell to only six in the 20th Knesset). The weakening of Yisrael Beiteinu underscores the erosion of Lieberman’s power, which had relied on the votes of Russian immigrants. His diminished power is partly due to corruption allegations targeting the party’s leadership as well as the generally successful integration of Russian immigrants into Israeli society, whose current voting patterns resemble those of the general society.
In the center-left camp, the rise of the Zionist Union (Labor and HaTnuah) under Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (from 21 Knesset seats to 24) came about not only from consolidating the two parties, but was also a result of the dissolution of Kadima. The center also split its votes between Kulanu, under Moshe Kahlon (who tends to lean right), and Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid, who is seen as more of a centrist and who lost approximately 42 percent of his power (from 19 to 11 seats).
There were two other significant changes:
- The strengthening of the Arab parties to 13 mandates after the Knesset’s minimal threshold was raised, forcing them to merge into one party.
- The diminished strength of the ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas split and lost four mandates (from 11 to 7), and United Torah Judaism lost one seat (from 7 to 6). Despite this power loss, the two ultra-Orthodox parties reinforced their standing as a deciding factor and succeeded in recovering social benefits and subsidies cancelled in the reforms of the previous government. Although they had been relatively stronger, the ultra-Orthodox were excluded from the previous coalition, a result of the cooperation agreement between Lapid and Bennett.
Irrespective of Prime Minster Netanyahu’s impressive personal electoral success, it appears that his decision to dissolve the 19th Knesset – after encountering political and economic difficulties – did not improve his ability to govern, nor the government’s functioning. A government that rests on the slimmest of majorities (61 Knesset seats), with cabinet members holding hard ideological positions, means that each individual coalition member could jeopardize the government’s survival on ideological or personal grounds (such as MK Oren Hazan, who faces pressure related to questionable discoveries from his past) and will find it difficult to make real decisions and find any kind of political breathing room. Paradoxically, the current government’s survival rests on ideological unity on the one hand, however, on the other hand, there is a sense that most current MKs, both in the coalition and opposition, will not have an easy road to reelection, and will think twice before supporting new elections.
In surveys conducted by international organizations, Israel ranks high in happiness and life satisfaction. According to the UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Index, Israel is in the top 10 percent (ranked 19 of 179 countries) ahead of France and Belgium. In the 2015 World Happiness Report submitted to the UN (edited by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs), Israel ranks 11– ahead of the U.S. (15), Belgium (19), and Great Britain (21). A May 2015 OECD report places Israel in the top five of its member states. Despite that, according to certain important measurements included in the report, such as personal security, income levels, and housing, Israel ranks below the OECD average; but in life satisfaction and happiness, Israel is ranked in fourth place, well above the average.
Ostensibly, these OECD findings are in contradiction. However, this may point to a common perception among most Israelis that they live in a country where life is good. Most of Israel’s citizens, including its minorities, feel they have something valuable and worth preserving. Perhaps the answer to this contradiction is hidden in questions not included in international surveys. Most of Israel’s Jewish population is comprised of immigrants – either first or second generation – are ingrained with the yearning to belong to the “majority” and exercise their right to live under Jewish sovereignty. Even among minorities, there is a sense, relative to the citizenries of neighboring countries, that their lot in life is far better, notwithstanding their continued struggle for total equality. And, among both Jews and minorities, there is a basic appreciation for the democratic system that characterizes life within the Green Line.
However, much of Israel’s Jewish population is concerned by the security situation: their children serve in a military that fights frequent wars; Iran’s nuclear program; the instability that characterizes the region; the lack of diplomatic pathways with the Palestinians; and the de-legitimization of Israel, to the point where Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state is challenged. Israel’s Arab minority finds it difficult to come to terms with Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line and the withholding of political rights from the Palestinian population there.
Over the past two decades, the voting habits of Israeli Jews have shifted rightward, largely for tactical reasons based on the assessment that a right-wing government will better serve Israel’s interests in peace negotiations and succeed in gaining greater support should an agreement be achieved. The eroded power of the center-left bloc is a result of: the collapse of the Oslo process led by Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Rabin beginning in 1993, which gained widespread public support; Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak’s failed Camp David and Taba efforts to reach an accord with the late Yasser Arafat, which exploded into the Second Intifada (and took the lives of 1000 Israelis); Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip, which led to a Hamas takeover and rocket attacks on south and central Israel; the strengthening of Hezbollah in the north; and the failure of the Annapolis talks during Ehud Olmert’s tenure.
The right-wing’s 2015 victory goes beyond its coalition of 61 mandates. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu chose to remain in the opposition as a result, primarily, of the personal conflict between Lieberman and Netanyahu, and did not indicate any eagerness of Yisrael Beitenu’s members to support a center-left bloc. Four additional far-right mandates were wasted when the union between Eli Yishai (a Shas breakaway) and followers of the late Meir Kahana (Kach) failed to meet the Knesset’s threshold.
The exclusion of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid from the coalition allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to return to a position of greater political influence. Their demands, accepted by the new government, included: restoring cancelled child subsidies and support for ultra-Orthodox families and adults who choose a path of yeshiva study over employment; revocation of mandatory military conscription for yeshiva students; and, most notably, halting conversion reform intended to allow local rabbis to conduct more lenient conversion processes than the more stringent Chief Rabbinate. All these were met with suspicion and opposition by the non-Orthodox Jewish streams in North America, which perceive them as a reversal of Israel’s evolving position on issues of religion and state. And this situation is leading to an erosion of Diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel, especially in the United States.
A number of recent incidents and remarks by public figures have appeared to be intolerant and radical, and have further exacerbated tensions between Israel and liberal U.S. Jews. These include the mayor of Rehovot’s cancellation of a bar-mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities because a Conservative rabbi was set to officiate; remarks by David Azoulay, Israel’s minister for religious affairs, who said that Reform Jews aren’t Jews at all; and Michael Oren’s, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, disparaging comments about some liberal American Jews and their harsh criticism of Israel.
Although demographic data indicate a gradual strengthening of the U.S. Orthodox community, the liberal majority’s – who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats – distancing diminishes one of Israel’s most important strategic assets. The connection between Israel and the Diaspora, has been crucial since the founding of the Jewish state and distance in the relationship has implications at the domestic political level in the United States, including relations with the administration, which have already suffered as a result of conflicts over the Iran deal, the peace process, and the personal crisis between the top leaders of both countries.