Open Zion

01.24.13

Israeli Voters’ Return to Normalcy

Even before the final votes were tallied, a debate emerged as to how to interpret the meteoric rise of Israel’s Yair Lapid and his new Yesh Atid party. On one side, there are those who see the rise of the centrist party as a step in the right direction on the Palestinian issue; they point out, quite accurately, that Israel’s center-left bloc made progress, nearly tying with the right-religious bloc.

On the other side, some—including Open Zion contributors Emily Hauser and Yousef Munayyer—have argued the opposite. They claim that Lapid’s rise is no cause for optimism. Munayyer even says the election outcome means “that Israel has shifted right.” But rather than telling us much about Israeli-Palestinian relations, these elections show an overwhelming hope for a return to normalcy in Israel: a very human desire to deal with the many pressing issues at home, even though the conflict has not ended. The election outcome may not deserve international praise, but it certainly should not merit disdain; at the very least, Israel’s shift inward should be met with understanding, as no country can let societal problems simmer forever.

This inward shift should come as no surprise: Israelis are more than fatigued with campaigns focused on war and peace. In the 1990s, Israeli elections were about the peace process. In the early 2000s, they were about how to handle the deadly Second Intifada, and 2009 was arguably about Iran. These days, the peace process is stalled and the Intifadas are over. In 2009, Netanyahu ran on his security credentials amid fears of Iran’s nuclear program. Those fears have not dispersed, but Iran was largely off the radar in 2013—largely because Netanyahu was already the assumed victor, with no rival who was both experienced and popular. Voters were allowed to finally exhale, and vote not on peace-and-war issues, but instead on domestic policy.

Americans should sympathize. Many times in our history, we’ve had our own “return to normalcy” elections. The term itself was coined in 1920, by a candidate who vowed to focus on domestic issues after the First World War. Though foreigners largely associate Israel only with the wars and conflicts that make headlines, the country faces many problems at home: a widening gap between the rich and poor, a decaying education system, and a religious-secular divide that 71 percent of Israelis call “the greatest tension in their society.”

In any other country, voters aiming to address these issues would not be met with disgust. As an American liberal, I would never look down on a voter who prioritized fighting urban poverty over ending the war in Afghanistan. Few would chide a Turkish voter who puts protecting secularism higher on his agenda than foreign policy. And none of us would criticize a mother who voted to ensure better schooling for her kids.

But this week, international media has criticized Israelis who voted for a better education system, for economic justice, and for secular-religious equality. They point out that peace-focused Meretz and HaTnuah did not do as well as Yesh Atid, Labor, and HaBayit HaYehudi—a rightist party that, as I noted recently, likely won some centrist votes for its focus on renewal at home. Voters, cynical and apathetic about the peace process, looked at leaders like Lapid and HaBayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett and saw hope for a better future at home. Some saw a rising gap between the haves and have-nots—almost as bad as in the U.S., according to OECD rankings—and voted for the Labor Party. Others voted Yesh Atid because they know that not only do the ultra-Orthodox largely avoid military service, some of their schools barely teach any core subjects—and these students, along with those in Israel’s underfunded Arab school system, tend to perform worst on standardized tests. I cannot fault them for that.

I admit it: I am disappointed that Israelis did not take a more forceful stance on the peace issue. I agree that avoiding it imperils Israel’s future. But so does allowing the religious-secular divide to permanently simmer, and, many would argue, so does ignoring the declining state of education.

One can care about peace and the fate of the Palestinian public while still acknowledging that Israelis are normal people, who have normal problems that they must address at the ballot box. Israel is more than just the sum of its conflicts. So give Israelis a break this month, when they had a chance to vote on domestic affairs. After all, if the region—and the next coalition—is as unstable as people say it is, Israelis may not have the luxury of “normalcy” for very long.