Israelis ‘Invited In Change’


Jerusalem — So much for apathy and anxiety.

On the eve of Tuesday’s election, Israeli analysts warned there would be few surprises.

In his popular Yediot Achronot political column, Nahum Barnea wrote: “One of the reasons for the despondent atmosphere is anxiety about the future.”

Young people, Barnea wrote, “are anxious” because of skyrocketing housing prices and job insecurity.

“Older people are anxious about Israel’s isolation in the world and an economic crisis that might wipe out their savings. Everyone is anxious about war.”

“At the end of the day, when the results are in,” Barnea concluded, “there will still be no answer.”

And yet, when the polls closed here at 10 p.m., there was a feeling of anticipation in the air, as if something important had just happened. About 67 percent of the country’s 5.65 million eligible voters went to the ballot box, about 4 percent more than the last election.

Predicting a substantial upset, exit polls showed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party received just 31 seats, instead of the 32 to 35 predicted earlier. The centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) led by former TV personality Yair Lapid won 19 seats; Labor 17; Labor, Naftali Bennet’s Habayit Hayehud (Jewish Home), 12; Shas, 12; Hatnuah; 7; and Meretz, 7.

The anticipation began much earlier in the day, when voting officials noted a somewhat larger-than-expected turnout. Even a bride arrived at the polling booth in her wedding gown. Seventy percent of the country’s prisoners reportedly voted, with one telling Israel TV that “we’re still citizens of this country and this is a celebration of democracy.”

At the polling stations, parents made it a point to involve their children in the voting process, and then posted the photos on Facebook.

Shaul Shenhav, a Hebrew University political scientist, attributed the enthusiasm to a number of factors, including the unseasonable spring-like weather.

“I also suspect the people who were involved in the big social demonstrations” in the summer of 2011 “have become more politically involved since then,” Shenhav said. “It also appears that social media played a part” in getting out the vote.

While the demonstrators came from all walks of life and political streams, the parties that focused on social issues — especially Yesh Atid and Meretz — received a higher than anticipated number of votes.

“There was a sense of collective responsibility despite the growing individualization within Israeli society,” Shenhav noted.

Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem who writes about Israeli society, also dispelled the doom-and-gloom perception of the apathetic Israeli.

“It’s just not true that Israeli democracy does not thrive,” Gordis wrote in a Facebook post after the exit polls were released. Despite all the predictions to the contrary, “Israelis did not lurch to the right, they’ve invited in change. “Regardless of who we all voted for,” Gordis posted, “[this was] a great night for the Jewish State, and much reason to be proud and filled with hope.”

The morning of Election Day, Moris Shukrun, 34, said he was “optimistic” that the election would lead to change.

“I’m a centrist,” Shukrun, who has a newborn son, said in the Jerusalem hair salon he owns. “The No. 1 thing I want is peace, but it doesn’t depend only on us.”

The second item on Shukrun’s list is economic reform.

“The rich aren’t bearing their fair share of the burden, so it falls on the middle- and lower-classes. Owning a business isn’t easy,” he added. “We pay a ton of taxes.”

While Shukrun called Netanyahu “a leader,” he said the prime minister is too focused “on helping the rich, not the young people in this country.”

Standing outside a voting station a few hours before the polls were set to close, Judith Zvaig, a Likud supporter sporting a Netanyahu bumper sticker on her denim skirt, expressed the hope that the right-wing parties would band together to form a strong government.

“There are too many right-wing parties. It’s time to leave our differences aside for another time.”

Zvaig said Likud has a strong track record on both the security and socioeconomic fronts.

“The Likud is committed to keeping out infiltrators, and the fact is that the government has just completed the security fence in the south” between Israel and Egypt. Netanyahu has also provided free dental care for kids and free education for three-year-olds, she said.

Zvaig acknowledged that “the price of housing has to go down,” and that the next government must make it a priority.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Hadas Bendel, a 17-year-old Meretz activist on her way to a voting station, said she supports the party “because it trying to make the country more democratic, supports civil marriage and divorce, the rights of gays and lesbians.”

Another reason Bendel supports Meretz, even though she is too young to vote: “My father is running for Knesset,” she said with a broad smile, referring to Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a veteran leader of the Masorti/Conservative movement in Israel.

Peering at the TV screen at the entrance of Adir Falafel on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street just as the exit poll results were announced, at 10 p.m., Yaakov Feist, a 19-year-old yeshiva student, pondered what the numbers meant.

“I don’t think things will change much,” he said, noting that the right wing appeared to have won 61 seats as opposed to the 59 garnered by the left.

Although a government must have a minimum 61 seats to function, that is considered a very narrow majority and a sign that it could be easily toppled.

Feist said he was waiting to see whether the Orthodox parties will serve in the next government coalition.

“If yes, nothing should change, but if not, yeshiva subsides and army exemptions could be in danger. Time will tell.”