Editor’s note: In an interview with Jason Mark of WBEZ Chicago Worldview, Natan Sachs discusses the election in Israel. Read an excerpt below.
Jason Mark: Let’s just go off one of the latest headlines I saw in one of the Israeli newspapers – turnout highest since 1999. Just off the top of your head, what do you make of that? What does that possibly say for the outcome?
Natan Sachs: Well it is probably the result of a strong energy that swept through Israel in 2011. In the summer of 2011 there were massive protests – social justice oriented protests – that some called ‘Occupy Tel Aviv’, a bit like Occupy Wall Street. But unlike Occupy Wall Street they were huge. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis in a small country of less than eight million went to the streets calling for change in the political system and the economic system. And so some of that energy has left a mark on the younger generation. Perhaps this is what explains the high turnout. I would also just point out that the high turnout is not uniform across the country. Of course the results are preliminary, but we don’t see the same high turnout among Israeli Arabs, about 20 percent of the population of Israel is Arab citizens, and we don’t see the same results in traditional right-wing strongholds. So this will likely strengthen the center and the left, but not strengthen the Arab parties, which are traditionally part of the left in some respects, and weaken perhaps, the center-right.
Mark: That’s interesting that you say that. There was sort of a movement over the last couple of weeks among Israeli Arabs, saying that they were going to stay away from elections as a protest, and a counter-movement to that, that said ‘look, if we don’t vote, we are not going to have a voice.’ Which way does it look like it is going right now?
Sachs: It looks like the trend of apathy or abstaining from voting that has been the case for several years, in fact over a decade and a half, has continued. Israeli Arabs are a minority which is excluded to a certain degree from mainstream politics, but certainly have a voice, and could have a great deal of effect on national politics. In 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin won as head of Labor and then lead the peace negotiations with the PLO, the Arab vote gave him an important base of power – without it he could not have won. Today this is very different. The Arabs vote in much lower numbers than do general Israelis. But that’s not the whole story of course.
Mark: What’s even more interesting to me about those numbers is that over the last several years polls have been carried out by various entities polling Israeli Arabs let’s say in and around Jerusalem, and a huge chunk say that if there was a Palestinian state that was officially formed, a large chunk of them would actually choose to become Israeli citizens. So I am curious as to how both sides of that are working right now?
Sachs: Well, there are two different populations. Inside Israel, including East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs are full citizens just like anyone else. In East Jerusalem, they were granted the right of residency by Israel when it annexed East Jerusalem after 1967, but they are not full citizens yet. Those polls probably contrast national aspirations, which tend to be aligned with the general Palestinian population of course, with personal preferences – Israel is far richer than the Palestinian territories, and personal prospects and job opportunities are far greater than Israel. So like any individual, they are probably conflicting interests at heart – some national, while others simple family interests, personal interests and job interests.
Mark: Another fascinating part of this election to me seems to be that the old secular leftist elite that was Labor is gone, and the old rightist elite that was Likud under Menachem Begin is gone. This election seems to be about what they call in Israel kippot srugot – religious nationalists headed by people like Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi. Talk about Bennett’s rise and the rise of the kippot srugot.
Sachs: There is a sea-change happening behind the scenes. On the face of it, Netanyahu is winning and so it seems like a boring election. But actually there is a lot of change on both right and left. Labor has changed dramatically. It used to be the big left-wing party of Oslo and peace, and now it has transformed and actually re-energized, but as a party of social democracy, very active on economic issues but almost silent on issues of peace and the Palestinians.
On the right on the other hand, the old elite as you said – that Menachem Begin, the former prime minister, typified of the secular and liberal in some respects, not on issues of economics or the Palestinians, but on issues of rule of law and respect for minority rights – that old elite lost badly in the last primaries in the Likud. Instead of them we have modern orthodox – what you called kippot srugot – who are orthodox and religious, but not unlike ultra-orthodox or Hassidic Jews, they participate fully in the military and the economy in Israel, part and parcel of the Israeli society, and they have been growing in prominence. Naftali Bennett, so far the star of the election, although we will have to see what happens tonight, typifies this. He is a young, charismatic, intelligent leader, quite right-wing in terms of Palestinian issues. His proposed annexation plan would sound very radical in the United States – radical to the right – but on most domestic issues, issues of religion-and-state, issues of the economy, he is very mainstream Israeli and his resume is an exemplary mainstream Israeli resume. And this brings the modern orthodox population straight into the mainstream of Israeli society. He is appealing in fact to many secular voters who would never in the past have dreamed to vote for the National Religious Party, which is the old form of Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home.