Three weeks ago, on a cold and rainy night, I ducked out into the darkness to attend a free event entitled “Israel Election 2013”. Sponsored by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel and The Jerusalem Post, the evening was a debate between the representatives of the main political parties. I knew that if I intended to vote on January 22, I had to get informed and that I would vote for whomever turned up that night and convinced me that they could best lead this country.
I went in knowing nothing. In all the years of living here (1989-1994, 2007-2008), I not only never voted but also never fully grasped the political system. Israel is a democracy in its most literal form with an unwieldy and ever-changing number of political parties (34 as of Tuesday’s election), which must form coalitions in order to establish a majority of seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Back in 1990, when I was doing a MA in International Relations at the University of Haifa, I was the only one in my program to study a subject outside of Israel. Everyone else focused on the Israel-Arab world and wars, Israel’s relations with the Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordan governments. Only one professor in the entire department studied Europe and could mentor me. Even then, the goings-on here didn’t catch my attention.
But now, as a mother of three teens, two of whom were learning about the ins and outs of the political system and conducting mock elections in school, I had no choice but to educate myself.
Seven representatives attended the Raanana event: to the left were Meretz and HaTnua, then moving more to the center was the up and coming Yesh Atid (There is a Future), and off to the right were Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, something loosely translated as Absolute Right and the more extreme right Sephardic Orthodox Shas. Before taking my seat, I was determined to align myself with one of them by the evening’s end.
Sitting with friends, I shivered in the cool night air. The mediator was an American from the Jerusalem Post, whose sense of humor added warmth to the room. Each candidate introduced him/herself and his/her party and then answered the mediator’s questions.
Of the seven, one man stood out: Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid. Wearing a black suit and black kippah, he spoke with an all-American accent and assuredness. He was the only one who repeated his name and party each time he spoke. He exuded a charismatic charm that made everyone else fade. The party, led by Israeli journalist and television personality Yair Lapid, outlined its primary goals:
- Changing the system of government to reduce the number of political parties in government.
- Prioritizing education, housing and health and improving the middle-class’ economic situation.
- Promoting universal IDF enlistment and encouraging all sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors, to join the work force.
- Striving for a peace agreement based on the two states for two peoples paradigm while keeping the large settlement blocs in the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty and safeguarding Israel’s security.
- Fighting corruption and poverty.
The longer Lipman spoke, the more I identified with him and his party.
Over the next two weeks, I tried to pay closer attention to the billboards and headlines. Among friends, we discussed whom we might vote for, exchanging ideas and opinions. Philippe attended a board meeting for his company and before beginning business, they discussed their party preferences. Off and on, my cell phone would ring with a private number, and some automated message from one political party or another would try to encourage me to vote for them.
Finally, last Tuesday was Election day, a day off from school and work and gloriously sunny. Public schools served as polling stations and people flocked with their families to cast their vote. I walked to the middle school nearest us as indicated on my voting registration card and saw it with beginners’ eyes.
The guard at the door who greeted me asked for my “kalpi”. I shrugged my shoulders and handed him my card since I had no idea what he wanted from me. He took it out of my hands and pointed toward door number 35. Two people stood in line and I took my place behind them. I looked around the hallway and noticed each door had a sign with the word kalpi followed by a number. At least 10 people were standing in line in the room next to mine. Within minutes, it was my turn. I walked up to the table of three men and told them it was my first time voting in Israel.
“Mazel tov!” they said. “Kol ha’kavod!” which means “good for you” or something to that effect.
I walked over to the royal blue triptych and stood facing it. Words and letters swam in front of me, a dizzying number of options. There were 34 possibilities, and I had to find the two-letter acronym for the party of my choice, Yesh Atid, in order to vote. “Im ani sricha likroa et kol ze kdai limsoa et hamiphlaga nachona, nehei po kol ha’yom,” I called out to the men, telling them if I had to read through every name to find my party, we’d be here all day. Surely, 10 people would be waiting at the door by the time I finished.
“Ani ezor lach, giveret,” one man said. I was concentrating so hard on the words in front of me that I didn’t even notice him as he walked over, read alongside me and pointed to the two letters Pey Hey. Logically, they should be Yud Ayin, the first two letters for the words Yesh (there is) Atid (a future), but, like many things in this country, they didn’t correspond at all. He retrieved the ballot, a little white slip of paper with the two black letters and underneath the party’s full name, from the hook and handed it to me. “Hinei, tasimi etze be ma’atefa,” he reached for the double-sealed envelope in my hands, indicating I should slide the paper in and close it. I laughed quietly to myself that in a country that excels in hi-tech, the voting system was so rudimentary.
I walked back toward the men and slipped the envelope into a royal blue box perched on a low table. The man with my identity card returned it to me. I smiled and walked out, proud of myself for experiencing yet another Israeli moment.
Later that night, moments before bed, Philippe went online to see the results of the elections. One Ynet article I read wrote: The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket was able to secure 31 Knesset seats, a significant drop from pre-election polls that predicted the ruling party and its ally would win 42 mandates… Tuesday’s true victor was journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, whose party, Yesh Atid, was able to win 19 mandates; cementing its status as the second-largest party in the Knesset. And then it elaborated about each and every major party, how many seats it won or lost, if it could form a coalition. But the bottom line was simple: there was neither a concrete winner nor a firm outcome. Only time will tell as politicians calculate and play a complex game counting seats and forming coalitions.
After weeks of build-up and tension and non-stop talk about who was running and who we’d be voting for, it was such a let-down, the most anti-climactic outcome of any election I have ever witnessed. Only time will tell what kind of government will form and if the leadership will be strong enough to make change.
Here’s to time and to hoping…