Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New: Thoughts on the 19th Knesset

As I was making my way to Jerusalem on Feb. 5, 2013, 120 members of the new Knesset were getting ready to be sworn in. Putting aside all the cynicism and the heavy grains of salt with which we usually take in politics, it was exciting to be present at the genesis of the 19th Knesset, with its 53 new members. This number means that almost half of the old guard was being replaced with new faces. Upon its inauguration, the Knesset seemed almost youthful, in part because some of its members are in fact very young (take, for example, the 27-year-old icon of the social protest movement, Labor Party's Stav Shaffir). It was mostly due to the passion and hope which radiated from many of them. One after another, they gave their debut speeches before the plenary, in the spirit of their election campaign slogans, from Labor's "It Can Get Better" through the Jewish Home's "Something New Begins" to Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, with its commitment to "Change." This, of course, stood in stark contrast to the expectations of Prime Minister Netanyahu when he dissolved the Knesset a few months earlier. He expected to further fortify his hold on power, or at least to retain the control he'd enjoyed in the last four years, which won him the front-page story in TIME magazine and the title of "King Bibi."

On Feb. 5 the winds of change were blowing hard through the corridors of the Knesset, but will they manage to really shift things around? More than a month later, with a new government in place, it's time to explore a deeper layer than the sweet coating of election campaigns and opening speeches, and examine where we may go from here. Israel faces four chief challenges: its economy, the balance and relations between its various interest groups and sectors, its democracy, and its relations with some 5 million Palestinians west of the Jordan River.

Economic Challenges

Economically, Israel is facing numerous challenges. These include growing segments of the population that refuse and/or are prevented from gaining competitive education and employment, alarmingly low labor productivity, a rapid rise in the cost of living and, finally, Israel's high rates of corruption, level of market concentration, and GINI index, which ranks it as one of the countries with the biggest inequality of income in the OECD. And let us not forget the housing prices, which spurred the unprecedented demonstrations of the social protest movement on 2011. It takes 276 monthly salaries (23 years) for the average Jerusalemite to purchase an apartment. The understanding that this is not sustainable is shared by all parties. Naturally, there are almost paradigmatic differences between them when it comes to how best to address it all.

Politically, the Knesset is now divided quite clearly between those who support a neo-liberal and free market ideology and those in favor of varying versions of a welfare state. The first are in the coalition, while the latter sit in the opposition. Yair Lapid's party holds the key to significant progress toward a truly free the market. It not only holds the ministries of finance and education, which give them power to make profound short- and long-term changes; his party has no base of party members who stand for the interests of labor unions, tycoons or other pressure groups. In that respect, it is set up differently from the old parties of Mapai and Herut, which carried their protectionist and preferential policies on to their respective successor parties, Labor and Likud. Furthermore, Lapid's party is likely to enjoy the benefits of its alliance with the religious and far-right-wing party of Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home party, which holds important positions in the government as well.

Divisions within Israeli Society

Closely linked to our economic troubles is the division between different segments of Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the secular elite of the past are just some of the groups who attend separate education systems, hardly interact in military or civil service and seldom meet in the job market. This leads to political sectarianism, which the ultra-Orthodox have taken advantage of most effectively for their own narrow and short-term interests.

Will this Knesset build much-needed bridges and introduce more cohesion into Israeli society? This question is more open than one may assume. True, the particular tension around recruiting the ultra-Orthodox into equal compulsory military or civil service (and then encouraged to join the job market) most likely will be dealt with the historic legislation that Lapid and Bennett insisted on, and that was mandated by the Supreme Court last August. However, true social progress will only be achieved by maintaining democratic rights and liberal values. These were the trademark of Israel at its birth but were drastically eroded with the ultra-nationalist Likud-led initiatives of the last Knesset. Likud has not only remained in power - it has also shifted even further to the right in its last primaries. With Bennett to its right, members of the coalition are likely to compete over who can introduce more discriminatory and racist bills.

Nevertheless, there is also room for hope in the new Knesset, from the coalition as well as the opposition. In her party's agreement with Netanyahu, the new justice minister, Tzipi Livni, will also serve as the chair of the ministerial committee for legislation. There she will need to stand for her democratic and liberal values against the trend that is currently driving the Likud-Beitenu alliance. In the opposition, Meretz and Labor have won back a number of seats that were lost in the previous Knesset to the mish-mash party Kadima. The left will have to play an active public role in defending Israel's democracy, the Supreme Court, minorities, refugees and the foreign workforce, who all deserve the basic dignities that are lost in the frenzy of hyper-nationalism. We can perhaps see the first steps that the new government will take, but a great deal of patience and hard work will be required if any real social reform is to be achieved.

A Showdown over Progress toward Peace

If there is some clear direction for this Knesset to take on the three main challenges mentioned above, the Israeli-Arab conflict will bring the left and the right wings of this Knesset into a showdown. Once a new law secures a more equal military draft for the ultra-Orthodox and the (biennial) budget is approved, we all know that the voice of millions of Palestinians under occupation will be heard. Through a third intifada, another move by President Mahmoud Abbas in the United Nations, a peace plan by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Council, or even some secret tit-for-tat deal on the Iranian and Palestinian issues between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu - the status quo is not sustainable.

It's unlikely that Netanyahu will make any tectonic shift towards peace. He is a true conservative, and in his previous terms he considered the repelling of external pressures to be most likely his biggest achievement. This conservatism allowed the former government to muddle through four years of settlement expansion, while blaming the Palestinians for the stalemate in the peace talks. In the aftermath of the elections, the far right has lost some seats, and the majority for the two-state solution has become bigger. In her official role and extensive mandate to lead the peace process, Livni will continually clash with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and his agenda to "manage the conflict." As minister of finance, Lapid will eventually have to choose between his partners Bennett and MK Uri Ariel, former heads of the Yesha (Settlers) Council, and his own party members and their fairly dovish and pragmatic approach to the conflict. Furthermore, the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are now outside of the government and in the opposition, are moving to the left. They have begun campaigning against settlement policies, which they are no longer committed to defending.

"New Politics" Depend on Getting Rid of the Old Occupation

Civil society also has a role to play in advancing peace. In the previous Knesset, the One Voice Movement introduced legislative and grassroots-driven campaigns through its 34-member caucus for the two-state solution. The new Knesset will probably require efforts of an entirely different scale on the part of ordinary citizens, and the younger generation in particular. In his speech to the Israeli students in Jerusalem, Obama reminded us of the meaning of People Power: "Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Those who successfully led the mass demonstrations for social justice just over a year ago may now become catalysts for a breakthrough on the way to real peace and security for Israel, and to challenge Netanyahu's policy of inaction and indecision.

We all know that the winds of change that have been blowing could end up being just a light breeze. As frustrating as it may be to some of the new MKs that I encountered on February 5th, the ability of the new Knesset to make progress on the economic and political challenges to Israel will be contingent upon our ability to move toward peace with our neighbors. Lapid became the leader of the second-largest party in the Knesset by asking, "Where is the money?" With a defense budget five times larger than the OECD's average and an enormous unfulfilled potential for trade with the Arab and Muslim world, ending the conflict has to be part of the answer. The chances of the new Knesset fulfilling its promise of "new politics" will depend ultimately upon its ability to get rid of the old occupation.

A shorter version of this article will appear in FATHOM (