Since the night of the Israeli election on 22 January I have been avoiding Israeli news. It wasn’t exactly something I decided to do: perhaps it was just my immune system protecting me from the flood of commentators and the endless repetition of words like ‘hope’, ‘change’, ‘future’ and ‘the new politics’. I escaped straightaway to the websites of the BBC and the Guardian and found myself suspiciously interested in the drivers caught in the snow on British motorways. Lucky them, I thought.
No one predicted the success of Yair Lapid. According to the last poll I heard before the election, he was expected to get nine seats, and I remember thinking to myself that for a party that was established only a year ago, and that since then hadn’t said a single meaningful thing about anything, it was quite a generous prediction. In that poll, the right-wing bloc had a strong lead, with Likud-Beiteinu (a merging of Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) expected to get 36 seats, and the Jewish Home party (an ultra-nationalist movement headed by the former director of the settlements’ council) 14 seats. This implied that after the election Netanyahu would only have to tempt the religious parties into joining his government, after which he’d be able to continue undisturbed in his great effort to make Israel the pariah state of the world.
But on the night of the election, Likud-Beiteinu went down to 31 seats, and Jewish Home – despite talk of its rise – settled on 12. Lapid hit the jackpot and introduced 19 new members (including himself) into the Knesset, many of whom had been anonymous hitherto. Overnight, Lapid became the head of the second-largest party after Likud. Netanyahu will now be forced to include ‘centrist’ parties in his coalition, and of these Lapid’s is definitely the first choice. It was a night the handsome TV presenter – Lapid’s job before he went into politics – will never forget, but the morning after was arguably nothing more than a cosmetic change on the face of Israel.
On the day of the election I woke up in my apartment in Tel Aviv, but I had to get to Jerusalem to vote, since I have never told the authorities (or myself) that I am a Tel Avivian (I am not: I just happen to live there). The radio was celebrating democracy’s great moment just as I passed Latrun junction on the way to Jerusalem, where three Palestinian villages (Yalu, ’Amwas and Beit Nouba) had stood until 1967. They were destroyed in that year’s war by the democracy’s army, who also put roadblocks around their perimeter and planted a forest where the streets had been, just to make sure the people who’d lived there wouldn’t be able to come back one day to perform their democratic duty.
It was a sunny day and the radio interviewees seemed filled with optimism. Netanyahu waved his ballot paper in front of the journalists and made a not very funny joke. Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labour Party, was in good spirits too and said she wasn’t going to say who she voted for; then she too made a not very funny joke. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of Shas (the Orthodox Mizrahi party), didn’t speak to the media, but the female observers at his polling station asked him for a blessing and he was happy to give it to them on the record. Asked by reporters how he had voted, Lapid announced with a smile that it was the first time he had voted for himself and that it was ‘indeed a unique experience’. He wasn’t half as funny, though, as the leader of Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, who said that he was calling on voters to ‘join the new house we established in Israel … all you of you – including men and women, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Druze and Arabs.’ It was hard to say what was more bizarre: the distinction he was making between Arabs and Druze or his notion that Palestinian citizens of Israel would vote for a party called Jewish Home, one of whose candidates suggested a couple of years ago in a Florida church that it would be ‘incredible’ if the Dome of the Rock were blown up. You can see it on YouTube.