Yesterday millions of Israelis voted in the country’s general election. It followed a closely fought campaign, covered by a media which pulls no punches and contested by parties representing leftwing secularists, rightwing Haredim, Islamist Arabs and every point in between.
Sadly, that election appears likely to result in another term for Benjamin Netanyahu. His stridently rightwing comments during the campaign’s final days will do little to help the cause of peace and have deeply divided Israeli public opinion.
While Likud’s victory was deeply depressing , and we must hope that the centrist parties that Netanyahu will need to form a government will exert and use their influence wisely , we should not forget that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where citizens are free to choose their government. That many people in Israel have made a choice with which all of us in the Labour party will profoundly disagree should not detract from that fact.
Nor should it blind us to the fact that, as LFI’s former chair, the late David Cairns, suggested in a speech he wrote shortly before his tragically early death in 2011: “In a time of upheaval and unrest we will never find a just and lasting agreement if we forget or overlook the fact that Israel is the only regional exemplar, not just of democracy but of social democracy.”
This morning’s results may lead many to conclude that Israel has become a more right-wing, less tolerant society that it once was. We should remember, however, that the Israeli Labor party scored its best result in over 15 years yesterday and that, together with the Arab parties, the left and centre parties hold 53 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Moreover, by many measures Israel – like many other western democracies – has become a more liberal and progressive country over the past two decades. Israel’s record on equalities and the treatment of minorities shines, not simply in comparison with many of its neighbours (when these include Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria that is hardly a high threshold), but in its own right.
Take, for instance, the position of women, gay and Arab Israelis.
While no means there yet, Israel is working hard to realise the promise contained in its Declaration of Independence to “uphold the full social and political equality to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” The outgoing Knesset had 27 female MKs among its 120 members. At 22.5%, this was slightly behind the number of women in the House of Commons, but ahead of female representation in the US Congress and in line with the European Union average. While women continue to earn less than men, research last year showed that the pay gap is the same as the European Union average. In 2006, the first female president of Israel’s Supreme Court was appointed; in January its second was sworn in. In 2011, the IDF appointed its first female major general. Most interestingly, has been the progress made by women in the ultra-Orthodox community whose employment rate now exceeds that of Israeli women as a whole.
Israel does not yet have same-sex marriage (despite polls showing strong public support), but this is a reflection of the fact that marriage remains the responsibility of religious authorities rather than the state. Nonetheless, Israel recognises same-sex marriages performed abroad, while adoption by gay couples, an equalised age of consent, same-sex partner benefits, residency rights for foreign partners (including Palestinians) and the legal recognition of same-sex couples in financial and other business matters are complemented by tough anti-discrimination legislation.
Finally, despite discrimination continuing to exist, thanks to concerted efforts the position of Arab Israelis has improved markedly in the past 20 years. The gap between the percentage of Arab and Jewish young people who achieved a school certificate which meets university entrance requirements has shrunk, while in less than a decade the number of Arabs receiving masters degrees has doubled and those gaining a PhD has risen by 40%. These advances were captured by Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of the Jewish-Arab organisation Sikkuy in a piece for Haaretz last year: “In the past, if Israeli Jews did not go to Arab communities, they never saw Arabs, except for labourers. But now, if they go to a pharmacy they are likely to be served by an Arab pharmacist … If they go to the emergency room, they are likely to be treated by an Arab doctor … Jewish college students often have Arab lecturers … Former President Moshe Katsav was convicted of sex crimes and sent to prison by a panel of judges headed by an Arab.” Last year, a poll found two-thirds of Arabs were ‘quite’ or ‘very’ proud to be Israelis.
The Israeli prime minister has switched his position on a two-state solution previously. All of us who believe passionately in two states for the two peoples of Israel and Palestine will hope that he now reverses the unfortunate remarks he had made in the heat of the campaign. If he does, he will have public opinion on his side: polls have consistently shown support for a two-state solution is shared by nearly two-thirds of Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli journalist and commentator, Evelyn Gordon, has written recently, it is important to remember that, up until the mid-1990s, support for Palestinian statehood was a distinctly minority position, one that not even Yitzhak Rabin was willing to endorse. Since then, however, explicit opposition to a two-state solution has been confined to the fringes of the Israeli right: in 2008, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians a state based on the 1967 lines with small territorial land swaps. And while he has desperately denied it in recent days, Benjamin Netanyahu agreed last year to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines.
This Sunday, together with our colleagues in Trade Union Friends of Israel, LFI will, once again, be participating in the We Believe In Israel conference in London. We will be doing so to show support both for our fellow progressives in Israel, as well as the only country in the Middle East which aspires to the values we all share as Labour party members.
Jennifer Gerber is director of Labour Friends of Israel