Election day in Israel tends to be something akin to political bloodsport. Since the parliamentary system dictates that the prime minister’s power is rooted in his political party, there is much more at stake than just one person winning. Actually, elections are often characterized by politicians and political pundits as the source of the future of the country. Every time.
That’s saying a lot in a country where many people—if you ask them—really aren’t sure if the state of Israel will even exist a generation from now.
As with many things in Israel, the result of an election is about the future of the tribe, not the leader who gains (or keeps) the throne. As it’s a national holiday, coffee shops and sidewalk cafes are full of people and talk of politics is literally in the air. It’s a contentious subject under normal circumstances, but in this particular national election it has become personal.
The days and weeks leading up to an Israeli election go far beyond the borders of Israel. For Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held the position of Israeli prime minister for six years, he went through the effort of making an unprecedented speech before both houses of the U.S. Congress two weeks ago. The speech looked like the statesmanship of a leader determined to keep his post, and was broadly criticized in Israel as simply playing politics and campaigning.
On Tuesday (Election Day), Netanyahu had pulled out all the stops to cement a win and keep his position. For starters, he worked hard to make sure voters remember the boogeyman is out to get them and he’s the man to keep everyone safe. While in the United States, he harped on the dangers of a nuclear Iran and warned that current Obama-lead U.N. negotiations to make a deal should be a source of trepidation.
As the election got closer, he went as far right as possible with the internationally touchy subject of prospects for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Essentially he promised that the state would never be established while he maintains power. Netanyahu’s primary opponent, Isaac Herzog, had promised the opposite with renewed peace efforts if his Labor Party won.
Israel’s Arab minority has also been a target in this election cycle, particularly as they stand to make political headway after four rival factions joined together.
Again, it’s about the tribe, no matter how you slice it.
If you go to the polls on an Election Day in Israel, the charged atmosphere is almost as interesting as who’s running. Outside of polling stations, the entry sidewalks are typically lined with enthusiastic campaign staff shoving candidate pamphlets at whomever will take them. It’s hard to get through all the chaos to the entrance of the polling station.
Even among families, which are typically large in Israel, a big Election Day can be the source of heated familial debate. Most people have done compulsory military service and guarded checkpoints or even been in battles or skirmishes, so talk of peace with the Palestinian Authority is not empty theorizing. It’s based in real life scenarios that impact people directly and possibly their children. If there’s no peace agreement and the conflict is still ongoing in 15 years, that means that someone who now has a 3-year-old son will likely see his boy with a uniform on and a gun in his hand by the time he’s 18.
Perhaps this election will make a difference. At least that was the hopeful sentiment among many Israelis on Tuesday as they enjoyed their day off from work, had a coffee with friends, and talked politics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.