Will the Israeli silent majority vote in larger numbers in the next general elections than they have in previous elections?
There are signs that it may. Over the past year, it is the silent majority, and specifically, those who consider themselves centrists in their political and economic outlook, which has been most heavily involved in three public campaigns that seem to have shaken it awake from its political slumber.
Firstly, a large proportion of the people who went out into the streets to demand the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit came from the center of the political spectrum. They are the people who send their sons and daughters to the army, and who want the IDF to recommit to the ethos of not leaving any soldier behind. It is this sector, and its children, who placed pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with Hamas for Shalit’s return, turning out for rally after rally, and changing their facebook pictures to Gilad’s face. And while Netanyahu did eventually make the deal, he is unlikely to garner any real electoral reward from this sector of the voting population. While the campaign to free Shalit genuinely did cross party political lines, many on the right stayed away from the campaign, preferring not to pressure the government into making a deal that would see hundreds of Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands released, for one Israeli soldier. Many on the right opposed the deal. Furthermore, Gilad Shalit’s father Noam’s announcement that he would be seeking a Knesset seat with the Labor party may further alienate those on the right who believe that Shalit Senior is abusing his position as the father of “the son of all of us” to enter politics.
The second campaign that shook the center this past year was last summer’s biggest social protests this country has ever seen. Over the sweltering summer months, thousands of disaffected youths occupied the main boulevards of Tel-Aviv, months before their American counterparts pitched their tents on Wall Street. What started off as a consumer boycott against expensive cottage cheese, expensive housing, and expensive everything, swelled into a massive, organic, centrist, secular, middle class movement which came out to the public spaces, week after week, to demand social justice. The government, initially dismissive of the protests, was suddenly left with no choice but to make concessions and promise change, while at the same time using its various spokespeople to color the protests as a politically motivated and leftist-financed plot to unseat the Likud-led coalition. Noticeable in their absence in this past summer’s protests were the ultra-Orthodox (who go out to vote in general elections at a percentage of almost 100%), the settlers (who likewise have a similar voting discipline) and many people who situate themselves on the right side of the political map.
Thirdly, the anti-religious backlash that has taken hold over the past several months is, almost by definition, a secular, centrist, middle-class reaction to the increasing excesses of the country’s large, and growing, ultra-Orthodox population. While the exclusion of women (spitting on little girls, forcing women to sit at the back of the bus, removing images of women from public spaces, and more) is said to be the work of extreme elements within the wider ultra-Orthodox population, the mainstream secular middle-class public is not making this distinction (and the inability or unwillingness of the mainstream Ultra-Orthodox leadership to quell the extremists is not helping matters). Furthermore, the examples of religious extremism are bringing into sharper focus the wider problem of the ultra-Orthodox: non-involvement in the job sector, non service in the army, the fact that their children do not learn core subjects such as math and science, and the exploding birth rate of this sector. The secular middle class is feeling the burden of carrying this sector on its back more than ever and wants things to change. The fact that the ruling Likud-led coalition includes the ultra-Orthodox political parties marks the secular middle class, if this issue is to be a prominent one in the next elections, as firmly in the camp of any political constellation that excludes the religious parties.
Increasingly, the secular middle class is being prodded into action (protesting the release of Shalit, protesting the rising cost of living, and protesting the burden placed on it by the religious sector).
The question now is whether the center has been sufficiently shaken from its slumber by the above issues to go out and vote en masse, and if so, which parties it will vote for?
Each protest has its poster child:
Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, has already announced his joining Labor.
Yair Lapid is forming his own centrist party to work against the ultra-Orthodox.
And both Labor and Lapid are trying to woo the student leader Itzik Shmuli, the main leader of the tent protests, to join their parties. Shmuli, for now, has been non-committal.
My sense is that the next elections, which look likely to take place at the beginning of 2013, will see a much higher voter turnout by all sectors of the Israeli electorate than recent previous elections. And this is a great thing for Israeli democracy.
The next pertinent question is this: will these social issues still be around in their current intensity when elections roll around, sometime at the beginning of 2013? I’m not sure of the answer, and I don’t think anyone can tell. However, increasing tensions with Iran, a neighborhood in turmoil, and stagnation on the Palestinian track could, potentially, coalesce toward the end of the year, or even sooner, to bring security issues back to the fore.