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TelaVivian, Vol. 7: What Election #5 is all about

This is the ballot question in Election #5 in three years in Israel:

Which do you value more: Jewish law and extreme interpretations of the religion or liberal democracy?

At the heart of this truly epic struggle is the manner in which Israel has shifted from treating and regarding extreme political actors as, well, just that… to normalizing their views and conduct.

Natan Odenheimer, the young writer who took on this challenging assignment has done a brilliant job. He spent months engaging with the so-called “hilltop youth” and the people they attract. These young activists are often associated with violence in the West Bank, in addition to their main focus: establishing illegal settlements to assert Israeli sovereignty with “facts on the ground.”

This is a very, very hot button in Israel.

News outlets tend to cover this only when there is a particularly high-conflict incident and then resume regular reporting. During the last several months, violence between activist settlers and Palestinians has been constant and intense, causing some security analysts to question whether we are on the brink of a Third Intifada. Almost always, the violence is provoked by Jewish extremists.

Natan understood that to effectively penetrate the circle of key settlement activists he had to invest a lot of time with them developing trust. And I was thrilled that he undertook this commitment for State of Tel Aviv.

In addition to research, he spent several days during the withering August heat on isolated, rocky hilltops. When the wind blows in the Judean hills it grinds the coarse sand and dust into every pore. It is harsh out there, and that’s even before you engage ideologically or politically with the settler activists.

Natan is a pro who delivers the story with no gloss. His work is thoughtful but also disturbing. We cannot pretend that Israeli youth are not saying the things he recorded. Perhaps more disturbing is the support that these settler activists now have among mainstream political and religious leaders, among them Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, both of whom will occupy positions of real power should Benjamin Netanyahu form the next government following elections on November 1.

I have friends of all ages and political views. The public mood in this fifth electoral contest in three years feels very different. Elections 1-4 were focused on the “Bibi issue.” There was a widespread sentiment that Israel’s longest serving prime minister had devolved into a bit of a despot who was determined to remain in power in order to avoid the consequences of his trial on several corruption charges, should he be found guilty.

In these last few years, Netanyahu has forged an unbreakable alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties and, most recently, with the Religious Zionism party, the latter led by strong supporters of the hilltop youth and other settlement activists. Many Israelis see this as a very worrying sign that the country may be headed down a path that prioritizes religious law and devotion more than democracy and liberalism.

In my view, this election is probably the most important since the founding of the state in 1948. It will determine the political, social and religious character of Israel in coming decades. And if the so-called religious right and Likud prevail, the consequences may be severe.

There is a tipping point beyond which people just refuse to support a society that they feel has changed into something they no longer recognize.

I have spoken in the last month with so many people and every single one has indicated that they themselves may leave Israel or that they are concerned that their children or grandchildren may leave. And, no. They are not all left-wing loons. They represent a very diverse cross-section of Israeli society, including more than a few identifying as Modern Orthodox.

Israelis love to complain but this time is different.

Next week, we will have a clearer idea as to who may be tasked by President Herzog to negotiate a governing coalition. Either someone succeeds in what looks at the moment to be an impossible task, or we go to Election #6.

Natan Odenheimer’s work is intense, and for that reason we have divided the report into two parts. It is more digestible in smaller bites.

Make sure to tune in on Friday when we drop Part 1 – this is unlike any story on this topic you’ve read previously.

This is, possibly, the future of Israel.

Author image
Tel Aviv, Israel
Originally from Toronto, now residing in Tel Aviv, Vivian has long been active in journalistic pursuits, practiced law for 24 years and served as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel from 2014-16.
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