When Israeli expat Ofra Palmer learned that the Israeli election this year would only be a week-and-a-half before Passover, there was no question that she would return to vote, then stay to celebrate the holiday at home.
“Voting is very important to me,” said Palmer, a Philadelphia area resident, on the phone from near Tel Aviv. “I’m an Israeli citizen. I’m involved in everything that happens here. All my family is here. My daughter is studying in university here, a lot of friends. I’m in good contact with Israeli society. I have a home here. I belong to Israel.”
On April 9, Israelis headed to the polls to cast their vote in this year’s election. Some, like Palmer, who flew in from Philadelphia, traveled a great distance to do so.
Israel doesn’t allow most people to vote from abroad, so Israeli expats either have to fly home or sit out the election. Only Israelis serving as emissaries or working for the government can vote at an Israeli embassy.
Bat El Trabelsi, the shlicha (Israeli emissary) for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, is one of those people who voted at an embassy.
“From talking with friends and family who are currently in Israel, I feel like this is the one election that feels, for a lot of people, that there is a lot at stake,” Trabelsi said. “It might change our lives significantly.”
Israelis don’t vote for their prime ministers; instead, they vote for parties, and the number of votes a party receives determines the number of seats the party gets in the 120-seat Knesset.
There were more than 40 parties in this election, though only parties that receive at least 3.25 percent of the vote get any seats.
So many options, Trabelsi said, makes it harder to decide which party to vote for.
“Every research will tell you that when there’s too many options, you’re less likely to be able to choose and be happy with what you chose,” she said.
The large number of parties also means that no one party has ever won a majority of the seats, so parties must form coalitions to make it past the 61-seat threshold. The leader of the party able to create that coalition becomes prime minister. Though usually that person is the head of the party with the most votes, that is not necessarily the case, such as in the 2009 election, when Tzipi Livni’s party Kadima won the most seats but Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister.
Netanyahu came to this election with a corruption scandal hanging over him. In February, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu, but that didn’t seem to stop his chances.
Netanyahu faced his toughest challenger in Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who leads the new Blue and White party. This party, which was formed by combining Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party with former Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, positioned itself as a centrist option for voters.
Meanwhile, the stronghold of the left, the Labor party, has faded to the sidelines.
This has meant that this election has become about personalities, and a referendum on Netanyahu’s 13 years as prime minister.
“It’s not, ‘Well, I’m right-wing so I’m going to vote this,’ ‘I’m left-wing so I’m going to vote this.’ It’s way more vague,” Trabelsi said. “The reason Blue and White are so dominant is because they’re trying to reach everybody. They’re the moderate center, and a lot of Israelis are moderate center. It throws off the familiar left and right as we know it.”
Some have observed that, while security has remained a huge issue for voters, it is not as big an issue as it has been in the past.
Trabelsi noticed this as well. In her opinion, Israelis feel that the conflict has become an intractable issue, and they would rather focus on affordable housing or the minimum wage instead.
“It’s not the main discussion,” she said. “If you’re asking me, maybe this is why people would consider options other than Likud because Bibi has a very rich military history. He’s big on security. He really knows his way around those issues, and it’s one of the reasons people always thought, and a lot of Israelis still think, that he’s the only one who could actually lead.”
The day of the election began with controversy. In the morning, polling stations in Arab communities said that right-wing activists had come to the stations with recording devices. Both The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz reported that Likud distributed 1,200 recording devices, which Netanyahu defended as a move to prevent voter fraud.
The rest of the day followed with different politicians submitting complaints to the Central Elections Committee, and pleads to the public from different parties that they were not doing well in the election and needed more votes.
For Palmer, this was her first time away during an election, after moving to Philadelphia three years ago for her husband’s job. In Philadelphia, she works for the Israeli American Council and runs a Hebrew reading group.
But being away from Israel for the past three years means that she has missed out on some of the minutiae of the campaigns and the campaign ads.
When she headed to the polls, Palmer said the issues most important to her were ensuring Israel was a democratic state, opposing corruption, caring for minority rights and the poor, and keeping the High Court free.
“It’s important for all of us to vote,” Palmer said. “Israel is important for me and for us.”