At around 2:30 a.m. on April 10, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in front of his supporters and announced that his Likud party won the Israeli elections. He kissed his wife Sara, his supporters shouted “Bibi is the King,” and some cursed and gloated to us, the media, covering this event.
I’ve been following the elections since January of 2019 for my up-coming documentary film My Election, and I couldn’t be happier that this long day was finally over. Likud supporters kept partying till the wee hours of the morning. A new dawn was rising, one which would include Israel’s most right wing government ever. King Bibi was on his way to break former prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s historic ruling record and by May, would have his coalition.
Fast forward eight weeks or so, and the newly elected Knesset is dissolved and Israel is heading into a second election. As the news hit, our small crew mobilized only to find out that no one wanted to speak with the media, especially, foreign media. Of the politicians we followed, all but one, failed to make it into the Knesset, and frankly everyone was just worn out from an intense three- month campaign. So after returning to Canada for the summer, on Sept. 1, I boarded an El Al flight and landed in Israel for the crucial last 15 days of the second Israeli elections in six months.
This election campaign was virtually non-existent on the streets. A small amount of political banners were hanging but the main campaign was happening on social media. Many of the leading parties, right and left, were disseminating heavily edited “news and information.” But beyond that, Israel was still in summer mode. The consensus this time is that no one seems to care about the elections.
Our first stop is Beersheba, where we meet and follow Amir Ohana, Israel’s openly gay justice minister. Ohana was awarded the position in early June, some would say because of his past skills as a lawyer, but others have argued it was a cynical move by Netanyahu to silence critics who have pointed out that his political allies, namely Israel’s current Education Minister Rafi Peretz supports “gay conversion therapy.”
In Beersheba, Likud supporters are found in virtually every corner. Ohana is showered with love from everyone who meets him. People fight over each other to shake his hands and tell him that he has their vote. A far cry from the first time I met him in early February, in a school in the city of Ramlah, where he was one of nine on a political panel for students. Ohana has come a long way.
“How are you able to sit in a coalition with people who are calling for the ‘treatment’ of gays?” I ask.
His answer, was honest. “You have to be practical in politics. You can just form a coalition with everyone you like, but if you care about the security and prosperity of this country, only the Likud can bring that.”
We stop by a tefillin table, Ohana takes off his jacket and the Orthodox man at the table gives him the tefillin. “Likud members think we will win for sure, so many are not planning on voting and are going on a weekend vacation during the election,” he says while taking off the tefillin after praying. “That’s our biggest concern. If they don’t come and vote, you’ll have a government that will take us back to the Oslo days.”
The next day we travel back to south Tel Aviv. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List party – the alliance of Arab-dominated parties – whose members have been jailed for smuggling phones to terrorists in Israeli jails, was planning to meet us on a roof top of a small apartment building, not his usual speaking location.
A crowed of about 20 Jewish Israelis, mostly left-leaning people who believe that the Meretz party is too right wing, gathered to hear what he has to say. Speaking with passion, Odeh made it clear his main goal is to replace Netanyahu.
“No Prime Minister, from Ben Gurion to [Ehud] Olmert, has been able to do what Netanyahu has done to this country… He has destroyed the peace process completely.”
When asked why he doesn’t support BDS by one of the people in the crowd, Odeh gave a very interesting answer. “Why should I support BDS. Look, over 30 per cent of doctors and nurses in Haifa and other hospitals around the country are Arab. Almost half of the student population in Haifa University is Arab. Arabs are excelling in every aspect of society in Israel, so to support this BDS, I need to ask them to stop being successful? It makes no sense.”
I tell Odeh that it seems that both Benny Gantz, the Blue and White party leader, ands Netanyahu are treating Israeli Arabs like punching bags.
“True,” says Odeh. “But I know that with Gantz we might have a role to play. When the time comes, we will sit and talk with him. He is much more open to us this time around.”
We joined members of Yisrael Beiteinu in the city of Givatyim as they wait the arrival of party leader Avigdor Liberman, who has been both blamed and praised for this second round of elections. The elections were called after Liberman conditioned joining a Netanyahu-led government on the passage of legislation formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students, prompting the prime minister to dissolve the Knesset and call a snap election.
“I will not sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox or the fanatics,” says Liberman. “We will lead this country into a secular unity government, one where the religious can’t force their way of life on us… Why should shops be closed in Saturday in Ashdod, or Tel Aviv? They should live and let us live as well.”
Where the last election was solely about one issue – Bibi or not Bibi – this election has an interesting twist. The issue of Israel’s core identity is at the forefront. Will it be more of a Jewish state or more of an Israeli state?
The Blue and White party, Likud’s main rival, has decided to capitalize on this, realizing that to many secular Jews, it’s one of the most important issues. We follow leader Gantz for a few days. Back in April, Gantz seemed hungry and excited, but on this campaign trail, the opposite seems to be true.
In a conversation with the Anglo community in Tel Aviv, Gantz is often not understood. His jokes go over people’s heads. When asked if he even still wants to be prime minister, he mumbles “of course.” A camera man beside me looks at me and asks in Hebrew, “Can you believe this guy wants to be prime minister?”
A few days later we follow Gantz on a pub crawl. Thursday night on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv is packed with young potential voters. A crowed of about 100 supporters and at least 20 local and international media types follow Gantz as he raises a few l’chaims, reminding people to vote.
“Put down the espresso on Tuesday and go vote,” he shouts into the megaphone. Blue and White, much like Likud, is extremely worried about a low turnout. It seems that in these elections, the party that’s going to win is the one that can convince its troops to show up to the polls for a second time less then six months.
Blue and White’s second in command, Yair Lapid, is eager to be prime minister. Lapid and Gantz have a rotation deal, where they will rotate the prime minister role after two years.
Lapid is the true fighter in this group. He even comes out like a boxer when he starts speaking. At the final Blue and White rally on Sunday, Sept. 15, Gantz was very bland and boring. A 60-inch LED screen was his teleprompter. He stuck to the message and added nothing new.
In the shadow near the exit door, I noticed Lapid standing. Lapid looked at Gantz intensely, but after a few seconds when he noticed me filming him, he remembered to smile. Once his name was called, he flew onto the stage, hands raised in the air, a million dollar smile splashed across his face. The crowd came alive. Lapid spoke about forming a unity government with the Likud without Netanyahu. He urged his supporters to go out and vote and to bring their neighbours. “This is going to the determine what sort of Israel we will have.” He said, as the crowed cheered.
In the final days of the election we criss-crossed the country. Massive posters of Netanyahu shaking Donald Trump’s hand welcomes us into Jerusalem. In the Ben Yehuda market, we meet a local shopkeeper named Yossi. “I’m only going to vote for Bibi,” Why? I ask him. “Look, this is my business, do you think you can just show up and run it with no experience? I like Gantz. He was a great chief of staff, but running a country is very different. We need a strong leader in this region. I’m not saying he isn’t right to be prime minister, but not right now. Give him a few years to understand politics, be in the Knesset, then God willing maybe I’ll vote for him.”
So Bibi should just stay forever? Not forever, jokes Yossi, maybe until Mashiach comes.”