The Tribe of Benjamin in the Wilderness: Who is Going to Win the Election?—by Peter Eisenstadt

I can’t quite find a prooftext in this week’s parasha, Va-Yakhel, to make the point that I want to make, but I guess this will have to do: “Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work of the LORD [the building of the mishkan], through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD. (Exodus 35:29) I suppose this is as close to an election that the Israelites had under Moses, a voluntary but crucial participation in building their communal institutions, unusually (and perhaps uniquely) both by men and women.

So there’s going to be this election in Israel next week. And the big news of the week is that Netanyahu, who had no apparent need to call this election almost three years before his term expired, is behind in the polls. When I was in Israel, in December, the possibility of Netanyahu losing seemed remote at best. Although Israeli polling data, because of the multiple parties, is subject to sudden shifts, the trends are unmistakable; the Zionist Union has a small but significant lead over Likud. Even Likud officials are saying that their party will come in second. The Boehner gambit has brought no lasting bump in his electoral fortunes. The assumption is that Israeli president Rivlin, no admirer of Netanyahu, will ask the leaders of the Zionist Union to form a government.

Forming a government will be a complicated task, with all sorts of negotiations and potential pitfalls. What the Zionist Union must avoid at all costs is forming a unity government with Likud. This would be a betrayal of all those who voted for the Zionist Union because they wanted a real change. Israelis are tired of Netanyahu. Those on the left are tired of his avoidance of serious engagement with the Palestinians over peace issues. Those in the center, and even the center-right, are tired of his obsessive focus on Iran at the expense of the cost of living, housing, labor, and other issues. It’s time for a change.

Of course, even if the Zionist Union heads the new government, it could be a huge disappointment. Questions of a settlement freeze, or (heretical thought) settlement removal, or the future of the West Bank or Gaza, have not been prominent in this election campaign, and there are plenty of reasons to think a new center-left government will, as previous center-left governments have in the past, uphold the status quo on the West Bank and Gaza. Getting rid of Netanyahu, without making fundamental changes in Israel’s current direction, will accomplish very little.

Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. Perhaps this will be a real upheaval in Israeli politics. (There is a real possibility that the combined Arab List/Hadash might emerge as the third largest party in the Knesset.) Perhaps average Israelis, both Jews and Palestinians, can take back control of the country from the settlers. Surely having a better government in Israel is a necessary, if by no means sufficient step towards peace. Without it, hope, will never replace fear as the basic motivator for Israeli and Palestinian action.

And a new government in Israel will have a huge impact outside Israel as well, particularly among American Jews. Like Moses, the prime minister of Israel is the unofficial chief Jew in the world. Netanyahu is not correct when he says he speaks for all Jews, in the sense that all Jews agree with him, but the very nature of Zionism means that, just as in some sense Obama speaks for all Americans, by virtue of his office, so too does the prime minister speak for Jews. And Netanyahu’s reign as chief Jew has been terrible for American Jews, as his divisive, mean-spirited, paranoid style has become the norm for American Jewish leadership. Perhaps, with a new government in Israel, Sheldon Adelson will suddenly find himself with a lot less influence to monger. And perhaps American Jews can find a common ground to love Israel without hating one another and tearing one another to pieces.

Lots of perhaps. Hope is a precious commodity in the Middle East, always in vanishingly short supply, and in recent years, simply unavailable. We do not know what will happen in the election next week. If our hopes are dashed, and all of the polls are wrong, and Netanyahu wins again, it will not be the first time, nor the last, that this happens. But let us hope not. What hope brings is a sense of possibility, of alternatives, that things could really be other than they are, that closed paths can open. It is a great and glorious feeling, hope. It is no doubt what the Israelites felt when they made their free will offering to build the Mishkan. Hope is the belief that the future can be different from the past, that we are not bound and chained by our past mistakes, and that we are not obliged to repeat them. It has been a pleasure, a joy, and a blessing, to breathe, however fleetingly, the fresh air of new beginnings. And let’s hope that on March 17, Israeli voters feel the same way, and we can live in this atmosphere for a long while.