Sefi Rachlevsky
Haaretz (Opinion)
January 10, 2012 - 1:00am

Sometimes, numbers say it all. In the 1999 elections, some 3.3 million citizens voted. A similar number voted in 2009. But in the meantime, about 1 million eligible voters had been added to the rolls. Had the 80 percent turnout rate that prevailed in Israel until 1999 been maintained, another 800,000 people would have voted; instead, they stayed away. Those absent voters are now about to shake up Israel.

The 800,000 missing voters aren't evenly distributed. Not all of them are on the center-left portion of the spectrum, but the decisive majority are. The ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, the non-Haredi religious and the immigrants from the former Soviet Union - the population groups from which the right draws its power - maintained their previous turnout rates. The drop in turnout occurred mainly among two groups: Arabs, whose turnout rate fell from 80 percent to 50 percent, and nonreligious Jews - both the young and the not-so-young - who stayed away from the polls in despair.

But in the upcoming election, a dramatic change is likely to occur. The Arabs are expected to once again vote in large numbers, both to avenge themselves against the government's exclusionary racism and due to the influence of the recent elections in Arab countries. And young Jews will be motivated by the summer's protests against the high cost of living, which encouraged them to be socially active, and by concern over the threat of religious extremism.

In all three of the right's losses since 1977, the same factor played a dominant role: Whenever the threat of religious extremism attains the same prominence as external threats, the right is in trouble. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin adopted the slogan "Money for the slums, not the settlements." Ehud Barak campaigned in 1999 for what he called "One nation, one draft" - in other words, an end to Haredi draft-dodging - and against the attacks on the judiciary by Aryeh Deri, then head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. And in 2006, clashes with settlers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank outpost of Amona helped Ehud Olmert win the premiership.

Now things have gotten even worse. When most first-graders designated as Jewish are sent to Haredi or religious Zionist schools - which are creating gender segregation - the threat becomes immediate. And therefore, so does the longing for change.

That is the reason for the religious right's current legislative frenzy. That's why the assault isn't "only" on substantive liberal democracy, but even on democracy in its narrowest meaning: fair elections. That's why they're assaulting the High Court of Justice, so that it will no longer interfere when legislators disqualify Arab parties like Balad from running, with the goal of getting Arabs to boycott the elections. That's why they're planning to let overseas Jews and Israeli expatriates vote. And that's why they concocted the scandalous, anti-constitutional "Lapid Law," which would impose a cooling-off period on journalists seeking to enter politics. That scandal hasn't disappeared with Yair Lapid's resignation from his television job; if passed, the bill would impose a far longer cooling-off period on journalists than the 100 days demanded of ministry directors general - a cooling-off period that exists nowhere else on earth.

The right to be elected is the heart of democracy, and it should not be infringed upon except in extreme circumstances. Journalistic expression is one of the most political acts known to human society. From the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to current MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Nitzan Horowitz, politics has been enriched by journalists who jumped into the political fray without any downtime. Moreover, journalists and their opinions are as transparent as politics comes.

The desire to keep them away from the Knesset reflects the interests of a narrow guild. It is totally unjustified, and indeed, is way beyond anti-constitutional.

The logic behind this bill is that MKs are entitled to protect their jobs from all rivals by distancing any person who has amassed capital with the public. Ada Yonath would have to wait a decade before entering politics to allow the advantage of her Nobel Prize in chemistry to dissipate. Shlomo Yanai would have to wait a year, until his success in running Teva Pharmaceuticals had been forgotten. The rich would have to become beggars before entering politics; the wise would have to wait until they grew senile; and the beautiful would wait until their beauty vanished. It's a farce.

In Israel, elections are always called early. Thus, to exercise his basic right to run for office while still complying with the ridiculous one-year cooling-off period, a journalist would have to give up his livelihood two years before the official election date, on the assumption that it will probably be advanced. Effectively, journalists' right to run for office would be abolished.

The right wing is correct. Its concern for its continued hold on power is justified. The public's anger is well-founded, because those rising up against Israel aren't so-called "wild weeds."

Just this week, one of the two leading Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis, Aharon Leib Shteinman, ruled that "secular people are a 'mixed multitude' that hates Jews." In the Orthodox tradition, the term "mixed multitude" refers to Amalekites - the Jews' traditional enemies - who pretended to be Jews and were responsible for all the disasters that subsequently befell the Jewish people. In theological terms, this expression is every bit as harsh as "Nazi." This is spittle more vile than what a Haredi extremist aimed at an 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh.

Shakespeare's Macbeth trusted in a prophesy that said his reign would endure until Great Birnam wood came to high Dunsinane hill. Faced with this spittle, an entire forest - hundreds of thousands of people who have previously been missing from the polling booths - is starting to move. Lapid's decision to go into politics is part of that change.

So instead of hiding behind laws that will in any case be ruled unconstitutional, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would do better to come to grips with the fact that his time in power is drawing to a close.


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