Analysis from Israel

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

It began with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who gained the center-right votes he needed to win in 1992 thanks to two promises—no negotiations with the PLO and no retreat from the Golan Heights. He promptly broke both, signing the Oslo Accord with the PLO in 1993 and offering Syria the Golan in exchange for peace (Syria refused). The effect on voter trust was devastating, as evidenced by one centrist colleague who told me that she agreed with demonstrators chanting “Rabin is a traitor”: Having voted for him due to those promises, she felt betrayed.

Far worse, however, was the way Rabin ratified the Oslo-2 agreement in 1995. He achieved his 61-59 Knesset majority by openly buying two votes from the right-wing Tzomet party in exchange for government posts with all the attendant perks (free mail and telephone for life, a government pension, etc.). Since this was illegal at the time, as confirmed by a High Court of Justice ruling on the deal, he then amended the law to retroactively legalize it. Needless to say, both the blatant vote-buying and its retroactive legalization were heartily cheered by the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

Eight years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon further eviscerated the right’s belief in democracy. The 2003 campaign revolved around the Labor party’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza; Sharon won in a landslide by opposing this idea. But after being elected, he promptly adopted his rival’s policy, prompting fury among his own voters and cheers from the self-proclaimed “pro-democracy” camp.

To quell the uproar, Sharon promised to put the plan to a referendum among his Likud party’s registered membership. So the right-wing democrats who had gone door-to-door to secure his election victory launched another door-to-door campaign, with equal success: Sharon lost the referendum by a decisive 60-40 margin. But he simply ignored the results and implemented the pullout anyway. And once again, his undemocratic behavior won plaudits from the left’s self-proclaimed “democrats.”

This chain of events resulted in a non-negligible minority of rightists becoming completely disillusioned with democracy. They came to view it as a system whose rules were gamed in the left’s favor, rather than applying equally to everyone, because they saw election results and even laws repeatedly being ignored with impunity when this served the left’s purposes. The only rule seemed to be that anything furthering left-wing policies was “democratic,” while anything furthering right-wing policies was “undemocratic.” And this has been reinforced by 10 years of watching the left tar Netanyahu—who, until the past five months, never did anything remotely as undemocratic as Rabin and Sharon—as “anti-democratic.”

The pernicious consequences are obvious. People who have lost faith in democracy are more likely to see violence as a legitimate means of achieving their goals or fantasize about some form of absolutism (theocracy, monarchy, etc.). Indeed, it’s a tribute to the resilience of the right’s democratic instincts that these are still marginal phenomena. But they have undeniably grown, and another “stolen” election would have reinforced this trend.

Democracy’s sine qua non is that voting actually matters. When people stop believing this, democracy dies; that’s precisely why the left’s consistent support for undemocratic moves that serve its goals is so dangerous. And people who actually live in undemocratic countries understand this very well. As Dima Eygenson, who recently immigrated to Israel from Russia, told JTA, “It’s pretty exciting and new to me that voting could actually make a difference, lead to a real change in the country’s fate. You can vote in Russia, but it will make no difference.”

Thanks to the Sept. 17 do-over election, which Netanyahu almost singlehandedly forced on an astonished nation, Israel was spared a situation in which half the electorate once again concluded that voting makes no difference. Given the outcome, it could be his final service to Israel, but it turned out to be an important one. And though I doubt he’d appreciate the irony, that wouldn’t be a bad ending to a long career of public service.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 25, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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