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A strange thing happened on the way to the polling booth …

In many ways, it is Israel’s fractured electorate that has itself to blame for the mess in which it finds itself.

A polling station in Jerusalem during the second round of Israeli elections, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A polling station in Jerusalem during the second round of Israeli elections, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

“Syria is not lost. [Bashar] Assad is Western-educated and not a religious man. He can still join a moderate grouping.” — Former IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, Ha’aretz, Nov. 13, 2009, fourth on the Blue and White Knesset list

“The greatest tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that everyone knows how it will end. We will divide up the region. Israel will return most of the West Bank, and the Palestinian flag will fly on public buildings in east Jerusalem. … The only unanswered question is how many more people will have to die along the way. And so we will fight against the extremists on both sides, including our extremists, the settlers.”Yair Lapid, Der Spiegel, May 8, 2008, No. 2 on the Blue and White Knesset list

“The disengagement was … a legal action … approved by the government of Israel and carried out by the IDF … with great pain but done very well. We have to take its lessons and implement them in other places.” — Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Ynet, Feb. 6, 2019, No. 1 on the Blue and White Knesset list

Earlier this month, I wrote a column with the interrogative title: Sept. 17: Will the right snatch defeat from the jaws of victory … again?

Judging from the emerging election results, it certainly seems as if it has.

(As I pointed out in my earlier article, in the Israeli political context, the left-right rift is not along the usual welfare state versus free-market divide in the socio-economic sphere, but more along the dove-hawk split on security and foreign policy, especially with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the former advocating Palestinian statehood and far-reaching territorial concessions by Israel and the latter opposing them.)

Detriments of democracy?

True, at the time of writing, the official results are not yet in, but it is highly unlikely that there will be a sea change in what we already know: Neither of the main protagonists, the Likud (ostensibly representing the electorate “right” of center), and Blue and White (ostensibly representing the electorate “left” of center) can form a majority coalition to govern the country, and certainly not a durable and stable one.

Almost incredibly, the prospect of yet another (a third!) election in the space of a year cannot be discounted as totally inconceivable, portraying Israel in an extremely unfavorable light in terms of its governability and political maturity.

Although things are still in a state of great flux, it’s difficult to see any positive outcome emerging from the current electoral impasse. Even if some coalition could be cobbled together, embracing factions and individuals of wildly differing—indeed, even opposing—political credos, it is unlikely to endure for long.

In many ways, it is Israel’s fractured electorate that has itself to blame for the mess in which it finds itself. After all, for all its manifest advantages over other forms of governance, perhaps the greatest drawback of democracy is that the demos can never complain that the dictator is responsible for its plight.

In this regard, the Israeli electorate has proved itself to be distinctly dysfunctional in that it has not been able, after almost six months of collective contemplation, to elect anything approaching a stable governing coalition.

The ‘demos:’ Not entirely to blame

However, it is probably unfair to lay all the blame on the partly (indeed, poorly) informed “man in the street” and his female counterpart, for they have been badly served by their elected representatives and by the central institutions that underpin Israeli society.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my earlier column, not only have the elected representatives of  the right-wing, despite being in power for the better part of two decades, proved unable to consign the failed credo of their left-wing rivals to well-deserved oblivion; they have been unable to produce a convincing counter-credo that would sweep along dominant sectors of the voting public, long disillusioned by the misleading mirage of promise and hope, dangled before it by purveyors of a “New Middle East.”

But they have also been ill-served by those seeking to replace the right at the helm of government. For while there may be a valid case for their claim that, after more than a decade of the Benjamin Netanyahu incumbency, there should be a change of leadership, the manner in which they have gone about trying to effect it has been inappropriate and ineffective.

Thus, at the polls, they endeavored to unseat the prime minister with what is essentially a contrived “pseudo-opposition party,” an amorphous political hodgepodge, embracing members of radically opposing viewpoints whose only unifying feature appears to be a severe case of “Bibiphobia” and with an unproven leadership whose judgement has proved highly questionable in the past.

The second prong of the assault to replace Netanyahu was via the legal system, and a series of alleged charges that, to anyone but a rabid “Bibiphobe,” appear transparently contrived, creating a deep sense of unease that Israel’s legal establishment is being exploited for patent political ends.

More than 50 percent of the Jewish vote

Clearly, Netanyahu had formidable odds against him: An amalgam of three parties (Gantz’s “Israeli Resilience,” Lapid’s “Yesh Atid,” Moshe Ya’alon’s “Telem”) that make up “Blue and White.” That’s not to mention four former IDF chiefs of staff (Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi, and Ehud Barak in the left-wing Democratic Front”); a vitriolic anti-Bibi mainstream media; and the shadow of prosecution hovering over his head.

Despite all this, he and the parties endorsing his continued premiership still managed to win a majority of the Jewish vote (55 mandates out of 107, with the remaining 13 won by the anti-Zionist Arab Joint List).

By contrast, Gantz’s Blue and White, together with other left-of-center parties (excluding the Arab Joint List) won barely 40 percent of the Jewish vote—and a little more than one-third of the overall ballot.

For Netanyahu, this is no mean feat, and testifies to his enduring public stature and the widespread recognition of the impressive accomplishments he attained during his tenure—economically, diplomatically and, even to a large degree, in the field of security, where apart from what appears excessive restraint in the south, his record is far better than any of his recent predecessors.

Netanyahu’s greatest strategic error?

Even though I am not remotely an uncritical Netanyahu apologist (having even called for his resignation in the past), it is difficult to ignore that he managed to hold out against the hostile Obama administration, engaged the current U.S. administration in a remarkable manner that has brought about the annulling of the atrocious 2015 Iran nuclear deal; the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the country and the establishment of the American embassy there; and U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights.

In addition, he has also managed to forge a close bond with Russia, India and a formerly hostile Brazil, while overseeing an almost 60 percent increase in the country’s GDP per capita.

Given the fact the Netanyahu was elected to be prime minister (and not pope), none of his untried prospective successors appear to have anything approaching his proven ability for the post of which they seek to deprive him.

Of course, one of Netanyahu’s gravest strategic miscalculations was not to call elections in May 2016, rather than capitulate to Avigdor Lieberman’s demand to be given the defense portfolio. Readers will recall that following the 2015 elections, Lieberman refused to join the ruling “right-wing” coalition” after Netanyahu’s somewhat unexpectedly strong showing against the now forgotten duo of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

Had he done so then—before Lieberman  embraced his current anti-haredi posturing—he not only could have laid the blame squarely on Yisrael Beiteinu for “toppling a right-wing government,” which would then, in all likelihood, not have passed the minimum threshold for Knesset membership. Moreover, he would have avoided the resultant friction with then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who probably would not have resigned, and he would have nipped the then still-nascent Gantz-led opposition mergers in the bud well before they could gather their current momentum.

Parade of perverse paradoxes? 

But setting aside Netanyahu’s error in judgement in his timing for calling elections, it is difficult to disregard that the Sept. 17 elections were preceded by a parade of perverse and perturbing paradoxes.

The first is that the Arab Joint List, an unabashedly anti-Zionist party comprised of wildly diverse elements (from left-wing Communists to Islamic fundamentalists), whose only commonality is their rejection of Israel as a Jewish state—much like Blue and White is composed of wildly diverse elements whose only commonality is the rejection of Netanyahu—came out of the election with 13 mandates, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset.

Three things are worthy of note here.

First, since according to the Basic Law: Knesset, the rejection of Israel as a Jewish state is grounds for barring candidacy for the Knesset, the anti-Zionist platform of the Joint List should, by letter of the law, be reason to preclude its running for the Knesset.

Second, the size of the Joint List is a direct result of an initiative by none other than Lieberman to raise (from 2 percent to 3.25 percent) the threshold for eligibility to the Knesset originally intended to block the election of the previously small Arab factions, which now seems to have backfired (or not?).

Thirdly, without the anti-Zionist Joint List, Blue and White would have no chance of seriously challenging Netanyahu for the premiership. All this by the hand of the ostensibly anti-Arab Lieberman? The law of unintended consequences, or not?

Puzzling and perturbing (cont.)

Another puzzling and perturbing occurrence was the manifest reluctance and tardiness of the Central Election Committee to investigate allegations of gross irregularities in numerous polling stations, which according to some reports, may have affected the outcome of the April elections and the possible elimination of one of the Arab factions elected (as the Joint List did not run in April).

Perhaps one of the most incomprehensible aspects of the last election is that the party most responsible for creating the mess in which we find ourselves was the very party that appears to be most rewarded by voters: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

This seems even more puzzling since the repeat elections were precipitated by Lieberman reneging on his April pre-election commitments (or at least, what many perceived as such) to cooperate in establishing a “right-wing” government, which appears to indicate that for the new Lieberman acolytes, anti-haredi opprobrium trumps political integrity.

It is important to note that Lieberman, whose personal history is strewn with wheeling and dealing with haredim, was not compelled by irresistible political constraints to take the uncompromising stance he took in the wake of the April poll. Indeed, it was not even central to his election campaign and wasn’t presented till the last minute of the coalition negotiations. It was little more than cynical political opportunism, tinged with personal vindictiveness against Netanyahu.

The price to be paid by all Israelis may soon be upon us.

Much at stake …

There is much at stake in the outcome of the Sept. 17 elections. Topping the list is the ability to continue to reap the fruits of the clement Trump administration and proceed with extending sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and parts (hopefully, all) of Jude and Samaria.

With a Gantz-led center-left government, the chances that the opportunities that might have presented themselves will be seized are considerably lower.

So while history may judge Lieberman’s shenanigans harshly, the Israeli public should bear in mind: In a democracy, the demos has no dictator to blame for what befalls it.

 Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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