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.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.