It’s still unclear whether Israel’s next election will be in four years or four months. But either way, if the center-right wants a better outcome, it needs to learn the lessons of September’s election. So here are two: First, while center-right voters realize that many things leftists deem “anti-democratic” actually aren’t, they dislike behavior that’s genuinely anti-democratic. Second, though the Arab parties are shunned deservedly, treating all Israeli Arabs as anti-Israel is both wrong and counterproductive.
In April’s election, the nonreligious center-right parties (Likud and Kulanu) won a combined 39 seats running separately. But in September, running together, they won just 32 seats. Moreover, most of those lost votes didn’t stay in the center-right/religious bloc: Though the bloc as a whole lost only five seats, that was mainly because fewer religious Zionist votes were wasted on parties that didn’t make it into the Knesset.
Some voters migrated to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, now rebranded as an anti-haredi and anti-Netanyahu party. But an estimated three seats’ worth simply stayed home in an election where overall turnout rose.
So why did center-right voters desert? Primarily, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crossed lines in the latest campaign that he never crossed before.
I’ve defended Netanyahu for years against false charges of anti-democratic conduct. For instance, there’s nothing undemocratic about the nation-state law, proposals to rein in Israel’s hyper-politicized Supreme Court or requiring NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments to say so openly. But during the latest campaign, he unquestionably adopted undemocratic tactics.
Take, for instance, his claim that Arab voter fraud “stole” April’s election from the right. Undermining faith in the validity of an election is extremely dangerous because no democracy can survive if people don’t trust elections to be free and fair. Thus election results should be called into question only in extreme cases, like the 2013 Beit Shemesh mayoral election, which a court invalidated because massive and well-documented fraud coupled with a very close result made the outcome genuinely dubious.
April’s election, however, produced neither evidence of large-scale fraud nor a close result. In fact, parties explicitly pledged to support a rightist, Netanyahu-led government won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. If Arab voter fraud produced that outcome, Israeli Arabs are the world’s most incompetent fraudsters.
True, Netanyahu nevertheless failed to form a government, but Arabs weren’t responsible for that. The culprits were Lieberman’s abandonment of his pre-election promise to support such a government; Naftali Bennett’s desertion of the main religious Zionist party to start his own, which wasted almost four seats’ worth of votes when it failed to cross the electoral threshold; and Netanyahu’s impending indictments, which made center-left parties unwilling to join his government. In short, he undermined faith in the fairness of Israel’s elections to divert blame for the right’s own failures.
Or consider his proposal to allow cameras in polling stations to monitor voter fraud, which he tried unsuccessfully to ram through the Knesset a week before September’s election. The idea itself wasn’t illegitimate; even some leftists support it in principle. But the timing undeniably was.
Major changes in the rules of the game shouldn’t be made one week before an election, when neither election officials nor the parties have time to prepare properly for their implementation. That’s Democracy 101. Nor should they be hastily passed in a party-line vote without serious consideration.
The same goes for Netanyahu’s desire to enact legislation granting sitting prime ministers immunity from prosecution—something he vowed not to do before April’s election but then demanded during post-election coalition negotiations. Again, the idea itself isn’t illegitimate; many democracies grant immunity to sitting chief executives, including America (the Justice Department’s longstanding position is that sitting presidents can’t be indicted) and France. But such a major systemic change requires careful consideration, especially since Israel, unlike America and France, lacks term limits. It shouldn’t be a party-line decision made solely to save one man from imminent indictment.
Yet Netanyahu’s disregard for democratic norms wasn’t his only problem. He also forgot the critical distinction between the Arab parties and the Arab electorate.
The parties are a collection of Islamists, Communists and radical Palestinian nationalists whose Knesset members actively work to undermine the Jewish state. They at best justify terror and at worst abet it; they spread vicious lies about Israel; they oppose rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries, and support anti-Israel terror groups. They aren’t legitimate partners for any Israeli government, and this must be said clearly.
But most ordinary Israeli Arabs aren’t anti-Israel; in fact, 65 percent say they’re proud to be Israeli. Granted, most oppose Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, but they’re nevertheless willing to be good citizens. And while identity politics still drives most to vote for Arab parties, the majority is dissatisfied with those parties. Thus not only do they not deserve to be tarred as enemies, but Israel has an interest in encouraging them to desert the Arab parties.
Instead, Netanyahu drove them straight into those parties’ arms by repeated invective against “Arabs,” which Arab voters naturally interpreted as referring to themselves even when he presumably meant the parties. One over-the-top post on his official Facebook page, for instance, warned that the left would ally with “Arabs who want to destroy us all—women, children and men.”
As a result, 82 percent of Arab voters backed the Arab parties’ Joint List, up from 70 percent in April (when the parties ran two separate tickets), and Arab turnout soared. Those two factors combined to give the Joint List potentially unprecedented clout: Its chairman will become leader of the opposition if a unity government is formed.
That Netanyahu’s behavior didn’t cost Likud even more votes is because he has been a superb prime minister, and above all, because too many Israelis still have traumatic memories of soaring terrorism under other premiers. But as September’s election shows, that alone isn’t enough for victory. If the right wants to win next time, it must resume its traditional regard for genuine democratic principles. And it must stop treating Arab voters as indistinguishable from their parties.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.
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