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Who’s afraid of elections?

  • August 03, 2020

There are very few points of agreement across Israel’s fractured political spectrum today. The first is that the broad emergency government installed barely 10 weeks ago on May 17, 2020, is one of the worst — if not the worst — in Israel’s history. Widening popular discontent is everywhere apparent: in casual conversations, in the media, on social networks, in the polls, and, increasingly, on the streets, bridges, and roadways throughout the country. The second is that a fourth round of elections in less than 18 months would be a sheer and utter disaster. The aversion to elections is as vigorous as it is prevalent. Channel 12 news conveys this repulsion every evening with a red banner that warns of “the threat of elections” — as if these are as lethal as the coronavirus.

The democratic act of protest against a confused, erratic, ineffective, and dysfunctional government is, to date, accompanied by an equally fervent reluctance to employ the most democratic of tools, elections, to oust the failing ruling coalition and the person who stands at its helm. Nothing conveys the extent of Israel’s recent democratic regression more than this glaring paradox. Nor does anything accentuate better the continuous cynical manipulation of democratic norms than the repeated use of the “specter” of elections to avoid accountability and, ironically, to ensure the continuation in office of a progressively discredited incumbent.

The general repugnance towards even the idea of elections may, however, be unwarranted. The spreading demonstrations against the government are the most — if not the only — palpable indication of an encompassing loss of confidence in Israel’s bizarre duopolistic government today. They are an external expression of deepening frustration, anger, and, above all else, a fundamental absence of faith in those who are currently guiding Israel’s increasingly floundering ship of state.

The wrath at those responsible for the present situation and the allied quest for a better future voiced by the very diverse participants of all ages, backgrounds, communal affinities, and concrete agendas are directed, first and foremost, at the person at the top — Benjamin Netanyahu — and the system that he has molded over the past decade. The current resident of Balfour Street has come to embody not only official corruption, systemic malfeasance, distorted priorities, and social fragmentation, but also the growing distance between the state and its citizens. In the eyes of many, he is consistently mortgaging the growing needs of Israel’s citizens to the vagaries of his own survival. The rising absence of trust bordering on a profound collapse of legitimacy, especially in a parliamentary democracy, provides a powerful backdrop for the call for the ouster of those in charge and what they have come to represent.

How can a change of government in such circumstances take place democratically? Three options exist. The first is through relentless public pressure leading to the resignation of the leader and the construction of an alternative government. This has been done umpteen times in the past elsewhere and has precedents within Israel as well: Golda Meir was forced to resign, in the wake of the public demonstrations against the policies leading to the Yom Kippur War; Menachem Begin was never the same after the remonstrations following the Sabra and Shatila massacres; Ehud Olmert was hounded out of office by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Yet there is no indication that Netanyahu has any intention of relinquishing his seat, despite the opening of his trial and his less than stellar handling of the COVID-19 crisis and its socioeconomic effects. To the contrary, regardless of numerous calls for him to do so, he seems even more determined to remain. Without resorting to violence — a distinctly anti-democratic tool — it is increasingly doubtful that pressure from below alone can bring about the desired change.

The second possibility is through a governmental reshuffle in the present Knesset. This alternative is already being considered by the prime minister, who is exploring means to rid himself of the parity-based coalition with Benny Gantz, and establish in its stead a right-wing government that would include his erstwhile nemesis, Naftali Bennett and his Yemina party, as well as a handful of defectors from the ranks of the Blue-White faction. It has now, however, become crystal clear that the numbers are not adding up: Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, the most likely duo to cross the lines, have announced that they have no intention of doing so.

The opposite is also true. Although the opposition to Netanyahu holds a slim 61-59 majority in the Knesset (without Yemina), it was not able to form a government when it had the opportunity to do so because of its unwillingness to include the Joint Arab List. There is no reason that it could do so now, after the split in Blue-White and the rift it has fostered with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. The theoretical possibility of change through governmental realignment, however tempting, collapses in the face of current realities.

This leaves the third alternative, that of elections. Even the most minimalist definition of democracy sees it as a process for the peaceful replacement of leaders via the ballot box. Liberal democrats add to this formalistic interpretation also value-driven content that pertains to civil freedoms and minority rights. Ostensibly, then, what can be more democratic than elections?

Not for many Israelis. The public is still traumatized by its experience with the three rounds of elections conducted in 2019-2020. Many feel profoundly betrayed by the post-election turnabout of politicians in whom they placed their trust. They have come to learn the hard way, after repeated deadlocks, that elections may be an ineffective instrument for leadership change. They have no reason to believe that it can be otherwise.

Furthermore, Netanyahu detractors fear that imminent elections would only sustain Netanyahu’s hold on power. They know never to underestimate his campaign skills (time and again, he has proven to be an electoral magician). Despite his freefall in the polls (in the past month, his Likud party has dropped 10 seats and counting), growing discontent in the ranks of his own base, and increased divisions on the right, there is no attractive alternative on the horizon who can mount a challenge to his hegemony.

These considerations alone act as a deterrent to an imminent return to the ballot box. In present circumstances, they are compounded by a series of specific concerns. Elections would be a diversion from the immense health and economic issues on the public agenda. They would postpone the adoption of a budget, so critical for achieving a semblance of economic stability. They would endanger the already shaky handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the eve of the influenza-fraught winter season. They are unspeakably costly, placing yet another burden on the country’s shrinking resources. They may further undermine public confidence in politicians. In Israel, elections have magnified social divisions and fomented further friction — the precise opposite of what is needed today. And, above all, instead of opening the possibility for improvement, they invite turmoil and may ultimately make no difference whatsoever. By postponing a return to the ballot box, Israel would be in good company: over 100 elections have been delayed worldwide since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Indeed, very few have much to gain from elections now (possibly as soon as this coming November). Yemina is doing well in the polls, but its upsurge is entirely at the expense of the Likud, and therefore guarantees nothing. Yair Lapid would also garner more votes, but that would not necessarily improve his chances of forming a government. Even Netanyahu, who ostensibly is preparing the groundwork for elections by imposing party discipline, ridding himself of potential renegades, and attempting to redefine the protest narrative from the inclusive one of “the people against the system” to the divisive one of “loyal Israelis against left-wing anarchists,” knows full well that early elections hold no assurances for his political survival. Threatening to call elections without actually holding them is his best bet at this time.

So why, nevertheless, is the prospect of elections less alarming than a continuation of the chaotic status quo wrought by Netanyahu and his sycophants? The most obvious answer is that this is the only way to call Netanyahu’s bluff (he has not won an election since 2015 and his chances of doing so today are even slimmer). Elections are also a way to avert further breakdown: an apt and acceptable response to the rapidly deteriorating status quo. They are the vital first step to the rehabilitation of Israel’s economy and governability and to the revitalization of a value-driven polity and inclusive society. And, above all, elections are the only democratic mechanism for non-violent political change. However challenging and even off-putting, there is no reason for the vibrant civic forces active today to underestimate the widespread appeal and essential power of their message or be afraid of elections now.

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