The second election was a victory for democracy, but a third could threaten it

The worst outcomes for democracy did not happen.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) receives the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin, October 23 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) receives the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin, October 23 2019
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When President Reuven Rivlin entrusted the mandate to form a government to Blue and White head Benny Gantz, the apparently weak prospect that he can accomplish this goal unleashed a fresh tide of complaints about political gridlock and the ineptitude of Israeli politics. However, this repeat election was one of the most important – and constructive – elections in the country’s history. Retrospectively, it will be seen that the high-water mark of anti-democratic populism was in the April 2019 election. The second round in September, on the other hand, was a victory for Israeli democracy.
The bad outcomes were averted
The worst outcomes for democracy did not happen. In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one MK away from creating a governing coalition. The atmosphere was polarized. The very concept of the Left was demonized and the Center was smeared as left-wing. The prime minister was ready to commit to annexation of the West Bank to obtain the support of those on the extreme Right. The Likud base was ready to override the police, state prosecutor, attorney-general and free press as being engaged in a conspiracy to destroy Netanyahu.
The coalition would then pass a law providing immunity to the prime minister, thus putting him above the law while stamping the major legal institutions as illegitimate. Since the Supreme Court would likely disqualify such legislation, the coalition was ready to pass a law removing the Supreme Court review jurisdiction over laws passed by the Knesset. This would have left the rule of law and protection of the rights of minorities (mostly through the Supreme Court) gravely weakened in the State of Israel. But none of this happened.
In a bid to bring home extreme right-wing voters, Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley corridor and hinted broadly that he would go on to annex the whole West Bank. Swallowing two million more Palestinians into the Jewish state would lead to a severe case of political/social indigestion, which would tempt the right to undermine democracy and deny citizen rights to West Bank Arabs, or to restrict full exercise of political rights by Israel’s Arabs. For that matter, Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich and other far-right annexationists fantasize a future war where they can end Israel’s “temporary hospitality” of Arabs and drive out the Palestinians. The failure to spark extra voters in September with the promise of expansion was a big win for Israel as a democratic state.
The settlement priority cause flopped
In the end, the combination of the New Right and religious Zionists parties – which promised to force Netanyahu on the path of annexation – scraped out seven seats, barely half of the seats that the Joint List won. The settlement cause has much more support that 5% of the voters. But these parties were saying that settlement – and Greater Israel – override all other causes and insisted on pushing settlement annexation, even though it would weaken Israel’s international standing and actual security. They were willing to breach the rule of law and confer immunity for corruption if the prime minister would give them the land. But the voters did not buy this. Many realized that the soon-to-be unveiled American peace plan would show that even a Trump administration would not support total annexation.
There will be a lot less talk about land-over-everything-else going forward and a decline in the use of the anti-Arab card. This has already shown up in the Joint List’s role in recommending Gantz for PM. The age when allying with the Left was a third rail for centrist parties also seems to be over. All of this constitutes an important gain for a democratic political culture, which flourishes when there is less polarization and when the majority can not be inflamed at the expense of a marginalized minority.
What next?
What is needed to cement the victory for democracy in this election? Rivlin, who has been carrying the flag for unity and inclusiveness of all the Jewish tribes, calls for inclusion of Blue and White, Likud and its ultra-Orthodox and right-wing partners.
But this would turn Blue and White into a minority in a unity government and revive all the risks to democracy in Netanyahu’s pre-election tactics. Avigdor Liberman proposes a national unity government in which the two major parties join with Yisrael Beytenu. His approach is right because the first step is to enable legislation that leads haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to more fully accept democracy by accepting a fair share of responsibility for society. This includes increased army service for haredi men, greater freedom for non-Shabbat observers and the willingness to live with the Western Wall compromise that respects pluralism and the reality of Diaspora religious movements.
Then laws can only be legislated if the haredim are outside the government. Once this is done, the haredim can be invited in. Then they would be participants in a more democratic framework, joining a unity government based on mutual respect and compromise. This will reduce the polarization and conflict between religious and secular – which is what the president seeks.
Currently, Netanyahu insists on remaining as head of Likud and of the ultra-Orthodox/right-wing bloc. If the attorney-general indicts the prime minister for bribery, this may resolve the issue. However, as Naftali Bennett said: Ideally the decision to change the head of government should not be made due to legal pressure. The political leadership should step up and take responsibility for the needed switch, which would enable a national unity government and advance the national interest. Nevertheless, in the real world, politicians find it is personally safer to pass the buck to the Supreme Court or to the legal authorities. Therefore, a leadership switch after an indictment would still be a win for democracy.
We cannot rule out the possibility that Netanyahu will hang in there, which could lead to new elections. Right now, the polls suggest that he would not pay a significant penalty for another round of voting. The polarized voters are staying with their previous choices. If new elections come, he may win his needed extra seat and democracy will be in trouble. President Rivlin has to remove his cover for Netanyahu by withdrawing his broader coalition proposal.
The press and public opinion must now make a third election anathema. One can expect that rather than face a much derided election where there would be a significant electoral penalty, the Likud leadership would face down its dominant leader and create a three- or four-party national unity government. This would enable Israel to move forward and leave its extremists behind.
As Winston Churchill supposedly said: “Democracies always do the right thing – after every other option is exhausted.”