Will Israel's third elections be the last?

For this ugly political negativity and mudslinging to come to an end, the election cycle needs to end.

Can the country come back together again? (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Can the country come back together again?
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Sometimes it is hard to even remember how we got here. How did Israel, a country known for its resilience, grit and creativity, find itself in an endless electoral loop? How did the nation become so polarized, so paralyzed, so divided?
For 15 months Israel has been fighting within itself: the Right against the Left; religious against the secular; and settlers against peaceniks. One politician writes off 20% of Israel’s citizens and refers to Israeli-Arabs in terms no different than are used by some of the antisemites in Europe. Another writes off haredim as if they were not part of his people.
Sadly, this is what happens when the country remains in an endless election cycle and political deadlock. People lose sight of what is really at stake. They forget how much was lost fighting to get to this land, to establish this country and to prosper. Instead, they get stuck on the politics, in negating the other – anyone who is not them, who doesn’t think like they do, or who lives according to the same ideology.
Instead, all they see is mudslinging. They hear about how the so-called “other” is bad, is wrong and is misguided. They hear how the other side is corrupt, selfish and lost.
If you simply listen to Benjamin Netanyahu all day, you would believe that Israeli-Arabs are a fifth column, and enemies of the state no different than the Iranians, Hezbollah or Hamas. That their vote is worth the same as a Jewish Israeli’s vote makes no difference.
That all polls show Israeli-Arabs yearning for greater integration into general society also means nothing. For now, Netanyahu needs an enemy, and the Arabs are who he has.
The way Netanyahu talks about Benny Gantz is no less damaging. Regardless of how you feel about his politics, Gantz is a man who has served the state with distinction as a soldier, commander and IDF chief of staff. Making fun of the way he might stumble on a word or occasionally stutter – even though he really doesn’t – should be a Red Line that is not crossed.
While Gantz might have toned down his criticism of the haredim this election cycle, it is hard to forget the way he spoke about them ahead of the vote in September, when he was pushing a “secular unity government” – haredim were not wanted.
Gantz commented last week that he would form a government with a “Jewish majority.” Imagine someone running for office in a European country calling for a “Christian majority” – Jews or Muslims are not welcome. How would that feel?
It is almost as if Israel has lost its moral compass.
For this ugly negativity to come to an end, the election cycle needs to end. As long as the politicians continue to fight, the negativity will remain and the division will grow. We need a functioning government to pass a state budget to provide for the IDF to buy the systems it needs to win the next war; and a budget for the Health Ministry to build hospitals and train new doctors at a time when the novel coronavirus is spreading across the globe.
As in the last two elections, this one will also be focused on Netanyahu and the question of whether he should continue to lead the country, or needs to step down due to the criminal case against him.
His chances of winning this time don’t seem much different than the past. While polls show Likud moving slightly ahead, Netanyahu has yet to reach the needed 61 to establish a right-wing government with just Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
That might still change, but if he fails to do so, chances are that Israel will simply head to another election. The only other option would be a Blue and White-led minority government – with Labor and Yisrael Beytenu – with either Arab support or abstention, both of which Avigdor Liberman has said he would refuse to accept.
A fourth election is actually not such a bad scenario for Netanyahu. He remains in office, starts his trial on March 17 as prime minister, and figures out what to do ahead of the next election: run again, try to reach a plea deal, or something we don’t yet see coming.
To his credit, Netanyahu has managed to have Israelis forget that in just two-and-a-half weeks, his bribery trial is scheduled to begin. In a normal world, that would be the only issue on everyone’s mind: a sitting prime minister going to trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and how that will work practically; how it impacts a government’s functionality; and what that does to the soul of a nation.
But in Israel, it is almost forgotten. Coronavirus has helped distract the electorate as well as a successful campaign run by the Likud. Somehow the party managed to convince everyone that the probe into Gantz’s former company The Fifth Dimension is actually against Gantz himself, and that he is going to form a government with the Arab parties – a move most Jewish Israelis seem to think is illegitimate.
Ahead of this election, Netanyahu seems to also have abandoned the “gevalt” strategy according to which he warns that he is going to lose and instead has focused his message on the path to victory – getting out the vote.
For Gantz, the problem is that even those who think Netanyahu has been in his job too long have difficulty seeing someone else sit in the prime minister’s chair. People have gotten used to the Likud leader and feel that they know what they are getting.
The fact that Netanyahu has no shame pulling every possible rabbit out of his hat in recent weeks – suddenly he will cut the cost of food, legalize marijuana, and build a new neighborhood in Jerusalem – doesn’t force people to ask a simple question: where was he for the last 10 years? Why does he need an election to take action? Why didn’t he cut the cost of food five years ago, when his future was not on the line?
The answer sadly seems to be that he simply didn’t care then. When his rule was ironclad, he had no need to deal with mundane issues like the cost of living, the cost of housing, or the cases opened against people for possessing a few grams of marijuana. Do people really think that if he gets reelected everything will suddenly be different?
Israeli voters will decide next week if Benny Gantz is the man they want to replace Netanyahu. But what people do need to remember is that as talented as Netanyahu is, the power he projects does not come from him – it comes from Israel and the Israeli people. Yes, he has been smart and savvy on the international stage, but countries like India, Brazil, Russia, Kenya, Oman and others that want to connect with Israel are looking to tap in to the country’s most important resource: not Netanyahu, but the Israeli people.
The citizens of Israel have more power than they think. Voting is just one demonstration. Making it abundantly clear to the politicians that another stalemate or deadlock will not be tolerated is another. This country is not a game or someone’s personal fiefdom. It belongs to the people, and it is time we say that loud and clear.