Blue and White’s Unappreciated Political Triumph

The post-game analysis of Bibi Netanyahu’s failed attempt to form a government has primarily focused on Avigdor Lieberman’s obstinacy and sweet personal revenge.  There are also occasional sneers, asking where Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party were throughout the drama, casting aspersions on the party’s political effectiveness.

So let me direct this message to over one million Israelis who voted Blue and White in the 2019 elections: Blue and White’s remarkable showing in April along with the party’s impressive unity and integrity is the only reason we get a second chance to elect a tolerant, responsible, uncorrupt and unifying government.  Indeed, the party’s unprecedented electoral achievement in April set last week’s entire cascade of events in motion. Blue and White was not only present, it was the causa sine qua non.

Let’s consider an alternative and much less happy reality — one in which Benny Gantz never declared his candidacy this past January, never formed a pact with Bogie Yaalon’s Telem list and never merged with Yeish Atid to win 35 Knesset seats. Here’s what the resulting electoral nightmare would have looked like: Bibi’s last minute “Gevalt” campaign, which wiped two right-wing party’s off the map, would never have taken place  — leaving Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Moshe Feiglin  as major political players.  With the drop in Arab-Israeli voting rates and Avi Gabai’s anemic leadership, the right-wing block would have exceeded 70 MKs.  A disquieting, anti-democratic, extremist right-wing agenda would have effortlessly sailed through the Knesset.

By now we would be living with legislation that cancels the Supreme Court’s authority to undertake judicial review against laws violating human rights.  Notwithstanding the attorney general’s stated inclination to indict him for corruption, Netanyahu would be enjoying full immunity to continue in his post…. for another 10 years (Avigdor Lieberman’s estimate – not mine!).

The economy would be in the first stages of imploding, due to unprecedented financial promises, irresponsibly made to the Haredi parties given the present, 14.1 billion shekel deficit.  And one can only imagine the coercive legislation which would soon be passed by the new, religiously dominated coalition: from shutting down factories on Saturday to commandeering Robinson’s arch in the Western Wall for Orthodox prayer.

Mercifully, none of this happened.  It didn’t happen despite the abysmal Arab turnout at the polls.  In fact, Israel’s Center-Left block did far better in the April, 2019 election than it did in 2015 when right-wing parties captured 54 seats in the Knesset. In 2015, Netanyahu’s easily formed a government withoutthe help of Lieberman and Yisrael Beytenu. But this time around, the numbers were entirely different.  The right-wing block was four seats smaller and the Center-left block was five seats larger.  Blue and White’s strong showing at the polls did that.  It made all the difference.

Given the range of perspectives among its Knesset members, the press desperately seeks to find cracks in Blue and White solidarity. So here is another triumph:  although any number of Blue and White candidates were promised plum Ministerial positions to break ranks and join the Likud government over the past few weeks – none of them did so.  The party’s claim of introducing new decent leaders, motivated by idealism and service was validated.

Of course there are differences of opinion among the different Blue and White MKs.  This, however, is actually an expression of the party’s refreshing political culture, where robust debate is not only tolerated but encouraged. Compare the party’s open dynamics to the stifling requirement of allegiance in Likud or any of the other right parties, which squelch and punish any sign of independent thinking or initiative.

In short, against all odds, the most talented “wheeler dealer” in Israeli political history failed to garner 61 votes in the Knesset, notwithstanding his declaration of unprecedented victory.  So in fact, in retrospect,  it seems that Bibi Netanyahu didn’t win the elections at all.   Historians will call it a draw.

Our country now has a second chance. Those of us who seek an Israel where democratic institutions are venerated; where corruption is not tolerated; where bringing the disparate tribes of the country together is axiomatic — have another opportunity. We don’t have to wait four years. This time we can defeat the dark forces that marginalize and demonize citizens (and tourists) who express alternative views; who harbor and even encourage intolerance and extremism; who run political campaigns based on lies, fake news and disinformation.  We have a second chance to put the country back on track.

Of course the initial math looks discouraging. With five right-wing mandates that fell below the threshold now back in play, the September elections are being written off by some Cassandras as an ineluctable, right-wing “cake walk.”  But let’s remember that if Arabs had voted at 78% levels, like Jewish citizens did in April  (rather than 48%) — today Benny Gantz, would be setting up the government.

At the end of the day, Israel is pretty much divided in half.  Accordingly, winning elections is entirely about participation.  With 35 Knesset members, the Blue and White’selection budget for September is substantial.  The party has had its dress rehearsal.  No other political party is in a position to save the country’s soul. The majority of center-left Israelis understood this by the time they voted in April.  It will be even clearer in the upcoming election.  To paraphrase Vince Lombardy: getting out our voters isn’t everything…. It’s the only thing.

So if you supported Blue and White in the last election: stand up tall and be proud.  You saved the country from careening into an anti-democratic and economic morass, from which it would be very difficult to recover.  Envisioning a September election victory has nothing to do with believing in miracles.  With a smart, professional and passionate Blue and White campaign, history will be different.  Stand up tall, and roll up your sleeves. There is work to be done.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.