There is barely a week left until the most fateful elections in Israeli history. Will we continue down the road towards joining the troubled illiberal democracies that are proliferating around the world, like Orban’s Hungary, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Duterte’s Philippines, Erdogan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia …and yes Trump’s America, or will we begin the return to a society which aspires to the enlightened liberal principles that were articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence back in 1948? A Declaration which promised that “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of shrines and holy places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” – a state which has no room for a biased Nation-State Law which deprives 20% of its citizens of equal rights before the law, and enables both peoples living here to have an equal right to national self-determination.
In each of the illiberal democracies there are pro-democracy forces struggling to turn the tide, with the 2020 elections in the United States and the hope that Trump will be defeated being the pinnacle of the struggle.
Here in Israel, there is a broad coalition of forces who are challenging Netanyahu’s attempt to steadily undermine Israeli democracy, independent judiciary, civil liberties and freedom of media, artistic and religious expression, who stand for uncorrupt decency while reviving the hope for a society based upon a greater degree of social justice which genuinely aspires to and initiates efforts to end 51 years of rule over our Palestinian neighbors via a peace agreement based upon a viable two-state solution.
The polls suggest that Netanyahu is not guaranteed a victory, and like in April, he may be unable to put together a repeat of the current right-wing-ultra Orthodox coalition.
Gantz – The Anti-Bibi
It appears that the alternative to Bibi is the anti-Bibi, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, leader of the new Blue and White Party. Gantz does not have the intellect, the education, charisma, media skills, economic know-how, English and the experience that Bibi has. In the April elections, he was the new face in town who offered the promise of change based on decency and togetherness and moderation, rather than bitter divisiveness. I was afraid that the novelty would have worn off in the second round, but according to the polls, Gantz and Blue and White are still running neck and neck with the Likud. Gantz does not inspire, is sometimes inarticulate, is ambiguous about his positions, but he broadcasts a sense of decency, solidity and relative humility, which is a refreshing change from what we currently have. No one can question his security credentials, and when he says he wants to defend democracy and change the Nation-State Law it sounds like he means it. Until now he and his colleagues have run an almost non-existent campaign. However his recent declaration that he aspires to form a liberal, secular coalition after the election has resonated strongly, though it would be together with the Likud minus Netanyahu at its head. The fact that he also says that the Joint Arab List would not be a partner in his coalition is very problematic, though unlike before April, he is reaching out to the Arab public, and in the major anti-Nation State Law demonstration in Tel Aviv after the first round of elections he joined his co-leaders former IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid prodded on by his left hand man Ofer Shelach in supporting the appearance of Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh at the demonstration, overriding the opposition of his fellow leader former Likud member and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon.
There are three other parties in the active opposition to the left of Netanyahu:
Barak, Shaffir and Horowitz, the leaders of the Democratic Union (Photo: Times of Israel)
Barak – The Most Effective Campaigner
1) The Democratic Union – An amalgam of Meretz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s fledgling party and Labor breakaway 2011 social protest leader Stav Shaffir, chaired by Meretz leader social democrat Nitzan Horowitz, the first gay leader of a political party in Israel. Although both Barak and Gantz are former IDF Chiefs of Staff, he is everything that Gantz isn’t. The fiery anti-Bibi who once served as his defense minister, is the only politician to defeat Netanyahu (in 1999), served as his commander in the army and is the most potent and articulate critic of Netanyahu’s policies on the national stage. He says those policies are the only existential threat to Israel today, undermining Israel’s democratic foundations, and doesn’t shy away from using the terms apartheid and fascism to describes elements of the Israeli reality. He advocates a two-state solution with mutually agreed upon border rectifications of 4-5% which would enable 80% of the settlers to remain within the borders of the sovereign state of Israel based on the analysis of Dr. Shaul Arieli, arrived at via negotiations with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (thus counteracting his former “no partner claim”), though unwisely saying that if negotiations fail a unilateral disengagement from the West Bank and setting of temporary borders should be considered. He also advocates that the State of Israel should be based upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence which should be enshrined in a Constitution promised back in 1948 “within 10 months”. Unfortunately, many people are allergic to Barak for reasons of his own creation, such as blaming the failure of Camp David 2000 on the Palestinians while saying that there is “no partner” which undermined the peace camp, the fact that he split the Labor Party to become Defense Minister in 2011, and the fact that he became quite wealthy in his post-political career, though without any evidence of corruption. All true, but he is still the most effective campaigner against Bibi in the current round of elections.
Amir Peretz’s Gamble
2) The Labor Party led by former Sderot Mayor, Histadrut head and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who formed an alliance with Orly Levy-Abekasis’ Gesher Party, formerly an MK for Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Many were upset by the fact that he didn’t join together with Meretz and Barak to form a united left front. At a forum on Friday organized by Women Waging Peace, Peretz, who also has a history of abandoning Labor for Livni’s centrist Hatnua Party, said that he was offered the possibility of being the leader of a united left party that might have gotten 12 seats in the Knesset. “What would have that gotten us?” he exclaimed, saying that if teaming up with Levy-Abekasis he could wean away two seats from the Likud from development town Mizrachi voters, it would change things. Running on a platform which focuses on social issues, one can only hope that his gamble is successful.
The Importance of the Arab Vote
3) The Joint List composed of four Arab parties, Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad, is running again, after disastrously splitting into two party amalgams in the April elections, leading to a decline in Knesset representation from 13 to10 seats and in voting percentage among the Israeli Arab citizens from 64% to 49%. If all the Arabs voted, almost 20% of the population, they could have 20, even 25 seats in the Knesset, and would be the deciding factor in the left-right balance in Israel. At this stage, the polls don’t suggest that they will even return to the 13 seats they had in 2015, but they’re working on it. Joint List Chair Ayman Udeh’s declaration of a readiness to join a center-left coalition was called for and welcomed by the Democratic Union, but unfortunately not by Gantz, still trying to get votes from the right.
The Three Keys to Victory
The keys to a center-left victory are:
1) A significant increase in the Arab vote;
2) That Amir Peretz and Labor will succeed to get at least two-three seats from people in the outlying peripheral towns who previously voted right;
3) That all the Center-Left, Blue and White, Democratic Union, Labor-Gesher and the Joint List will succeed to GOTV – Get Out the Vote – mobilizing all their potential supporters to actually vote and not give in to despair or indifference. The Tel Aviv busses are filled with billboards of Horowitz-Barak-Shaffir calling on their constituency to vote for victory.
I will be voting for the Democratic Union, because it promises to defend all of Israel’s democratic institutions, calls for Israeli peace initiatives to achieve a two state solution with the PLO Palestinian partner led by President Mahmoud Abbas, the separation of religion and state, and declares unequivocally – unlike Blue and White and Labor-Gesher, that under no circumstances will it sit in a coalition with the Likud, with or without Netanyahu. It’s also interesting to see that Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism is #11 on the Democratic Union list. If he gets into the Knesset, it will create a serious challenge to the Orthodox representatives attempt to monopolize the religious discourse in Israel.
However, a vote for any of the opposition parties is a vote for saving Israeli democracy. Despite claims to the contrary, it’s not the biggest party that counts, but the total votes for the entire bloc. We have to aim at reaching a situation where the center-left has a majority of 61 seats. The best case scenario is a center-left government – unlikely though not totally impossible – but even a national unity government without Netanyahu, with Lieberman’s right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party as the glue, will be a step forward.
Recently, for the first time in many years, I heard Dylan singing on 88 FM his 1964 song “The Times They Are a Changin'”, which inspired my generation back in the 60s to believe that it was possible that “The first one now, will later be last”.
With a week to go, we should all repeat Obama’s slogan — “Yes We Can.”