So, I voted yesterday in Israel’s national election. Israel is a democracy and so I expected that campaigning and voting in Israel would be similar to what I remember it being in the United States, at least the United States I knew before Donald Trump. Boy, was I wrong.
First, the election occurs when the prime minister’s coalition falls apart. It turns out that the prime minister can really control when the coalition will fall. In this case, as with most things in Israel, it is a very political decision. So, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (“Bibi”), had to decide when would be the most opportune time for him to run for reelection. He wanted it to be when he hadn’t yet been indicted, when his son Yair hadn’t recently been caught with a prostitute and when Bibi’s wife, Sarah (“BA, MA”), wasn’t at trial for abusing staff at the prime minister’s house. April 9th seemed the perfect date. With Passover a week away, people would be in a good mood and government employees, who get election day off, would get much needed time to do their Passover cleaning.
So, about three months ago, Bibi dissolved the Knesset and called for new elections. Well, it kind of worked. Yair and Sarah behaved themselves, but not so much Bibi’s handpicked attorney general, Avihai Mandelblit, who, in the middle of the campaign, announced that he “intended to indict” Bibi.
Now I needed to figure out what it meant to intend to indict someone. As I understand it, the concept can perhaps be analogized to a woman whose pregnancy test has turned up positive, but who has yet to hear the baby’s heartbeat. She’s no less pregnant, she just hasn’t told family and friends of her condition. So, it appears that Bibi is pregnant but, having not yet heard the heartbeat (i.e., been formally indicted), he remained free to continue his quest for a fifth term.
As opposed to the United States where there is a relatively clean two-party system in which there are ultimately only two parties to choose from, in Israel there can be any number of parties. When forming a party, it seems to help to have a big family and a lot of old army buddies to help the candidate ultimately make it to the Knesset because to secure a Knesset set you have to garner at least 3.25% of the votes cast.
In Israel, there are typically two main parties vying for prime minister. In past elections, Labor, either by itself or in conjunction with another party, has run against Likud, similar to the liberal Democrats running against the more conservative Republicans in the United States.
This year was different, though. The Labor party was struggling greatly in the polls, creating a vacuum. Who would fill that vacuum? People started looking to Benny Gantz. Lo and behold, Benny Gantz decided to run on the ticket of his newly-created party, Kahol Lavan. Now, I needed to learn about this guy Benny Gantz.
It turns out that Benny Gantz had never run for political office before, but his claim to fame was that he was the recent chief of staff of the army. What?! Some army general wants to run the country? Sounds like what happens when there are coups. But, Israel has a history of having army heads being prime minister, so this wasn’t so unusual. The rest of Gantz’s party? Other than a reformed journalist, Yair Lapid, the other top spots at the party belonged to a bunch of Gantz’s army buddies.
Everyday it seemed like we heard about another new party forming. None of the remaining parties, however, garnered the attention that Kahol Lavan was receiving. It soon became clear that Benny and his army buddies were going to take the Labor party’s typical role.
Since there was no way my wife and I could keep up with all of the ever growing number of parties (there ended up being something like 39 of them by election day) we decided to focus on the two front-runners. We have never been fans of the almost indicted Bibi so we decided to focus on the army guy, although the idea of supporting a military guy whose only real credential was that he didn’t lose any wars, didn’t strike us as being all that impressive.
We researched the platforms of the two candidates, only to discover that they really didn’t have platforms. Each agreed, though, that they wanted to keep Israel safe, which we have always thought was a good idea. They disagreed though on who could do that better, the army guy or the possible crook. We gave our nod to the army guy on that one.
The only thing we knew for sure going into the election was that Bibi kept proclaiming his innocence and flying off to have his picture taken with Putin and Trump (unless those pictures had been photoshopped) and that Gantz had made a deal with Lapid, the former journalist, to split the prime minister’s term with him. We never did quite figure out what that was all about, but we ultimately decided to go with the more liberal, centrist army guy, Gantz, rather than what we viewed as a right wing nut case, Bibi.
Election day finally came yesterday. I woke up excitedly. I was going to vote in my first Israeli national election. We had beautiful weather. My wife and I had each received cards in the mail to take to the polls. Just as we were leaving, Barbara and I had our only fight about the election.
Since the weather was so nice, I wanted to take our dog, Hilda, and Barbara wanted to leave her home. Barbara prevailed, very reasonably and rationally arguing that dogs would not be allowed in the polling place and it was too hot to leave Hilda in the car.
We arrived at the polling place and found ourselves in a wonderful atmosphere, akin to a carnival. People milled about, sat at picnic tables and ate and took materials from the myriad of tables promoted and manned by people supporting their preferred parties. We walked around unsuccessfully trying to find free t-shirts
There was only one thing wrong with what we saw. Apparently, polling places are where one goes to show off one’s beautifully coiffed canine friend. I don’t know if the dogs voted like I think they do in Chicago, but anyhow, they sure looked nice. Meanwhile, our poor little Hilda sat alone locked in her kennel at home. What a shande!
We went into the building, showed our voting cards and were told where to go to register. We registered and Barbara was told to go into the lone voting booth. There were no other people waiting. It was amazingly efficient without long lines. Very surprising for a country known for having to wait for everything.
Barbara and I had to go in separately. She went first. Suddenly, I hear her scream from the voting booth. Clearly, she has come face to face with a case of blind justice. There, sitting in front of her is a card table filled with almost 40 square pieces of paper much like you’d expect to find in a board game, with Hebrew letters written all over them. The poll watchers listened in shock as Barbara screamed:”Where’s the army guy?” The poll watchers huddled to try to figure out how to help this poor crazed American woman who seemed to be looking for a soldier. The line grew long as Barbara struggled. Suddenly she yells: “Harvey, I found him. He’s in the lower left, right where we thought he should be.” I followed immediately after and, with no problem, found the Kahol Lavan piece of paper that represented a vote for Benny Gantz. I grabbed one and stuffed it in the little envelope the poll watchers had given me. We stuffed our envelopes in the cute little shoe box. We had successfully voted for the first time in Israel. As we climbed back in the car, I said to Barbara, while wiping my eyes, “You know, voting in an Israeli national election really moved me.”
We came home and turned on the television because it seemed like the Israeli thing to do on election day, even though we couldn’t understand any of it because it’s in Hebrew. We found out that the polls don’t close until 10:00 and there wouldn’t be any results until then.
We turned off the TV because listening to it in a language you don’t understand gives one a headache. So, we waited to turn the TV back on until 10:00 when, magically, the results showed up on each public network, but they were all different. That seemed strange but we kept Channel 12 on because it had our guy doing better than Bibi. Then, Barbara says to me that maybe the reason they could all know the results at exactly 10:00 when the polls were just closing was because these must have been exit polls, thereby also solving the question of why each network had different numbers. Sometimes I wonder whether we Americans are the brightest light bulbs in the world.
After listening for a while, we figured out that Benny Gantz had claimed victory and we were very happy. But then we heard that the possible crook had declared complete victory, which seemed like more victory than just the victory that Gantz had declared. So, we decided that, rather than being sad and confused, we would just go to bed, which we did.
We woke up this morning and looked at the English newspapers since maybe they would help us understand things better. Things were not good though. The possible crook had defeated the army guy to earn a fifth term.
But, Barbara and I decided not to be sad because we enjoyed seeing Israeli democracy in action and we learned a lot. And, since a possible crook was elected, maybe we’ll get to vote again soon and we will then know to get Hilda groomed the day before the election so we can take her to the carnival and show her off.