These past few weeks I spend much of my time crisscrossing the country, talking to people about the upcoming April 9th elections. Many “Center – Left”, politically situated citizens share their angst and ambivalence about how they should be voting. So I explain that there really is little room for confusion: anyone like me, who is seriously worried about the kind of Israel that another four years of a Netanyahu, ultra-right government will produce and who wants to change the ruling coalition — needs to vote Blue and White. Here’s why:
It is critical to understand the local political dynamics that characterized recent years: Why do Israel’s progressives and moderates invariably find themselves in a situation where the President asks a Likud-chair to form the government? The answer goes back to the discourse created during the elections, which focuses solely around the competition between a so-called “left-wing” – versus “right-wing” block.
Because demographics have shrunk the relative influence of Israel’s leftist constituencies, this “zero-sum” game dynamic invariably favors Israel’s right and extreme-right parties. But there is another paradigm which could – and should — inform the consultation process which leads to formation of the government. It involves providing a Centrist party with a clear numeric advantage.
Traditional, small parties on both sides naturally continue to call on their faithful to loyally cast their ballots for the tribal, narrow alternative they happily provide. There undoubtedly is great existential satisfaction in self-righteously identifying with a homogenous group of like-minded people. This purportedly is the great “advantage” of the Israeli political system and the political mosaic it creates. There’s only one problem with this process: It leads to a splintered, and in recent years, powerless opposition. As Israeli politics becomes increasingly polarized –small, specialized parties are increasingly irrelevant.
The 2019 election can be different for two reasons: To begin with, the creation of the Blue and White party has shaken up the usual divisions. For the first time in a decade, the vast majority of Israelis have a political party which represents a consensus that they can get their arms around. By definition the party will not provide ideological purists or extremists on either side with their complete policy wish-list. Those who want “Peace Now” may be unwilling to accept a slower, safer pace of negotiations. And those who want “Annexation Now” will also have to find another party. But most Israelis are willing to accept a middle road. By each of us making some concessions to join a broader political consensus, we can actually move the country towards the common policy objectives most of us share: equal opportunity, social justice, a clean environment, security – and the pursuit of peace.
This happy alternative to the present polarizing, corrupt and extremist government will only happen if the President has a path forward which is consistent with his mandate. But here’s the thing: The President’s mandate to form the government does not require that a party come to him with a guaranteed, 61 person “block” of voters. This is an invention and a myth, perpetuated by small parties, due to their own desire for self-preservation. In the world according to this “61-person block”– invention, it doesn’t matter if you vote for Meretz or the Labor Party (or alternatively the New Right or Yisrael Beiteinu) because in the end, all that matters is the size of the block. But that’s just wrong – legally and tactically.
Israel’s Basic Law “The Government”, in fact, gives the President far more latitude in making his decision about who will lead the country. Section 7 of the statute merely requires that the President confer with all the different Knesset factions and select a “member of Knesset who agrees to form the government”. In other words, rather than locking into the calculus of parliamentary majorities, the President needs to think about the good of the country, and whether the elections have produced an actual winner.
At present, the Blue and White Party is looking like it will be the winner — the largest party in the new Knesset. The salient question is: “by how much”? Voters need to consider whether the party will emerge as a dominant political force and the decisive leader. For instance, in 2009, the Kadima party had 28 mandates in the Knesset. But it only barely edged out the Likud party which had 27 Knesset seats. Essentially the results were a draw. Under these circumstances, President Peres had no choice but pass over Tzipi Livni and conceded to the mathematics of forming an electoral block.
So what if a party came out of the election with a 6 or 7 vote advantage, clearly defeating the next-largest party by some 20% of the votes? This creates an entirely new dynamic. Certainly, President Rivlin, our beloved champion of national unity, inclusion and respect of minorities – would see the logic in granting the Blue and White party the opportunity to form a government.
Once that happens, Benny Gantz will do what he is best at: bringing people together and forging consensus. All signs suggest that he will do this expeditiously. Present, polarized, political dynamics require that small “right-wing” parties satisfy their “base” during the elections by repeating the mantra of preferring a Netanyahu-led government. But it is also clear that in a frank discussion with the President during the consultation period, they will acknowledge their ability to join a government headed by Benny Gantz and many of their friends and colleagues – from Yoaz Hendel to Bogie Yaalon. Once Blue and White begins negotiating a coalition, potentially moderate parties will all line up to take a number to be part of the new leadership.
None of this will happen, however, if voters revert to the usual way of thinking in Israeli politics. That’s why it’s essential that we stop talking about the “block” — which only serves to further the interests of small parties at the expense of the national good — and begin talking about winning these election. Because if the Blue and White party wins 40 Knesset seats, (and all polls suggest that it could) Benny Gantz will form Israel’s next government. Ensuring an additional seat or two for the Labor party — will do nothing to increase the likelihood of forming a non-Netanyahu government. Indeed it can only damage such an optimistic scenario.
Albert Einstein is credited with the adage: “You can’t save problems with the same thinking that created them in the first place.” So strategic thinkers will realize that we have been on this path before. It’s the same road that led to the illusion of a Herzog-led, Labor party government. But we need to disabuse ourselves of it quickly, because these elections are different. Labor is led by an extremely flawed chair – whose statements and behavior reflect poor character and bad judgement. Alternatively, a centrist party, with three former IDF military chiefs of staff represents unity and decency — with the ability to assuage the Israeli public’s justifiable anxiety about security competence.
If you are concerned about the Supreme Court’s future as an independent voice for human rights; or the delegitimization of Arab citizens; or a mean-spirited, corrupt, ruling party — it is time to stop and think. The conclusion is fairly self-evident: If you don’t vote for Gantz and Blue and White – essentially you are voting for Netanyahu and Likud. It’s as simple as that.