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The perpetual elections virus

As campaigns dodge substance and resort to rumors and mudslinging, voters are alarmingly disinterested in these elections

The last weeks of this third round of Israeli elections are accompanied by intense – almost frenetic – activity by party leaders and a handful of their diehard supporters. Most Israelis are no longer listening. They are busy distancing themselves from the campaign as if it were more contagious than the coronavirus.

Whatever the actual outcome of the March 2nd ballot, ongoing electoral cycles have the effect of not only stripping the last vestiges of popular confidence in the system, but also of totally undoing what’s left of the democratic rules of the game. The chaos theory of elections may suit some actors, but for Israel as a whole it constitutes a paradigmatic shift with immeasurable consequences. For this – if for no other – reason, the perpetual elections syndrome without any closure has to end. Only Israel’s deeply disaffected electorate can make it happen.

The wares of vying political parties in Israel have become increasingly blurred and superficial as the country has progressed from one campaign to another over the past year. The two major contenders are peddling the same worn slogans with less and less substance. By this point, most Israelis are hard put to differentiate between the Likud and the Blue and White party on everything from security, the Trump plan, concern over the possible opening of procedures against Israel in the ICC or responses to the UNHCR’s release of a list of companies operating in the settlements. The major parties have yet to offer any concrete suggestions to deal with growing public discontent on bread and butter issues at home. The promises they dispense on the cost of living, health, education and the economy are being met with large doses of disbelief.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the major campaigns are focusing on leadership attributes rather than on content. Questions of style, probity, responsibility and track records have had a reductionist effect, with the quite different personalities of Netanyahu and Gantz assuming center stage. The amplification of ideological differences on the political margins has not been able to prevent this distillation, with the upshot being that rumors, mudslinging and purposeful misinformation abound, compounded by brazen assaults on societal cohesiveness.

The purposeful exclusion of the Arab citizens of Israel from governmental positions by the two leading candidates and most of their minions only serves to accentuate the yawning discrepancy between civic inclusion and Jewish exclusiveness. It also undermines the fundamental democratic right to vote and to be elected to any office and thus allows for the conscious belittlement of democratic norms. The only rule that a twice-renewed caretaker government lacking popular legitimacy abides by is one of crude power. Reflecting domestically a new global order which rests on raw force at the expense of guiding values, it is determined to employ every tool available – including frontal attacks on bureaucratic, judicial and military institutions and officeholders – as long as these serve its purposes.

This is the backdrop for growing public disaffection. As poll after poll underlines the continual electoral deadlock, insufficient attention is being paid to profound shifts in attitudes towards the repeated electoral exercise in its entirety. In fact, lost in the shuffle is the rising mistrust of most citizens in the increasingly off-putting antics of those seeking their support. The line between political hyperactivity and civilian desperation is proving to be a very fine one indeed.

The most commonplace response has been a studied disinterest in anything smacking of the political. Less a matter of apathy or indifference than of sheer and utter contempt for politicians and what they represent, discussions on public matters have dwindled markedly. In some quarters, they are purposefully shunned. This collective avoidance is nowhere more noticeable than at the proverbial Friday night dinner table and in casual conversations. Politics is out; daily life and escapism is in.

Surreptitiously, this mixture of avoidance and scorn has been replaced in broad quarters by outright anger. It is enough to catch snippets of exchanges in lines for buses or for a long-awaited doctor’s appointment to grasp the extent of outrage sweeping through large swaths of the Israeli population. The venom heaped on politicians as a group is both uniform and often unprintable. It goes well beyond annoyance, oozing outright rejection and dismissal. This emotional backlash is the hidden ingredient which will affect not only voter turnout, but also voter involvement as a whole.

This is why there is little, if any, patience for the coalitional computations that now dominate the discourse of the political parties and are steadily topping the headlines. The Likud-led right-wing bloc, aware that it will not garner the sixty-one seats needed to form a coalition, is bent on thwarting the only mathematical alternative: a center-left government resting on the support of the Joint Arab List. The Blue and White party is trying to sell the illusion of an alternative coalition devoid of Arab support. Both propositions are ludicrous without some movement between the blocs. And the electorate is well aware of this monumental bluff, further advancing the prospect of yet another, fourth, round of elections.

The only one who benefits from another delay in government formation is Benjamin Netanyahu. An extension of the mandate of his non-elected government serves his purposes well. It allows him to use the tools of office to undermine his opponents and to try yet again to postpone the opening of his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. It gives him extended freedom of action to pursue policies (unconstrained by any accountability) which have not been subjected to public scrutiny and which lack popular legitimacy. And it enables a seismic shift in the Israeli political system by rewarding those in power at the expense of everyone else.

Not only those concerned with the ramifications of the perpetuation of Netanyahu’s already protracted tenure are worried about such an eventuality; even those who share his worldview are beginning to understand that failure to emerge with an elected government after the forthcoming elections is detrimental both to Israel’s form of government and to its overall durability in the future. Who, however, in a climate ranging from disengagement to enragement, is going to prevent such an outcome?

The answer will unfold in the course of the next two weeks and will be decided on election day. The first indication will be the turnout rates, which all projections suggest – with the possible exception of the Arab society in Israel – will be lower than in the previous two electoral iterations.

The second, and far more profound and hence accurate, sign will depend on the motivations of those participating in the voting ritual. In the absence of significant research on the relationship between specific attitudes towards elections in general and voting behavior, prior experience may offer a preliminary, if crude, guide. Apathy and widespread discontent with the options at hand tend to nurture electoral abstinence, as they reinforce decreasing levels of belief in the ability of individuals to make a difference and hence cultivate low levels of voter efficacy. Anger appears to be a double-edged sword: it either justifies vocal absenteeism or, when systematically fueled, may promote active reengagement to protect specific interests or causes. The more the machinations of the contestants arouse the ire of larger segments of Israel’s population, the more it is possible that these will prompt more decisive voter action.

Whatever the results, it is now evident that any government, whenever formed, will be forced to contend with the policy morass created by a lengthy period of government inaction coupled with pointed manipulation. It will also have to begin to mend the social fissures expanded during the prolonged electoral cycle. Above all, it will need to turn its attention to the daunting task of repairing the structural and normative damage wrought to public affairs and slowly restore popular confidence in the governmental sphere. Any further delay in beginning this long and difficult task will make it even harder to correct the harm already wrought to the country by the conscious perpetuation of electoral chaos.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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