Dan Perry
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble"

The Israeli public did not vote for unity

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Among Israel’s rare qualities, perhaps the most striking is that the nonsense one hears after votes are counted can exceed even that of the campaign itself. So it is now, with honey-dripping politicians sanctimoniously insisting that the public voted for unity.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with a unity government. But the Israeli public did not vote for unity for the simple reason that there is no voter called the public. There are 9 million citizens, half of whom voted. There is no record of any of them voting for unity because unity was not on the ballot.

About 26% voted for Blue and White, about 25% voted for Likud, left and right in their various definitions are about evenly split, and no majority coalition is obvious.

It is true that Blue and White said they wanted a “secular unity government.” That is because they were trying to draw right-wing votes, sought to appease Avigdor Liberman who said he would side with whomever called for such a government, and did not want to seem dependent on the Arab parties. But of the actual Blue and White voters I know, most in fact prefer Likud gone.

Likud ran on a right-wing ticket. Great is the confusion Benjamin Netanyahu has sown, but few thought he stands for unity. Liberman made unity his ticket in this election, but I have yet to meet the voter who does not suspect schemes and obfuscations. The others — left and right, religious and Arabs – do not even pretend to want unity. They want to win.

Yet we are told by microphone-wielding machinators that the only thing preventing unity is “the ego of politicians.” Usually the hint is that Blue and White should let Netanyahu stay in power for now; if only its leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid got over their ego then there could be a unity government. I have no doubt both have an ego, especially Lapid, but no, this is not the problem.

The problem attaches to the next exemplar of nonsense, which is the claim that there is no real difference between the two large parties other than competition over who will be prime minister. This is nonsense for the classic reason of not being true. This phenomenon is spreading in the democratic world.

Blue and White leads the center-left and Likud leads the right and they are very much divided on a host of issues that are central to the future of the country.

The right sees no problem in continued rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. The center-left may not withdraw the army tomorrow, but certainly would stop settling most the area with Jews because it will be hoping for a partition in the future. The right is leading to a binational state; the left might take security risks to preserve a Jewish-majority state.

The right is completely beholden to the religious parties, which it cannot rule without. This means more than continued draft-dodging. It means an ever-stronger presence of religion in public life and continued funding for Haredi schools which render an expanding proportion of the population almost unemployable in a modern economy. Down this path lie internal tensions a society with a huge numbers who didn’t study math, science of English. The other way lie urgent steps to fix the problem.

The right is determined to not embrace the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arabs into society at large. It is currently doing all in its power to suppress Arab voting and delegitimize Arab parties in the Knesset. Down this path likes a country in conflict with itself. Down the other, efforts at fairness and integration.

The right has signed onto the global populist movement lock, stock and barrel. In part this is because of Netanyahu’s tight alliance with Donald Trump. But it is also because much of its electorate is cut from that cloth: religious, insular, angry, less educated and relatively poor. Many distrust the media, don’t rate universities and are no fans of liberal democracy. This is not new in the short history of democracies: it happened in Italy and Spain in the early 20th century, versions of it happened in Latin America more recently, and it happens in Turkey and Russia today. So the right will continue its efforts to weaken the courts and the organs of state (except those that are beholden to the government). The center-left would immediately reverse course.

The right sees nothing wrong with Netanyahu – not with his above policies and not with his ethics. From the perspective of some of his voters he can continue to govern under indictment, from the courthouse and probably also from jail. Many will support this just to offend the other half of the country (a little like in the United States). As for that other half, most of them would like him out of office even if exonerated. They cannot stand another minute of his brand of hell-bent politics.

See vast tracts of common ground here?

You might say that precisely because the country is so badly divided, one half should not be disenfranchised. That’s a reasonable-sounding argument, but it’s not necessarily correct.

Consider that the half of the country that would like to change course that been frustrated and exiled from power for a decade. And, indeed, the right has ruled, despite very close elections, for most of the time by far since 1977. I count about 11 years of non-right rule in that time.

In general, a close decision is not illegitimate. Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by a few thousand votes in 1996, amid suspicions of fraud in the Haredi sector to boot. A direct vote for prime minister would probably also be very close today.

There is something odd in how often electorates divide neatly in half. The Brexit vote passed by 51.9% to 48.1%. Recep Teyyep Ergodan’s 2017 referendum consolidating power in Turkey won by 51.4% to 48.6% (if you believe the count).  As many will remember, Florida basically broke 50-50 in 2000, leading to George W. Bush’s selection along partisan lines in the US Supreme Court. Trump only lost to Hillary Clinton by 48% to 46%; he won because three states flipped, and in each the vote was very close to 50-50.

What is going on with all these close elections? It’s as if the universe, or God, is trying to teach us a lesson: it’s OK to win by a whisker. It’s OK to lose by a sliver. Take it with good grace. Stop saying the people want unity.

Unity might be reasonable in Israel at this time if it lasts a short time, enacts a revolutionary secular agenda and changes the electoral system to one that yields a result.

If that is not possible either, there is nothing tragic about another round soon. It would be absurd, of course, but contrary to the ravings of journalists and politicians, and of the president, a disaster it is not. Of all the claims being thrown around, that may be the most nonsensical of all.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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