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These curious non-elections

With a clearly apparent outcome, the campaign is tiresome, superfluous, and inevitable -- but the vote isn't over, after all, and the results may yet surprise us
A man walks past an election campaign poster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 1, 2019. (Debbie Hill/UPI)
A man walks past an election campaign poster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 1, 2019. (Debbie Hill/UPI)

Israel’s second round of general elections this year is fast developing a distinctly apolitical aura. From the outset, all the key substantive elements of electoral campaigns have been shunted to the sidelines, first in favor of a narrative obsessed with party rearrangements (mergers, splits, shakeups, readjustments) and then — now that the list of contestants has been submitted and the lines drawn — with the heady challenges of post-September 17 coalition-construction. Lost in the shuffle is the stuff that campaigns are made of: common aspirations, competing visions, burning issues, citizen concerns, alternative agendas, and even varying leadership styles.

The story being woven around these critical polls is being spun by a coalition of politicians, pollsters and prominent pundits who have a virtual stranglehold over the depiction of what is happening and what it means. Channels 11, 12 and 13, along with the main print and digital outlets, are colluding (through polls they design and generate) with party leaders in the molding of a contentless electoral tale which points to a seemingly inevitable outcome: a national unity government that will bring together the main rival factions under a common umbrella. The only apparent unknown is who will stand at its helm. It’s as if the outcome is already known and the campaign is a tiresome and superfluous non-event, reinforcing the inevitability of it all.

But is everything as predetermined as it seems? Are these elections doomed to follow the script that is currently being written? Can other endings be imagined and eventually prevail? Will the dynamic follow the consciously soporific story designed to lull the electorate into a prolonged late-summer slumber? Or is it not too late to revive these elections, imbue them with meaning, and confound the self-styled experts? Only the overburdened and increasingly distressed electorate has the answers: it can go along with the dominant narrative or create a far more effective and game-changing alternative by reminding all those involved that only it holds the key to the results and therefore that its hopes, needs and deep-seated preferences must be taken into account during what’s left of this seemingly preordained campaign.

The prologue of the unfolding narrative was drafted immediately after the newly-elected 21st Knesset dispersed itself on May 30, 2019, exactly a month after it was ceremoniously sworn in. This was the first time in Israel’s history that the candidate for prime minister failed to form a coalition. It is the first time that repeat elections have been called — and this in the same calendar year. It is also the first time ever that elections will be held in September — a month traditionally devoted to the opening of the school year and to the commencement of the Jewish holiday season. This unprecedented and somewhat bizarre constellation immediately raises the central question: can September 17 differ from April 9, and if so, how?

The storyline is proceeding rapidly in several clearly defined segments, the first of which, focusing on the determination of the precise party configurations set to compete at the ballot box, has just been completed. Much was made of the potential significance of the form and composition of the party-political map, with special attention given until the very last moment to the shifts in the makeup of the parties to the right and to the left of the two leading lists — Likud and the Blue-White party. When the deadline for the presentation of the slates for the 22nd Knesset ended late on the first day of August, however, it became clear that with all the fanfare accompanying the almost frenetic reshuffling efforts, very little realignment actually took place.

To be sure, some old partnerships were renewed (The Joint Arab list, Labor-Gesher), new mergers were forged (The Democratic Union, the United Right), existing parties were disbanded (Kulanu), and several were forced to go it alone (most notably Otzma Yehudit). The composition of most lists — with the exception of Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and United Torah Judaism — was somewhat altered as changes were made in candidate selection and placement (with significant shifts occurring in the newly merged formations with the addition of many new faces). The essential divisions in the Israeli political landscape, nevertheless, remain very much the same, begging the question of the meaning of these structural adaptations.

Part II of the narrative, centering on the nature of the post-election coalition, began almost immediately after the culmination of the orchestrated drama surrounding the consolidation of the party slates. This phase is driven by three interlocking assumptions/aspirations: 1) that the results of the September 17th ballot need not replicate those of its April 9th predecessor; 2) that the current situation appears to be hopelessly deadlocked; and 3) that nobody wants (and that the system cannot endure) yet another, third, round of elections. In these circumstances, all eyes are now focused on predetermining the character of the next government, with a marked preference being given to a national unity construct consisting of Blue-White, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu — with the order still to be determined.

The fixation on the formation of a national unity government even before the polling begins suffers from several obvious drawbacks. It attempts to channel voter choices by strongly favoring strategic considerations over substantive concerns. It thereby effectively skirts the importance of a robust election campaign. And it almost a priori precludes the possibility of effective change. Yet this narrative, however quickly it is being etched as a hegemonic part of the public imagination in the absence of any other, believable and alluring, tale, rests on very flimsy ground indeed. In all the latest polls, over 50 percent of the voters consistently oppose such an eventuality. What the story-tellers are crafting therefore not only contradicts the inclinations of the majority of the electorate, it has a potent numbing effect on their realization.

Under these circumstances, the foundation for the third section of the narrative, concerned with the identity of the next leader, is being developed while the second portion has still to be finalized. Just yesterday all the first forty Likud candidates, at the instigation of former coalition leader David Bitan, declared: “We the undersigned candidates on the Likud list for the 22nd Knesset underscore that we will not receive any dictation from any other party. Without regard to the results of the elections, Prime Minister and Chairman of the Likud Binyamin Netanyahu is the Likud’s only candidate for prime minister, and there will be no other candidate.”

This loyalty pledge is designed to achieve a threefold goal: to impose absolute fealty to the leader; to preempt the construction of any government (be it a right-wing or a national unity one) without the present prime minister at its helm; and to offer Mr. Netanyahu further protection from prosecution on pending charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In effect, it erases any remaining distinction between the Likud party and the man who stands at its head, while simultaneously wedding his name to any future ruling coalition. Even though this part of the story is still in the making, it seeks to pit all other possible scenarios against one dominated by the continuation of the status quo — both politically and personally. In the process, it stultifies creativity, further limits options and, consequently attempts to dictate just one ultimate outcome (ironically tying the results to voter turnout — its capacity to sell its story).

The final segment, however transparent it may appear, has yet to be written. The campaign is not over and the results are not in, and until they are, the script can still be changed and what seems today to be a more than obvious denouement may be altered. This is precisely the point in the story where new twists can be inserted into the tale and the inevitable transformed into the questionable.

For this to happen, the presently dissociated narrative of these elections must be reconnected in new and compelling ways to the four most essential constitutive components of election campaigns. This means that it has to be linked to the concerns and mood of a rapidly disenchanted constituency; to the dynamic environment unfolding domestically, regionally and internationally on a daily basis; to the subsequent priorities and approaches presented by the various parties; and, yes, also to the background, qualifications, and personalities of those vying for the highest office.

Such innovative ingredients can, in the course of the next few weeks, be inserted into the plot by citizens who are fast becoming bored readers (if not disinterested bystanders) scarcely able to open, let alone get through, the text. They can thus — as forthcoming columns will illustrate — substantially change the conclusion. If they do not, the narrative will reach its predictable and unsatisfying end, with its equally inevitable, regressive, epilogue.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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