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Vote for a bloc!

If Israelis consolidate into major parties, the extremists won't be able to hold the government captive with their veto power
Illustrative. Knesset members vote on amendments to the proposed Jewish nation-state bill at the Knesset, July 16, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative. Knesset members vote on amendments to the proposed Jewish nation-state bill at the Knesset, July 16, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel is about to enter a period of media-fueled madness, running through Election Day. The political roller-coaster is gunning its motor before taking Israelis on a wild ride full of surprises, leading up to the election of the national engine-driver. Before we get carried away by the colorful details of the plot however, we should turn our gaze away from the next edition of the news, and look at the big picture.

Every single issue will be raised during the campaign — all the concrete matters typical of the Israeli discourse: the territories, settlements, and treatment of the Palestinians; security on the borders and IDF operations; the tension between religion and state, including the draft of the ultra-Orthodox; the socio-economic gaps and high cost of living; relations between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel; the widening split between Israel and Diaspora Jewry; and more. All these will of course be discussed and debated. And yet, when most Israelis cast their ballots, it won’t be in order to decide on any of these issues.

Why is this so? Because elections in Israel are about personalities, not issues. One brand, “Bibi,” and the emotions it stirs up, will compete with other brands, some of them familiar old-timers on the scene, others new and dazzling unknown agendas. When one out of eight citizens have said they will vote for Benny Gantz, a man whose views on the key issues remained a mystery until Tuesday night, it is clear that it is the personality who counts, and not the politician’s agenda. The same goes for the other candidates vying to lead the country, whose principled and strong opinions change from time to time, fading in and out like the Cheshire cat, while only their brand name, the wrapper they have created around themselves, remains constant. Even though a complex reality is pounding on Israel`s doors, Israelis prefer to ignore it and vote for personalities and images.

But even in a world of brands, Israelis must vote rationally and intelligently. The great task before all — right and left, religious and secular, Jew and Arab — is to break down the veto power that the extremists among us wield over the center on various fronts. These centrifugal forces will only be restrained if the public at large casts its ballots for the large blocs. If Israelis will consolidate into only two parties, one on the left and the other on the right — or, more realistically, four parties, including the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs — the majority in each will propose a centrist agenda based on its world view and interests.

In contrast to the current reality, in this situation, the right-wing majority will not be held captive by extremists demanding that Israel “annex Damascus, and now!” The majority on the left will be able to shake off the grip of the radicals who want to strip the country of its Jewish identity in the name of a spurious equality; and the majority among the ultra-Orthodox will be able to accept a draft arrangement it finds reasonable, such as the one currently being proposed.

If enough Israelis tell the pollsters that they have a strong preference for large blocs, the mechanisms of the political market will push the candidates to join forces. Egocentric brands will have to tame their impulses if they understand that they are liable to fade into the distance if they do not cede their leadership and unite with others. The currently muted voice of the center of each significant ideological camp will regain its leadership positions.

An important byproduct of consolidation into large blocs would be the fortification of Israeli democracy. Recent years have seen an organized campaign to undermine the legitimacy of its guardians and sentinels — the courts, Attorney general, police, and other oversight agencies. The extremists on the right have been spearheading this onslaught, but on the far left too, challenges to these systems when their decisions are not to its liking are becoming more frequent. Nevertheless, as the polls show, majorities on both the left and the right do put their trust in the gatekeepers. Consolidation into large blocs would make it possible to form a broad coalition of those who respect the rule of law, both on the left and on the right; both in the government coalition and in the opposition; so that the underpinnings of our democracy, which have recently been weakened by the extremists’ assault, can be mended.

The fact is that the context of Israel`s national life is one of constant debate. When the debate is managed by extremists, it leads to the breakdown of society, to a spurious split into “loyalists” and “traitors,” to a debilitation of democracy and its institutions, and to an attack on Israel`s national cohesion and resilience. This damage can be abated and repaired if the center regains control of the agenda; and then — the debate will be a great blessing for all. Israel needs one small change to achieve such a giant effect: Vote for a bloc! 

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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