First posted in the Los Angeles Times
With most of the votes counted, the Israeli election appears to be tipping toward centrist candidate Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party, and away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud. Still, it appears that Israel’s leaders and parties will be forced into complicated, convoluted coalition negotiations and, with neither the right-wing nor center-left bloc able to easily form a coalition, the final outcome may not be known for many weeks.
But this much can be said: The victor is Israeli democracy.
The assault against democratic norms sweeping across the globe has been stopped here. The nightmare scenario of a government dominated by a nationalist-religious coalition led by Netanyahu, which would have included the most racist fringe elements of Israeli society, has been averted.
Under threat of indictment in three corruption cases, Netanyahu had begun to treat Israeli democracy as an obstacle to his goals. He tried to turn the election into a personal referendum. No tactic seemed beneath him. He bullied reporters and all but labeled the media an enemy of the state. He treated the racist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party as a legitimate ruling partner.
At the same time, Netanyahu tried to delegitimize Israel’s Arab citizens — 20 percent of the country’s population — repeatedly warning his supporters of the “threat” of a massive Arab voter turnout, as though citizens exercising their democratic rights were a threat to democracy. He even tried to pass a law that would allow the installation of cameras in Arab polling places, with the clear purpose of deterring Arabs from voting with the threat of government surveillance.
The Knesset rejected the “camera bill” — the first indication that Israeli democracy was fighting back. And Arab Israelis responded to Netanyahu’s intimidation like citizens of a free country, voting in larger-than-expected numbers, diminishing the right-wing bloc.
Even more explicit threats to Israel’s democratic culture came from parties to the right of Likud that Netanyahu courted. Jewish Power hinted at its goal of mass expulsion of Palestinians. Yemina (To the Right) campaigned for granting the Knesset veto power over Supreme Court decisions. It promised to “deal with” the terrorist group Hamas and in the same breath, the Supreme Court, as though the latter, too, were a security threat to Israel. (To be fair, an activist court, since curtailed, had alienated many Israelis with its anti-religious liberalism and its interference in the army’s decision making.)
At the ballot box, Israelis rejected the right’s sweeping indictment of democratic institutions and norms. Yemina emerged from the election a minor party, whose leaders abruptly formed splinter factions. And Jewish Power didn’t even make it across the electoral threshold. The rule of law, and moral sanity, has held.
This election’s most tangible challenge to Israeli democracy was Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank. In a last desperate bid to draw votes from the smaller parties to his right, he pledged to extend Israeli law to settlements and to annex the Jordan Valley, Israel’s eastern border — moves that would almost certainly destroy whatever slender chance remains for a two-state solution. The result would be the forcible incorporation into Israeli society of several million Palestinians, who would likely be denied the rights of citizenship. That would mean the end of Israel’s delicate balancing act between its twin identities as a Jewish and a democratic state.
Given Netanyahu’s apparent inability to form a narrow right-wing coalition, Israel has been spared, for now, that apocalyptic threat. The occupation of the Palestinians remains a long-term challenge to the credibility of Israeli democracy. But most Israelis are far more focused on the country’s immediate security problems. Arguably no country faces the intensity of threat Israelis take for granted. Terrorist enclaves aligned with Iran are entrenched on almost every Israeli border. Nor do most Israelis believe that a credible peace partner currently exists on the Palestinian side.
Tellingly, the strongest opposition to the right has emerged not from an also-diminished left but from an invigorated political center. Most Israelis regard the left as dangerously naive on security matters. By contrast, the Blue and White Party, led by Gantz and two other former Israel Defense Forces commanders in chief, emphasizes security along with democratic norms. No less than Likud, Blue and White is acutely mindful of the threats facing the state.
Israel’s existential challenge remains: It must prevent a further erosion of security along its fraught borders, while keeping open the option of a Palestinian state and preserving its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. As of this writing, the political system faces more questions than answers. Will Netanyahu remain head of Likud? Can the two main rivals, Blue and White and Likud, form a viable national unity government?
For now, though, Israelis and their friends abroad deserve a moment of celebration. This election was good news for Israel and good news for the future of embattled democracies everywhere.