A strange and complex argument has been heard lately among Israelis who don’t support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies. It goes like this: Because it's more or less obvious that he will be the next Prime Minister, there’s no point voting in the election. Additionally, because of the split in the center-left camp – painted in the press with psychological jargon as personal rivalries and ego trips – many are confused and don’t know who to vote for.
The first argument is baseless. In elections between 1949 and 1977 it was fairly clear that the biggest party – Mapai and later the Labor Party – would be the winner and would form the government. Did supporters of the far-left Mapam, right-wing Herut or the General Zionists stay home?
On the contrary, precisely because Mapai and its leaders – during that time, mostly David Ben-Gurion – would form the coming government, there was significant opposition against them to influence the coalition and subsequent government policy. In years when the strength of the General Zionists grew and they joined the government, policies swerved more in the direction of the private sector. In cases where Mapam or Ahdut Haavoda grew stronger, they tended to join the government and pull policies toward expanding social services. Despite the supposedly uncontested dominance of Mapai, the party paid attention to election results and reflected electoral trends, expressed in shifts to the right or left.
The lesson for our times is clear: Even if Netanyahu and Likud-Beiteinu assemble the next government, the makeup of that government and its policies will be influenced by the relative strength of the center-left parties. In light of this, it's worth examining the opposition one by one.
Meretz: Meretz’s positions are definitive. It declares them with integrity and there is no doubt that it won’t be a partner in the next government. So whoever votes for Meretz will certainly have a clear conscience. On a personal level, this good feeling bears much psychological weight, but it won’t change political reality one iota. In regards to Israel’s future policy, such as relations with the Palestinians, the question of whether Meretz will have three or six MKs is meaningless.
Choosing a party because of one's personal comfort zone, rather than considering the influence of one's vote on the bigger picture, is in practice privatizing the meaning of voting and citizenship. There is a narcissistic preference in this decision to value personal comfort over shaping political reality.
Yesh Atid: Yesh Atid is a nice party, or perhaps not so nice, made up of guys with mostly no political, management or organizational experience. However, some of them actually aren’t so bad at talking. If the slogan “equal burden” is common to all, it is hard to see how their presence in the government – whether it has seven or nine MKs – will change anything in the face of such strong religious and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Voting for Yesh Atid is a luxury whose effect on the post-election political landscape will be negligible. The presumptuous claims of its party head, Yair Lapid, that as education minister he will stir an educational revolution only proves that he doesn’t know or understand the problematic reality of the Israeli education system. This reality is born of, among many things, a priority list that daily becomes more and more nationalistic, the power of the teachers unions, pressure by parents and of course the division of the educational system to cater to different populations. We haven’t heard a word about these issues.
Hatnuah: Hatnuah's leader claims that not only does her party have the only realistic chance of negotiating with the Palestinians, but that if it leads it will reach a deal with the PA. It’s a claim made of equal parts wishes, delusions and even deception.
When Tzipi Livni was foreign minister in Ehud Olmert’s government, the two negotiated intensively with Mahmoud Abbas and, despite good will on both sides, they failed. It turned out that when you reach the core issues – borders, the future of 250,000 Jews living in the West Bank, Jerusalem, refugees and the right of return, and security arrangements – the gap between the most moderate Israeli position and the most moderate Palestinian position is still very big.
Livni’s claim that all she needed was a little more time is no better than Yossi Beilin’s claim that more time was needed after Camp David in 2000. It doesn't match the facts that the gaps were too big and the sides couldn't overcome them. Livni also can't respond to the issue of how to reach a deal with Abbas when he happens to be growing closer to Hamas. Whoever votes for Livni votes for an illusion.
Labor: In contrast to Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, which are ephemeral lists that are here today and will blow away tomorrow, Labor represents an ideological and political position with deep roots in Israeli society as an alternative locus of power to the political right. For all the criticism by some of Shelly Yacimovich’s moves, there is no denying her achievement in rehabilitating the party, even though she perhaps went too far in her almost exclusive focus on the social-economic realm. Of course, you also can't ignore that honing Labor’s dovish positions in the past brought neither victories nor voters and sometimes even made it look like a second Meretz.
It’s impossible to know if Labor will join a Netanyahu-led government. At this point, it doesn't matter. That only becomes relevant when the post-election balance of power is known. Right now, one thing is clear: an increase in Labor’s power will have real political repercussions.
If Labor does join the government, the larger its presence is, the better its chances to guide socioeconomic policy to achieve the goals of the social justice protests: strengthening the social-democratic aspect of government policy and checking unbridled capitalism. If Labor joins the government, it will learn from Amir Peretz’s mistake and pursue representation in socioeconomic ministries. It’s unlikely, given relative strength, that Netanyahu would agree to surrender the Finance Ministry. However, if, for example Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog would head the Labor, Social Affairs and Industry and Trade ministries, it could shift the balance between those who believe in social solidarity as a pillar of Zionism and those who believe in Thatcher and Reagan.
And if Labor stays in the opposition, it is important that it is as strong as possible. Thus, the question of whether it will have 17 or 22 seats is important.
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