Israelis Chose Security Over Democracy

By glossing over the electorate’s existential fears, the center-left did not offer Israeli voters a viable alternative to Netanyahu.

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Campaign poster of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

Most commentary about the elections has focused on election tactics, on Benjamin Netanyahu’s genius in managing the campaign, and about the mistakes the center-left made. All the hype about the the Zionist Union’s lead during the final stages of the campaign and the focus on its leader Isaac Herzog and on Netanyahu, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Shas leader Arye Dery and others ignores one simple fact.

Throughout the campaign there was never a moment in which there was a realistic chance for a center-left government. It was always clear that Herzog/Livni needed the centrist parties, including the right-leaning [Kulanu leader Moshe] Kahlon and [Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor] Lieberman in addition to the ultra-Orthodox to get at best a tiny majority, and chances were very slim that Meretz and Lapid could reach compromises with Shas and United Torah Judaism. The best that could conceivably have happened would have been a unity government.

The result of this election says something very important about Israel today. Only three parties are fully committed to Israel as a Western, liberal democracy with separation of state and religion and fully equal rights for all citizens independent of ethnicity and religion: The Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Meretz, who together have less than 40 of the 120 seats in the upcoming Knesset.

Most Israelis now believe that they need to choose between security and democracy, and the Israeli electorate has spoken clearly: It prefers security. As a result Netanyahu is about to form the most extreme right-wing government in Israeli history without a centrist party that serves as a fig leaf and provides international legitimacy.

Only about one third of Jewish Israelis want a state that implements the core ideas of Western-style liberal democracy. All other parties are willing to sacrifice some aspect of such a democracy.

Netanyahu’s Likud has been trying for six years to impose restrictions on freedom of speech through various anti-liberal laws. Lieberman has made it very clear that he wants an Israel “clean of Arabs.” Both Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would be very happy to create an Israel in which voices that dissent from their vision of Israel as a purely Jewish state could finally be silenced.

Then we have the two ultra-Orthodox parties and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. These parties would be very happy if Israel would cease to be a Western-style democracy altogether. Instead they want to expand the control the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment already has over marriage, conversion and other matters of personal status, and to turn Israel into some form of theocracy ruled halakha as determined by Orthodox rabbis.

Ari Shavit is mistaken in arguing that the “White Tribe” was stupid because it didn’t unite under one banner. This would not have changed Israel’s basic demographic structure, in which the majority of Jews have become increasingly nationalistic and religious.

There is a very simple reason for this development: Fear. Israelis look around and see the Middle East falling apart. Israel will be surrounded by failed states in which warlords and radical Islamist organizations like Islamic State and Al-Qaida fight for hegemony.

This is indeed frightening, and most Israelis react as all nations do when they feel threatened: They become nationalist, racist, and intolerant of minorities, and they begin to hate pluralism and dissent. They want a unified nation without open political discourse that raises questions of principle, primarily whether Israel’s democracy can survive in the long run if the occupation is not ended.

In these elections the center-left tried hard to avoid Israel’s big existential questions. This strategy was based on the mistaken assumption that if elections are fought on social-economic issues, the center-left can win – and this backfired.

Israel’s center-left must rethink its strategy and find ways to address Israelis’ deep-seated existential fears head on and stop trying to push Israel’s security issues off the agenda. Only if Israelis feel that the center-left will take care of Israelis’ security better than the political right, will Israel’s electorate no longer feel that it needs to choose between democracy and security. Only then does the center-left have a chance to regain power and to safeguard Israel’s democracy.