Israel's March 17 Elections Will Be Historic (As Usual)

A new right wing government would be anti-liberal, anti-pluralist, anti-peace, anti-Arab and, yes, anti-democracy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Elections in Tel Aviv, January 22, 2013.
Elections in Tel Aviv, January 22, 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The upcoming March 17 Israeli elections will be “historic”, Tzipi Livni said this week. “Elections that will change the country’s course in the economy, social matters, security, and religion and state.”

She’s right of course. These elections are probably more decisive and crucial than ever. But then again, I’ve heard this refrain before, often from my own mouth. In the months leading up to each and every election we often claim that that this one is truly do or die, make or break, all or nothing. Maybe you could afford to be indifferent before, we tell our nonchalant friends and relatives, but there is no more room for complacency: this time, the elections are truly epoch-making.

There won’t be a second chance, we persist, there’s no turning back now. Israel has reached a critical juncture, a fork in the road. The country must decide between past and future, war and peace, justice or might, riches or ruin, democracy or theocracy, Zionism or fascism, a light unto the nations or a blot on Jewish history. The direction we take on [fill in the date] will chart Israel’s course for evermore.

In retrospect, of course, one can scoff at these overwrought forecasts: after all, the sky didn’t fall, the earth failed to shatter and life went on as before, with minimal and gradual fluctuations. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same, it seems, no matter who won the elections. You’re like Aesop’s boy who cries wolf, me and my fellow drama-queens are told.

To which there several responses: after all, the wolf ultimately did appear on the scene to eat the sheep (as well as the boy, according to some versions). And, notwithstanding the moral that Aesop wished to convey, it was the villagers who ultimately paid the price for ignoring the boy’s warnings. Moreover, the fable itself is irrelevant, because all of the prior prognoses of the life and death nature of past ballots have been amply borne out by subsequent events. In fact, they were right on target.

Not only were these elections historic but their gravity is cumulative, with each decision not only setting the stage but actually amplifying the momentousness of the following one. It’s a process portrayed in the Chad Gadya allegory of the Passover Hagaddah, or, for the more spiritually inclined, in the Buddhist principle of the chain of causation known as Prattyasamutpda. In the Israeli case, the philosophy of comedian George Carlin is also relevant: “‘One thing leads to another?’ Not always. Sometimes one thing leads to the same thing. Ask an addict.”

Because while some countries politics operate on the principle of a pendulum that swings back and forth, in Israel, even though it doesn’t always seem that way, the decisions of the past few decades have all been leading in one, single, dangerous direction.

If Yitzhak Rabin had not eked out a victory in 1992 there would have been no Oslo, no return of the PLO, no assassination and possibly no suicide bombings; if Benjamin Netanyahu hadn’t narrowly beaten Shimon Peres in 1996 as a result, Oslo might have worked or a peace agreement may have been signed with Syria; if Barak hadn’t won in 1999 because of Netanyahu’s inaction, Israeli forces might still be mired in Lebanon but there would have been no Camp David, no second intifada and no right wing lurch by the Israeli center; without these, Ariel Sharon would not have triumphed in 2001, 2003 (and, in spirit, in Olmert’s victory in 2006), and then there might not have been a wall of separation or a Gaza disengagement or a Hamas takeover or a failed Annapolis summit; and without all of these, peace with the Palestinians might still be promising, relations with Israeli Arabs might not have reached a nadir, ethno-supremacy could be waning instead of gaining and someone other than Netanyahu might have been elected prime minister when Barack Obama took office.

In such a scenario, Israeli-U.S. relations would have been in a better place than they are today, the peace process could have arguably flourished and not floundered and we would not have had Netanyahu’s six years that have brought us to this dangerous juncture and, of course, to these historic elections.

They are just as momentous as preceding ballots, of course, but even more so; just as historic, but many times over; just as decisive, but more sharply-defined than before. Today’s “right wing victory” does not mean the same thing as it did only a few short years ago: the bulk of the MK’s of the two-party Likud-Jewish Home bloc that would run a new right-wing coalition are more emphatically anti-liberal, anti-pluralist, anti-peace, anti-Arab and, yes, anti-democracy than ever before. Such a government will be more determined than ever to change Israel to their liking, once and for all.

And if they are elected, things will hardly be the same: Israel will be hard put to even pretend that it is a partner for peace, international pressure and boycotts will increase exponentially and this, in the short term at least, will lead to more insularity and intolerance at home. That part of American Jewry that still takes an interest in Israel will, needless to say, split at the seams.

You’re exaggerating, you might say; things aren’t all that bad, and nothing is irreversible anyway. You’ve cried wolf before, they will taunt me, and it has yet to show up. Which reminds me of the hackneyed story told by Vin, played by the late and great Steve McQueen, in the Hollywood classic Magnificent Seven: “Reminds me of that fella back home who fell off a ten-story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, "So far, so good." Heh, so far, so good.”

Which is another way of framing the upcoming ballot, as a showdown between the “so far, so good” flank that thinks everything is hunky-dory and time is on Israel’s side and the Cassandra-killjoys - of which I am, admittedly, one - who are frantic because the ground is fast approaching and the crash is almost is at hand.

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