A Legitimate Election, and How

Quality of respecting democratic decisions has seriously eroded here - an erosion that causes deep concern among everyone interested in the welfare of the State of Israel.

A proper culture of governance is a hallmark of a healthy democracy and well-run country. The obligation to respect democratic decisions made in accordance with accepted constitutional rules in that country, internalize them and accept them is one of the most basic foundations of a proper culture of governance. But in the last few years, this quality has seriously eroded here - an erosion that causes deep concern among everyone interested in the welfare of the State of Israel.

A striking example of this dangerous erosion can be seen in the current flood of discussion, reports and chatter about Tzipi Livni's lack of legitimacy - "moral legitimacy" or "public legitimacy" - as prime minister. The arguments attempting to undermine the legitimacy of Livni's election and her moral authority to head a government that will receive the Knesset's vote of confidence are unfounded, and the reasons backing the arguments are vacuous.

The inability to respect a decision made at the polls - even by a single vote, not to mention 431 votes - as well as the pointless arguments, bordering on absurdity, that the prime minister was chosen by "0.54 percent of the country" or that this is a "substitute for a substitute" indicate either a basic lack of understanding of our government's foundations or a deep moral flaw. These arguments don't have an ounce of truth and have no factual or ethical basis.

No one questioned the legitimacy of Moshe Sharett or Levi Eshkol when they were elected to replace David Ben-Gurion, after his resignation, by a few hundred Mapai Central Committee votes, and no one questioned Golda Meir's legitimacy after the central committee chose her to replace Eshkol when he died. We heard no demands for new elections, and rightly so, when Yitzhak Rabin was chosen by the Labor Party's central committee to replace Meir as prime minister by a few dozen votes in his race against Shimon Peres. Kadima, led by Ehud Olmert, won the Knesset election, and Olmert formed a government that still has the Knesset's vote of confidence. Olmert, who is not anybody's substitute, announced his intention to resign, and Tzipi Livni was chosen to replace him in elections in which all Kadima members were eligible to vote. There can be no process more democratic, and more legitimate, than that.

In democratic countries, a difference of 1 percent is quite acceptable. There are many presidents and prime ministers who have served and currently serve thanks to such a margin, or even a smaller one. We didn't hear objections to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in 1996 when he beat Peres by less than half a percent (although then, too, there were charges of irregularities and double voting at polling stations in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods).

George W. Bush became U.S. president in 2000, even though his opponent got 500,000 more votes than him, because the Americans know how to respect their constitution, which states that the president is chosen by the Electoral College rather than the popular vote. Moreover, Bush had a dubious victory in Florida, where he won by 200 votes out of more than 1 million. But America accepted his becoming president, with all the authority the job entails. And thanks to that election, he led the American people into two wars.

If Tzipi Livni manages to form a government and win the Knesset's confidence, she will enjoy complete legitimacy and have the full moral authority to decide tomorrow about bombing Iran or recapturing Gaza, as well as about signing the shelf agreement with the Palestinians, which involves an extensive withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.