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Israel Election: As Groundhog Election Blurs Left From Right, the Real Danger Lies in the Quiet Consensus

Election results might kill the superficial debate over Netanyahu or Gantz; what will remain is unanimous agreement on foreign policy, annexation and disdain for Israel’s Arab community

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Kahol Lavan rival Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Kahol Lavan rival Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

UPDATE: Israel election results: Netanyahu two seats away from majority with 90 percent of votes counted

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

During the last 11 months’ three consecutive campaigns, a quiet election has taken place that has sealed Israel’s future long before the final vote tallies, and whether there is a decisive outcome or not. The number of parties narrowed, positions were clarified, the camps were consolidated – and an Israeli consensus slowly emerged.

The interstices between what separates the camps from one another, the topics they argue about – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing style, the future of democracy and the legal system, the separation of religion and state – hides what, for better or worse, unites them. The issues about which they never argue. When the struggle is primarily between two large formations, each bloc must preserve as broad an agreement as possible among its own ranks, certainly when the component parties are headed by undisputed leaders, whether they hold primaries or not.

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That’s how the multiplicity of voices and teeming internal arguments that are a routine part of political discourse end up being silenced in the face of the greater battle for public opinion. When campaigns never end, everything is flattened and packed into uniform boxes until that seems to be the only reality.

The third round of elections showed there is a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus on diplomatic and security issues, whether the winner is Netanyahu's Likud, Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan, or neither. From Iran to an annexed Jordan Valley, via the Gaza Strip, by embracing the settlements and denouncing international institutions, endless electoral rifts didn’t generate any alternative proposals, but rather left the existing status quo more firmly entrenched.

One promises to attack more, the other claims that the first is afraid to attack, but the concept is the same. The portion of the Jewish public that explicitly calls for diplomatic solutions, not to mention for ending the occupation as a moral position, has shrunken during these successive elections into a tiny subsection of the left. Real debate over economic issues has also disappeared.

Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit at the party's campaign launch in Jerusalem, July 6, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Another Israeli reality that has become intractable has been the public's acceptance of far-right faction Otzma Yehudit as politically legitimate, while the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties is rejected and denounced. Under the auspices of Likud, the Israeli mainstream has swallowed the racist Itamar Ben-Gvir pill and moved on, while Kahol Lavan has endorsed the illegitimacy of a public political partnership with the party representing most of Israel’s Arab citizens. Meanwhile, we’ve again witnessed Israel’s liberal anomaly – a fairly wide consensus on embracing the LGBTQ community and promoting environmental issues.

The bottom line is that, if the battle did intensify between the two leading contenders on specific issues, on others the race was actually a barometer of how the Israeli polity as a whole now leans decidedly toward the conservative right.

The focus on the differences between the two camps also dominated the media discourse, which increasingly promoted the thesis of two distinct Israeli populations, using terms “First Israel” and “Second Israel.” As usual, statistics were harnessed to prove social trends.

Benjamin Netanyahu addressing supporters after the general election, Tel Aviv, September 18, 2019. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But human nature, as Hannah Arendt warned, is too complex and unpredictable for modern science, which seeks to fit people into trends that are too wide, and thus draw conclusions that are too broad. Even if some characteristics do set the two main “tribes” apart in today’s Israel, they also have a lot in common, and this is not emphasized enough when the focus is only on the differences. That’s also the case regarding deviations that are not spoken about. After all, even within society’s smallest unit, the individual, the contradictions are endless; it is also certainly true of a group. “First” and “Second Israel” are wedged into the same outfits primarily by politicians and researchers who feed on each other to create collectives that are as uniform as possible.

Numerous alarm bells were rung this year, warning of the advent of fascism and totalitarianism, and countless comparisons with past events were made, none of them relevant because history, even if it’s cyclical, is never identical. But the 20th century proved that the real threat to democracy occurs when a dominant ideology with a monopoly over communications is flanked by a formal or informal thought police, both spawning scientific theories that promote collectivist theses over pluralistic, individual approaches.

It doesn’t really matter what this third election yields; one must hope that it will be decisive enough to allow us to return to more nuanced discussions over core issues, not just the superficial ones that tell Gantz and Netanyahu apart. One must hope that we will be able to get back to challenging the consensus that has emerged in the center of Israel’s political spectrum – particularly in the realm of diplomacy and security, and Jewish-Arab relations

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