Opinion

Yes, Netanyahu Won. And No, Israel's Democracy Didn't Just Die

Forget the hysteria, trolls and ignorance: The threat to an already faulty Israeli democracy has now intensified, but this was one of the most democratic elections we've ever had

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters with his wife Sara at his Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019
AFP

The biggest surprise of this election for me was that Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t win by a landslide.

His party, Likud, received less than 27 percent of the national vote despite all his "Gevalt!" exhortations. Almost the same number of Israelis voted for Benny Gantz, an inexperienced newcomer to politics, who was running with the sole aim of replacing Netanyahu.

Altogether, Netanyahu’s coalition will have 64 or 65 seats in the new Knesset. He is the most successful Israeli politician since David Ben Gurion. He has delivered a decade of interrupted economic growth. His last term has seen four of the calmest years in Israel’s history, and he is now on close terms with the most powerful leaders in the world.

And despite all that, 47 percent of Israelis voted on Tuesday for parties sworn to kick Netanyahu out of office.

As many have observed, this was not an election about issues, but a referendum on Netanyahu. He fought it tooth and nail, using every dirty trick in the book, shamelessly smearing Gantz - whom he had actually appointed as IDF chief of staff and fulsomely praised, before he became a political rival - with fake news reports and innuendo.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz addresses his supporters after Israeli general elections polls closed. April 10, 2019 in Tel Aviv
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

On Election Day, Likud carried out a classic voter-intimidation exercise with the "hidden" cameras its "observers" so blatantly tried to take into Arab polling stations.

And despite having two massive bully pulpits as prime minister and defense minister; despite pushing every panic-button, telling every lie, blowing on any racist dog-whistle he could find and every bit of help he got from Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, and facing a badly coordinated and often hapless opposition, the best he could eke out was a narrow 53-47 win.

Nearly half of Israeli voters voted against the man who has kept them safe and made them more prosperous over the last ten years. They were prepared to vote for party leaders with next-to-no relevant experience, all of them obviously less talented campaigners, politicians and statesmen than Netanyahu.

I’m one of the 47 percent who voted against Netanyahu, and I’m pretty depressed he won. But I can’t for the life of me see how the result is the death of Israeli democracy, as some are now writing in op-ed columns and on social media.

Israeli democracy is, of course, a severely limited one. For the past 51 years Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians who haven’t got a right to vote for the government that controls their fate. But within the confines of the Green Line, this election campaign and its results was no less democratic than any of the other 14 that have taken place since 1967. In fact, it was probably one of the most democratic we’ve had.

This was an election in which we had an attorney-general publish a 70-page dossier of evidence on the most intimate details of how the prime minister and his family conducted allegedly illegal dealings with tycoons.

An election in which there were more journalists and civil society organizations watching out for the incumbent’s abuse of power. To be sure, there were plenty of journalists friendly to Netanyahu and right-wing NGOs working on his behalf as well; if the media had only been on one side, that wouldn’t have been very democratic either.

An election in which the Central Election Commission repeatedly ruled against Likud and other coalition parties when they stepped out of line.

For all Netanyahu and his allies' many trespasses, things are so much better today than when the media was much more one-sided and the resources of the kibbutz movement and the trade unions were all deployed in the service of the left’s parties.

A dog sits in front of a Kachol Lavan party billboard near a polling station in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 9, 2019
\ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

This was an election in which nearly every strand of opinion in Israel (except for the most blatant racism of Michael Ben Ari, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court) was represented, including Ra'am-Balad, the only list in the world on which both ultra-secular Arab nationalists and devout Islamists were running on the same ticket.

Ultimately, the center-left parties of the anti-Netanyahu opposition simply didn’t deserve to win. They ran disjointed, weak campaigns. Very few of the opposition’s Jewish politicians made even a token gesture towards Israeli Arab voters, without whom any meaningful democratic change is all but impossible. Small wonder that turnout among Arab voters was twenty percent lower than the national rate.

And yet, Netanyahu barely won.

All it needed was for less than four percent of voters to shift, just 150,000 of them. If that small swing had happened and Netanyahu had lost 49-51, we’d have been reading a hundred columns and thousands of Facebook posts on how Israeli democracy has been saved. Just like that.

None of this means that the threats to Israeli democracy, especially to the best parts of it, the transparency and robustness of the electoral process, the independence of the courts and law-enforcement agencies and freedom of expression and the press, are not under threat. They are, and Netanyahu’s victory and his determination to cling on to power, mean that the threat has intensified. But it is still very much alive.

Supporters of the Israeli Likud Party celebrate as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to them at its headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night on April 9, 2019
AFP

There is something very misleading about the expectations that flow from the standard hasbara line of "the only democracy in the Middle East." It conjures up an image of a western liberal democratic society, which Israel never was – no, not even in the days of Labor’s rule, when, if anything, it was less democratic than it is today.

Perhaps the emphasis should be on the second part of that sentence. Israel is in the Middle East, most of its citizens and their parents were born here and therefore its faulty democracy is in many ways much better than we could have expected it to be. That doesn’t mean we should ever stop clamoring to improve it, but what it already is should not be taken for granted.

Foreign observers, especially Jews living in the English-speaking world for the past century who have had the good fortune and privilege of not living under communism, fascism or any other form of dictatorship, have trouble understanding this. But only a tiny proportion of Israelis have had that privilege. Over 90 percent of Israelis or their families came from the Middle East and eastern Europe and have had no experience of democracy other than the Israeli version.

That’s not an excuse for any of the many limitations and shortcomings of Israeli democracy, or to stop fighting to safeguard and improve it. But Netanyahu’s narrow but democratic win certainly isn’t a reason to sign its death certificate either.