Netanyahu's Campaign Finale Dealt a Body Blow to Israeli Democracy

The Israeli prime minister sees the Green Line as the border between where Arabs can't vote and where they shouldn't.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv March 18, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

Benjamin Netanyahu just won a democratic election. And yet, the way he finished the campaign and the words he used to guarantee his victory make the election a defeat for democracy in Israel.

Actually, Netanyahu's intent to weaken the country's democratic character was the hidden issue in the election from the start. If you can think back to the ancient past – early December 2014 – the crisis that brought down Netanyahu's previous government was his insistence that his coalition support the bill to define Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

This wasn't about symbolism. The bill was a reaction to Supreme Court rulings protecting the rights of non-Jews, be they Arab citizens or African asylum seekers. It would have added a piece to Israel's half-completed constitution designed to make courts give at least as much weight to the purported interests of Jews as a nationality as to democratic principles. One of the bill's authors, Likud MK Yariv Levin, explained in a radio interview that it was needed because Supreme Court justices "belong to the radical left" and needed to be reined in.

Tzipi Livni's small Hatnuah party and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid refused to join in that assault on civil rights. The coalition collapsed. And then, somehow, Netanyahu's disdain for democracy vanished from the political debate – until the last days and hours of the campaign, when he demonstrated it again.

First came his declarations that any withdrawal from the West Bank was out of the question and there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. I don't mean to feign shock. His previous acceptance of a two-state agreement and his participation in U.S.-imposed peace talks fit the classic definition of hypocrisy: the tribute that vice pays to virtue. But hypocrisy has its value; the tribute keeps the idea of virtue alive.

No more. Netanyahu's explicit position is now that the permanent status of the West Bank is Israeli rule. Put differently, his policy is that there is part of Israeli territory, known as "Judea and Samaria," in which most of the population happens to be disenfranchised. Either he does not see this as a significant flaw in Israeli democracy, or he does not see preserving democracy as a significant concern.

Then came Election Day. Netanyahu was desperately afraid that potential Likud voters might stay at home or cast their ballots for other lists, and thus deny Likud the status of the largest party in the Knesset. His response was the infamous status and video that he posted on his Facebook page: "The rule of the right is in danger. Arab voters are advancing in large numbers toward voting places. Leftist organizations are bringing them in buses." I've translated the Hebrew verb "na" here as "advancing" rather than "moving" because the connotation is clearly military – especially when Netanyahu says in the next sentence that "we have a call-up order" to get out the Likud vote, and the video shows him in front of a map of the Middle East, as if he were speaking from a war room.

Netanyahu's intent was obvious: Even inside the Green Line, where Arabs are citizens, he considers it unacceptable for them to come out to vote, at least in any numbers that might affect the outcome. When they do so, in his view, they are not participating in a democracy. They are mounting an attack. Jews who encourage them to do so are perfidious. In the event of a Zionist Union plurality, Netanyahu would have delegitimized in advance a government supported by Arab votes. But the battle call worked.

It's hard to draw much comfort from the fact that Likud drew votes away from Naftali Bennett's annexationist Habayit Hayehudi; from Yisrael Beitenu of Avigdor Lieberman, who has sought to disenfranchise Arab citizens; and from Eli Yishai's ultra-nationalist, ultra-Orthodox Yahad party on the radical right, which fell short of entering the Knesset. Netanyahu has adopted basic elements of their anti-democratic platforms.

Until now it has been possible for Zionists on the left to defend and criticize our country in the same breath: as a democracy – flawed, evolving and embattled – within the Green Line, even while it continues the colonial project of settlement just beyond its border. Historically this is accurate. But Netanyahu has made it more difficult to take this nuanced position in the present, since our prime minister sees the Green Line as the border between where Arabs can't vote and where they shouldn't.

For the left to despair, though, will give Netanyahu a further victory. Explicitly and proudly defying his racist rhetoric, Jews and Arabs must join in a fighting opposition, inside the Knesset and outside. What's at stake is democracy itself.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG.

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