There is barely a week left until the most fateful elections in Israeli history. Will we continue down the road toward joining the troubled illiberal democracies that are proliferating around the world, like Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and, yes, Donald Trump’s America? Or will we begin the return to a society that aspires to the enlightened liberal principles that were articulated in Israel’s declaration of independence back in 1948?
This was a declaration which promised that: “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of shrines and holy places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” This was meant to be a country that has no room for a biased nation-state law that deprives 20% of its citizens of equal rights before the law, and rather one that enables both peoples living here to have an equal right to national self-determination.
In each of these illiberal democracies, there are pro-democracy forces struggling to turn the tide, with the 2020 presidential elections in the US and the hope that Trump will be defeated being the pinnacle of the struggle.
In Israel, there is a broad coalition of forces who are challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to steadily undermine Israeli democracy, an independent judiciary, civil liberties and freedom of media, artistic and religious expression. These are Israelis who stand for uncorrupt decency. Those who are reviving hope for a society based upon a greater degree of social justice — one that genuinely aspires and initiates efforts to end 51 years of rule over our Palestinian neighbors via a peace agreement based upon a viable two-state solution.
The polls suggest that Netanyahu is not guaranteed victory. As with the first election in April, he may be unable to put together a repeat of his right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition.
Benny Gantz: The Anti-Bibi
It appears that the alternative to Bibi is the anti-Bibi: Benny Gantz, leader of the new Blue and White Party. Gantz does not have the intellect, the education, charisma, media skills, economic know-how, ability in English and the experience that Netanyahu has. In the April elections, he was the new face in town who offered the promise of change based on decency, togetherness and moderation, rather than bitter divisiveness. I was afraid that the novelty would have worn off in the second round, but according to the polls, Gantz and the Blue and White Party are still running neck and neck with Bibi’s Likud.
Gantz does not inspire, is sometimes inarticulate and is ambiguous about his positions. Yet he broadcasts a sense of decency, solidity and relative humility, which is a refreshing change from what we currently have in Israel. No one can question his security credentials, and when he says he wants to defend democracy and change the nation-state law, it sounds like he means it.
Until now, Gantz and his colleagues have run an almost nonexistent campaign. However his recent declaration that he aspires to form a liberal, secular coalition after the election has resonated strongly, though it would be together with Likud, minus Netanyahu as its leader. The fact he also says that the Joint Arab List would not be a partner in his coalition is very problematic, though unlike before April, Gantz is reaching out to the Arab public.
In an anti-nation state law demonstration in Tel Aviv after the first round of elections, Gantz joined his co-leaders in supporting the appearance of Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at the protest, overriding the opposition of his fellow leader, former Likud member Moshe Ya’alon.
There are three other parties in the active opposition to the left of Netanyahu.
Ehud Barak: The Most Effective Campaigner
The Democratic Union — an amalgam of Meretz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s fledgling party, and the Labor breakaway and 2011 social protest leader Stav Shaffir. The union is chaired by Meretz leader and social democrat Nitzan Horowitz, the first gay leader of a political party in Israel.
Although they both served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Barak is everything that Gantz isn’t. As the fiery anti-Bibi who once served as his defense minister, Barak is the only politician to defeat Netanyahu, back in 1999. He also served as his commander in the army and is the most potent and articulate critic of the prime minister’s domestic policies. He says those policies are the only existential threat to Israel today, undermining the country’s democratic foundations.
Barak doesn’t shy away from using the terms apartheid and fascism to describes elements of the Israeli reality. He advocates a two-state solution with mutually-agreed-upon border rectifications of 4-5% that would enable 80% of the settlers to remain within the borders of the sovereign state of Israel. This is based on the analysis of Shaul Arieli, who arrived at this conclusion via negotiations with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, thus counteracting Barak’s “no partner for peace” claim in 2000. (Though Barak once, unwisely, said that if negotiations fail, then unilateral disengagement from the West Bank and setting of temporary borders should be considered.) Barak also advocates that the state of Israel should be based upon the principles of the declaration of independence, which should be enshrined in a constitution promised back in 1948 “within 10 months.”
Unfortunately, many people are allergic to Barak for reasons of his own creation, such as blaming the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 on the Palestinians while saying that there is “no partner” for peace; the fact that he split from the Labor Party to become defense minister in 2011; and that he became quite wealthy in his post-political career, though without any evidence of corruption. All true, but he is still the most effective campaigner against Netanyahu in the current round of elections.
Amir Peretz’s Gamble
The Labor Party led by Amir Peretz — the former Sderot mayor, Histadrut head and defense minister — has formed an alliance with the Gesher Party led by Orly Levy-Abekasis, who was previously a member of the Knesset for Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Many were upset by the fact that Peretz didn’t join together with Meretz and Barak to form a united left front.
At a forum on September 6 organized by Women Waging Peace, Peretz, who also has a history of abandoning Labor for Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnua Party, said he was offered the possibility of being the leader of a united left party that might have gotten 12 seats in the Knesset. “What would have that gotten us?” he exclaimed, saying that by teaming up with Levy-Abekasis, he could wean away two seats from the Likud from development town Mizrachi voters and that it would change things. Running on a platform that focuses on social issues, one can only hope that his gamble is successful.
The Importance of the Arab Vote
The Joint List composed of four Arab parties — Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad — is running again, after disastrously splitting into two-party amalgams in the April elections. This led to a decline in Knesset representation from 13 to 10 seats and, in voting percentage among Israeli-Arab citizens, from 64% to 49%. If all Arabs voted — almost 20% of the population — they could have 20 to 25 seats in the Knesset and would be the deciding factor in the left-right balance in Israel.
At this stage, the polls do not suggest that they will even return to the 13 seats they had in 2015, but they’re working on it. Joint List Chair Ayman Udeh’s declaration of a readiness to join a center-left coalition was called for and welcomed by the Democratic Union, but unfortunately not by Gantz, who is still trying to get votes from the right.
The keys to a center-left victory are:
1) A significant increase in the Arab vote;
2) That Peretz and Labor will succeed to get at least two to three seats from people in the outlying peripheral towns who previously voted right;
3) And that all the center-left, Blue and White, Democratic Union, Labor-Gesher and the Joint List will succeed to GOTV — get out the vote — mobilizing all their potential supporters to actually vote and not give in to despair or indifference. The Tel Aviv buses are filled with billboards of Horowitz-Barak-Shaffir calling on their constituents to vote for victory.
I will be voting for the Democratic Union because it promises to defend all of Israel’s democratic institutions, calls for Israeli peace initiatives to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the separation of religion and state, and declares unequivocally that under no circumstances will it sit in a coalition with Likud — with or without Netanyahu. It’s also interesting to see that Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, is number 11 on the Democratic Union list. If he gets into the Knesset, it will create a serious challenge to the attempt by Orthodox representatives to monopolize the religious discourse in Israel.
However, a vote for any of the opposition parties is a vote for saving Israeli democracy. Despite claims to the contrary, it is not the biggest party that counts, but the total votes for the entire bloc. We have to aim at reaching a situation where the center-left has a majority of 61 seats. The best-case scenario is a center-left government — unlikely though not totally impossible — but even a national unity government without Benjamin Netanyahu, with Lieberman’s right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party as the glue, will be a step forward.
Recently, for the first time in many years, I heard on the radio Bob Dylan singing his 1964 song, “The Times They Are a Changin,” which inspired my generation back in the 60s to believe that it was possible that, “The first one now, will later be last.”
With a week to go, we should all repeat Barack Obama’s slogan from 2008: “Yes we can!”
*[A version of this article was originally published on The Times of Israel’s blog.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.