Opinion | Israel’s ‘Democracy Quake’

Amid the political aftershocks, there are signs of stability.
By | Dec 30, 2019
Israel, Winter Issue 2020

In future times—may they be happier and calmer—we will remember the year between April 2019 and March 2020 as Israel’s annus horribilis. Three consecutive elections bode ill for any democracy. Top this up with a shrill public debate, bad blood between the executive and the judiciary and roaring hostility laced with racism in the social networks, and you will get the picture. Israel has seen all sorts of rough times, but never like this. We are in the midst of a democracy quake.

As things stand now, a third election is inevitable, scheduled for March 2. The leader of one small but pivotal party, Avigdor Lieberman, insists on a grand coalition; moderate Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz shuns the indicted Benjamin Netanyahu—charged with crimes of deception, bribery and breach of trust—but not his Likud Party; and Netanyahu refuses to budge from Likud leadership. According to polls, this deadlock might continue until the Messiah gets off the bus at Jerusalem’s central station.

I will not sell you cheap optimism: This is a governance crisis of unprecedented severity. Still, other clocks are ticking, and our democracy quake takes place alongside other dramatic geological changes. Despite a year of chaos, I see at least three signs of hope. 

First: Benny Gantz is a freshly minted surprise. His record as former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff is nothing new in politics, but his staying power during two rough election campaigns certainly is. This sworn moderate is a surprisingly tough player, whose refusal to share power with Netanyahu is personal indeed—but for all the right reasons. What Gantz lacks in charismatic rhetoric, he seems to offset quite successfully with a calm personality and a moral spine. Gantz would not have Netanyahu ruling a future Knesset and legislating juridical immunity for himself. He will allow no horseplay with Israel’s legal system. Moreover, Gantz is committed to healing both the strained public discourse and the damaged public norms. Bottom line: Mainstream Israel—the political center, moral refugees from the right, and the vast majority of the left—has found a leading mensch.

Second: The Russians are coming! The Israeli secular right has split from the religious right and is pitted against it. Under the somewhat eerie leadership of strongman Avigdor Liberman, half a million Jewish voters hailing from the former Soviet Union have come out of the secular closet. They are sick and tired of the public “Judaization” enforced by Orthodox politicians and their extremist rabbis, faithful allies of Netanyahu’s Likud. Drunk on the success of past coalition negotiations, the small ultra-Orthodox parties and the increasingly more Orthodox extreme-right parties are now openly demanding a kosher Israel after their own hearts: separating men from women in publicly funded spaces and events, banning non-kosher food, educating secular schoolchildren in halachic spirit and sealing the monopoly of Orthodox Judaism against all other versions.

The religious right no longer stops at the (bad enough) assertion that Jewish citizens are better than non-Jews. It now openly pits “good Jews” against “bad Jews.” Thus, the “Russian” right-wingers find themselves in the company of seculars, liberals, Arabs, LGBTQ people, feminists and human rights activists—the whole colorful spectrum of non-Orthodox lifestyles. And while sympathizing with Likud’s nationalist stance, Liberman and his followers now insist on a new deal. Israel’s electoral system has made his eight-seat party, Yisrael Beiteinu, into the coalition’s linchpin and Liberman into the kingmaker. What he wants is simple: Let the two large secular parties, Blue and White and Likud, form a joint government, immune to religious demands.

Third: An Israeli Arab civic turn. The last decade has seen a tectonic shift in the Arab citizenry of Israel. Its younger generation is increasingly educated, professional and ambitious. It is also determined to enter Israel’s political fray, and no longer as passive voters for parties that are eternally in the opposition. A successful 13-seat Arab party, the Joint List, is already the country’s third-largest party. The price of its unity is disparity: The Joint List is an uneasy supermarket of world views, from communist to Islamist, representing the gamut of the Arab constituency. But its young and capable leader, Ayman Odeh, has so far managed to navigate it along.

A good showing of the Joint List in the March 2019 and September 2019 elections has injected fresh energy into Arab voters. Activism is sprouting. Furthermore, for the first time in Israel’s political history, people are openly and widely discussing the idea that Israeli Arab parties will enjoy hands-on participation in a future government. Gantz is willing to go halfway, inviting the List’s support in the Knesset, but not yet as cabinet partner. The time for that, he hopes, will come. The extreme right deems this “Arab-loving” approach no less than treason, but many Israelis of the center and the left welcome it as a milestone in the journey toward a more inclusive civil society.

For many years, I have voted for Meretz, the left-wing civil-rights party. My father was one of its leading lights. But I now believe that the tiny remnants of Israel’s Old Left, of Meretz and Labor, must unite into an Israeli social-democratic hub. They could do far more than support Gantz from the left: They must keep alight the good torch of social justice and human rights. And if a like-minded Arab party steps forward to join them, that would be a happy day indeed for Israeli democracy.

In the meanwhile, despite the growing nationalist and illiberal noise, the vitriolic internet and the scary political uncertainty, I opt for reasonable hope. Israel’s political geology is changing. Watch out for surprises. 

Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli historian, essayist, current affairs commentator and professor of history at the University of Haifa Faculty of Law.

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