Understanding Israel: Election Part 6: My Vote

“I can’t accept Arabs as 30% of the ruling coalition.  Fortunately, I don’t have to.  I’ll vote for Buji [Herzog] and Tzipi [Livni]… they’ll win … but they don’t have a coalition, so Bibi will form the government anyway.  It’s terrible that he’ll let the Orthodox back in -- but better them than the Arabs.”

This is the sentiment that I expect many left and center-left Israeli voters will make tomorrow when they step behind an accordion-partition and select a Zionist Union slip from among the 26 stacks before them.      

In this last installment of my Israeli-election series, I will, as promised in the first installment, reveal my election choice and reasoning. 

First, though, let’s go back two years, to my first vote as an Israeli citizen.  During seven years of travels to Israel, I had spoken with scores of friends and acquaintances about Israeli politics and המצב (“the situation.”)  Generally liberal, as the 2013 election approached I reluctantly and regretfully concluded that there was no realistic opportunity for peace, largely because the Palestinians would never accept Israel as a permanent Jewish state.  “Land for peace,” I had come to believe, was a cruel delusion.  In this part of the world, the miniscule State of Israel could only hope to persevere by preserving every advantage.  It was “us or them.” 

And so, I (and many of my Anglo-peers) voted for the then surging, sense-talking, charismatic, fluent-English speaking Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party leader Naftali Bennett.  He basically said, “Let’s stop pretending that a peace deal is possible.  Let’s deal with reality by formally annexing the settlement areas with a large majority of Jews [“Area C”], that we all know will remain in Israel, and let’s get on with our lives.”  That made sense to many, and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) did well.

But that was then.  Two years later, Israel’s standing among its international supporters – especially the U.S. -- has been battered by the perception (rightly or otherwise) that no right-of-center Israeli government is or will be serious about resolving the Palestinian conflict (as if Israel could resolve it).  No arguments (right or otherwise): that the region is too unstable and too dangerous to hand the West Bank over to an undemocratic Palestinian nation, that the settlements are not the problem, and that the Palestinians don’t want and/or aren’t capable of peace, etc. – have stemmed the bleeding.

I haven’t changed my deep skepticism about the Palestinian position.  Nor am I convinced by the prophecies of demographic doom if Israel does not “divorce” (to use Yair Lapid’s term) the Palestinian majority in the West Bank. (The Arab and Jewish birthrates are about equal).  And, while Israel is, and should be, both “Jewish” and “democratic,” the former is much more important to me than the latter.

Nevertheless, I also want a government that will continue searching for peace – and that Israel’s friends can believe is doing so.  Herzog and Livni are better candidates for this than Bibi.  Moreover, I believe that it is unhealthy for any democracy to keep the same leader for too long, and this would be Bibi’s third consecutive term (and fourth overall).  “It’s time for a change” is every challenger’s constant campaign slogan, but even if only for institutional reasons, I agree.   

Yet, it’s unlikely that that’s going to happen.  Bibi’s party, Likud, will apparently lose the election, but it is still better positioned to form a coalition. Zionist Union is predicted to win 24-26 seats to Likud’s 21-23.   A prospective coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the Joint Arab party (predicted at about 15 each) would leave Zionist Union short of the 61 seats needed to govern.  Even if a far left party (Meretz) and one of the new parties (Kulanu?) filled the gap, the coalition would be precarious and perhaps unsustainable.   May voters would remain nervous about a coalition with the Arab parties, which have not even stated that they will, in fact, join a coalition.  What would be the Arab price to do so?

On the right, although Likud is predicted to come in second, Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, the Orthodox parties, and one or more of the new breakaway parties on the right can more easily help Likud exceed the majority threshold.  President Rivlin is expected to urge a Zionist-Likud “unity government,” but Bibi isn’t likely to agree to this, as it would require him to rotate out as Prime Minister.  Why should he agree, if not doing so will force Rivlin to hand him the  government?

So, I think that left-center voters can “safely” vote for Zionist Union as a protest against Bibi and the worsening middle-class squeeze, having made this same calculation.  

And that’s what I would do if I were to actually vote.  Unfortunately, this time, personal circumstances are keeping me in California.  Too bad there is no absentee voting for ordinary citizens. 

Would my vote for Zionist Union be the correct choice?  Of course, there’s no way to know.  So much depends upon events.  Will the left indeed be able to form a coalition?  If so, what will be the outcome of having the Arabs be the “lynchpin” to maintaining it?  If the right does form the next coalition, will increasing international pressure bring Bibi back to the negotiating table, and if so, what will happen there?  Will there be another intifada?  Will the Palestinian authority dissolve?  When and where will the next war with Hamas, Hezbollah, or both, occur?  Will ISIS continue to make inroads?  What will happen in Syria?  Jordan? Egypt?

Today’s (Sunday, 3/15) Times of Israel contains an interesting blog prediction.  The left will (contrary to my prediction) be able to form a coalition.  It will then present much more favorable peace proposals to the Palestinians.  But they will, as always in the past, ultimately reject real peace with Israel. This, plus Iran’s continued march to the bomb, will cause the Israeli populace to lurch sharply back to the right at the next election.  And who will then become Prime Minister?  According to the blogger, it will the man who will then be able to say “I told you so,” … my 2013 choice, Naftali Bennett.  

Maybe so, but in that scenario, the liberals/idealists will have tried, and our allies will know it. 

Whatever happens, may G-d bless and protect the State of Israel!

Rabbi Dr. Art Levine

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