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Israelis elected a non-democracy

Obama must understand that these elections were more than just a referendum on Netanyahu — they were a referendum on Israel’s character, and Israelis did not vote for democratic ideals.

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

Many on the center-left in Israel are still trying to wrap their head around Netanyahu’s victory. They simply cannot grasp that most Israelis really want another right-wing government led by Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv and Haifa, the only two of Israel’s 10 largest cities where the Zionist Union got more votes than the Likud, some people seem to be rationalizing the victory with the anti-Arab, fear-mongering campaign Bibi led in the final days of the campaign.

The argument is that people were so perturbed by his apocalyptic warnings that lefties and Arabs would take over the Knesset that they decided to to vote for him at the last minute. Another version of the same rationale is that they were so angered by what Netanyahu called the foreign funded, left-wing backed hate campaign against him by the media and left-wing NGOs that some decided to vote for Netanyahu as — get this — a protest vote against the anti-Bibi propaganda.

I don’t buy either version. Those who voted for Netanyahu did so because they firmly believe in continuing the status quo that existed before him and that he has entrenched for the last six years. Whether or not they were vacillating between different parties on the Right, the bottom line is that the majority of Jewish Israelis chose to elect parties that share the vision of Greater Israel, religious nationalism, racism and intolerance of internal dissent.

To put it succinctly, Israelis chose to elect an undemocratic leadership, within a system that is democratically impaired to begin with. As MK Ahmed Tibi famously said, Israel is a democracy for Jews and Jewish for Arabs. In the aftermath of this election, it is clear that most Jewish Israelis are not only perfectly fine with that, but even within the confines of Jewish democracy, they do not mind state-sponsored incitement against other Jews (the “Left”) who don’t agree with the party line.

Palestinian citizens on the other hand, turned out in high numbers to vote for the Joint List, who ran on a platform of full democracy and equality, as well as the recognition of Palestinians as a national minority. However, only 7,000 Jews voted for them. In Israel of 2015, Palestinians largely voted for integration and equality, while Jews largely chose segregation and continued occupation.

Internally, the Israeli Left that was determined to change this place will have to now take a hard honest look at itself and try and rebuild its base — among both Zionists and non- or anti-Zionists. The Joint List and its focus on Arab-Jewish partnership is the beginnings of that.

Obama and the following administration must understand that these elections were more than just a referendum on Netanyahu — they were a referendum on Israel’s character, and Israelis did not vote for democratic ideals. Obama was right when he told the Huffington Post on Saturday that Netanyahu’s rhetoric “starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.” Except that democracy here has been eroded long ago.

Even if one believes that Israel is democratic, one cannot accept the decision to continue systematically violating the human rights of millions of Palestinians — both citizens and those who are stateless. As we all know, other societies have voted in leaders with highly undemocratic programs. You don’t need Netanyahu’s incendiary rhetoric to know that there is no consensus in Israel for ending the occupation or reaching a two-state solution. And you don’t need the Knesset to pass the “Jewish-Nation State Law” to know most Israelis want Jewish rights to take precedence over democratic ones.

While the U.S. cannot force Israelis to think differently, it can stop enabling Israeli policies, especially when it is clear that those policies reflect the consensus.

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    1. mt noise

      So its not a democracy because your side lost. Got it.

      Reply to Comment
      • NYFon

        Total BS, Noise. A clear case of your own projection.

        It’s abundantly clear that’s NOT what Mairav Zonzsein is saying here. But to small minds that default to your kind of manichean dualism—or who revert to a “dog in the manger” mentality whenever *their side* loses—it must be very challenging indeed to absorb any argument that considers the broader picture, or the political landscape of the country as a whole.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Get this. Kalanu, Khalon’s centrist party, has now nominated Likud as the party to lead Israel. Netanyahu now has an absolute majority and the right to form the government. Israel’s democracy has spoken loud and clear. This is the broader picture.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Kareem Jeans

      The title,of this article is a logical fallacy.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      Mairav Zonszein is one of those on the hard left who believe that a democracy is made up of only people who think and vote like her. She thinks Israelis should all have voted for a meta physical suicide. In her democracy Jews should have voted for Arabs who wished to end Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

      Ms Zonszein is not the only member of the hard left to become completely unhinged at the results of the Israeli elections. Gideon Levy has called for the Israeli people to be replaced. Princess author and actress Alona Kimhi wrote on her Facebook page and advocated a physical suicide for Jewish Israelis who did not vote like her:

      “Drink cyanide, bloody Neanderthals. You won, only death will save you from yourselves.”

      The Washington Post reported that:

      “Social media was full of embittered Israelis accusing Netanyahu’s supporters of racism, and some vowed to stop donating charity to the underprivileged whom they perceived as being automatic supporters of the right.”

      Of course the liberal hard lefters are a pretty smug bunch thinking they know more than their fellow citizen who might be poorer or religious. Yair Garbuz at the leftwing rally in Tel Aviv railed against the “amulet kissers” who support Netanyahu.

      The truth is that the elections confirm that Israel has a vibrant democracy where the vote of the people determine the people and their parties who sit in the Knesset and determine Israeli policy. People from all stratums of Israeli society voted for Likud and other parties. Labor only carried the vote in Haifa and Tel Aviv among Israel’s 20 largest cities. Support for Likud was country-wide including taking 18% of the vote in Tel Aviv and 21% in Haifa.

      In this election the Israeli people chose to elect Likud led by Netanyahu as the largest faction to lead the Israeli people. Likud received 25% of the vote, and the other factions could nominate Herzog and Labor to govern, but this is unlikely. As of Sunday, Likud has already secured 51 of the 61 votes necessary to form government. Labor only has its own 24 votes. The Joint list refused to nominate the Zionist Camp and have all but sealed Likud’s government.

      The Jerusalem post which in its articles leading up to the election seemed to think that Labor’s Zionist party would become the largest faction reviewed what happened in the election. The people of Israel, fully cognizant of the benefits and costs of doing so, decided it wanted Netanyahu to lead them.

      “Herzog and Livni tried to frame the campaign as one between hope and fear. They could provide hope, Netanyahu only fear.

      But the problem is that Israelis live here – here – in the real Middle East. And when they hear Netanyahu talking about the threat from Iran, the threats of a region completely unhinged, the threats of terrorists wielding knives, guns or rockets, they don’t see him as a maniac from another planet, but as someone who is actually reading the intelligence briefings and looking out the window. They think he is telling the truth.

      Those seen as crazy are those promising peace for withdrawal, or giving up land for favor in the eyes of the world. “The people went to bed hoping for change, and woke up with a Netanyahu government,” read a curious headline over an Haaretz op-ed piece online on Wednesday.

      Curious because it was the people who went to bed hoping for change, it turns out, who went to the polls earlier in the day and voted for the Netanyahu government.

      Why? Because they live here, in the middle of the real Middle East, not an idealized or fantasized one, but the real Middle East, the one currently engulfed in flames.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Personally I think Amir Segal gets it exactly right: “If the Left wants to win elections, it cannot continue to hide its true principles. It must speak clearly and openly about the most pressing issue facing Israel: the occupation.” But the one thing you can’t put over on us Pedro X is the notion that Gideon Levy and Amira Hass and similar people on the left (“hard” only from your hard right vantage point) do not live and breathe on a daily 24/7 basis Israeli life and life inside the occupation. You can’t paint them as Tel Aviv parlor intellectuals. Years from now Levy’s words will ring: “I write so that Israelis can’t later say ‘we didn’t know’.”

        Reply to Comment
    4. Dan

      There’s not one word here that I cannot agree with. To present Israel as a democratic state is bending the truth so far that you can hear it cracking. There is no democracy where there is occupation and millions of Arabs are under miltiary rule. The few vial sign of democracy that remain will most likely be whisked away by the coming government as they proceed to pass their planned laws. Yes, it’s sad what the Jewish state has become.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bar

      Hey Mairav, did you happen to notice the Arab party members vowing not to form coalition with any party that has “Zionists?”

      Since the Arabs have no interest in taking advantage of this democracy, this parliament and the good fortune of living in the only Middle Eastern country where they are afforded this sacred privilege, perhaps instead of blaming Israeli Jews who vote right for what’s befallen the Arabs of Israel, perhaps you should blame the ones who really are guilty: Israeli-Arab politicians and those who vote for them?

      Try to imagine how quickly an Arab party that works together with “Zionist” parties would be able to generate the windfalls that other smaller parties gain when they join the coalition governments.

      Reply to Comment
    6. ish yehudi

      who won the election for Bibi? Hamas’ rockets and all those “lone’wolf” attackers over the last 6 months. They handed the election to Bibi on a silver platter. As hard as the ugliness of occupation seems in the eyes of israelis, without trust greater than fear, we will not release the grip. But how do you gain the trust of a victim? How do two victims ever come to trust each other, when the fear of violence is real and will be born out- even when the agreement is signed?
      Will the peace-supporters ever be strong enough to stand up after the paper is signed and the violent extremists again send their suicide bombs and destruction upon our hopes for normal life?

      Reply to Comment
      • Acute thoughts and questions, Ish. They must be addressed.

        Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        I read this as false or uncomprehending, perhaps unintentionally so but nevertheless. “How do two victims ever come to trust each other?” Not by psychotherapy. By practical good faith efforts to build a final settlement that takes into account both sides’ fears and builds in practical safeguards and checkpoints. When Rabin tried to do that they assassinated him. The latest Israeli strategic posturing has been to say “we can’t stop, we can’t stop building and oppressing you until you just surrender and just trust us” even though there’s absolutely no good reason Palestinians should trust Israelis. Or vice versa. What is missing is any sincere Israeli good faith effort to actually take any real steps that would lead to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. Look, even if every Palestinian Arab were magically transformed into a wholehearted absolutely guaranteed undying Arab Peace Initiative practitioner the Israelis in power would find some excuse. This is the truth that people like PedroX and Gustav will never admit. The last thing they truly want is a workable realistic agreement that leads to a two state settlement on 67 lines including East Jerusalem. Even if Israeli security issues could be absolutely guaranteed I am convinced they would find some other reason to justify the occupation.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Philos

      That’s a fair analysis Mairav but I don’t think the USA government, any USA government, will really do a damn thing about it. It’s not like they have some kind of principle against supporting racist, violent and oppressive autocracies. Indeed, they love those kinds of regimes in Latin America and the Arabian peninsula. The Israeli electorate could vote in a rabbinical theocracy and the USA will still give its backing so long as these rabbis don’t have wild ideas about social equality or challenging US hegemony in the world. It’s a bitter reality but it’s about time everyone on the Left in Israel starts recognizing what people on the Left in Europe (and what Leftists around the world have known for decades) that the USA and its allies in NATO don’t care about freedom, democracy or human life. The world is so ruthlessly Machiavellian because they have made it so. That is to say, who cares what Barack Obama thinks? How does a man who decides once a week who is going to be shredded by a missile in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia have any moral authority? What do we, as principled people, care for the ramblings of a man that destroyed Libya, Syria and Ukraine without so much as a qualm or a sleepless night or missed round of golf? At the bottom, he’s no different from Netanyahu just like Herzog was really no different from either.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Antares

      @Greg Pollock
      Although I agree with much of what you wrote, there is something wrong about this statement: “Bibi’s “Arabs are voting in droves” is quintessentially democratic.”

      Imagine that McCain states: “Africans are voting in droves” in his campaign against Obama. Note that I wrote “Africans” where Netantyahu used the word “Arabs.” He doesn’t speak about Palestinians. McCain would, in that case, assert that black people can’t be Americans, and that is precisely what Netanyahu sais about Palestinians: they can’t be Israeli’s. The denial of a part of his own population is 100% undemocratic.

      Reply to Comment
      • By “democratic” here I mean the actual competition used to gather votes. While few would say it in the US in a public forum, what Bibi said is said all the time on election day in one way or another. For example, “fundamentalist churches are car pooling their people to the polls in droves!” Race has, in the US, a post Civil Rights taboo on such employment. It is true that “the Jews are coming out in droves” (which I bet was used at some time or another by the KKK in whatever reality they inhabit) is another example which the taboo prohibits. Nonetheless, the logic of getting out more votes than your opponents is standard, and a bit nicer than preventing your opponent from getting out the vote, which was standard quite a while in the US. This is what I meant by ‘“Bibi’s “Arabs are voting in droves” is quintessentially democratic.”’ What Bibi said happens all the time, and progressive volunteers are by no means beyond using it–in private.

        I have no respect for what Bibi did. But it was standard democratic ploy, and those in Likud thought it so at the time. The race taboo in Israel is one directional. The political step against this is to engage in intergroup competition as you are doing, saying the taboo should be symmetric, just as the ADL would do if “Jew” was substituted for “Arab” in the US. This is a battle over admissible public tools. And that is democratic too.

        There is a distinction between constitutional democracy and democracy. Bibi’s comment violates neither even in the US. It does violate a taboo which is part of the democratic armor of many in the US, and its removal is part of the fight within democracy; but so is its use. If he had said “keep Arabs from voting in droves” he would have been advocating voter suppression, and that, while democratic too, violates US constitutional democracy.

        Reply to Comment
        • Antares

          “By “democratic” here I mean the actual competition used to gather votes.”

          That is in itself correct, however, when an electoral competition between races is a step up to the expulsion of one of them it becomes a form of tribalism. First they ignore them (never allow them at the decision level), than they delegitimize them (not calling them Palestinians but Arabs) and finally they can expel them.

          Reply to Comment
    9. Joel Cantor

      Is there any comparison between Bibi & Obama?

      One was was a Captain in the armed forces as well as an Elite Special Forces Commando. Having seen action in both roles, Bibi later had to decide between being a businessman, a historian (like his father)or going into politics. Choosing the latter option, Bibi started his career as Israel’s UN Representative during the difficult years of the 1980s.

      In contrast, Obama was a “Community Organiser” in Chicago.

      Reply to Comment
      • RICK

        If organized ethnic cleansing is your thing than you’ve got the right criteria. I don’t lionize Obama, but I know a war criminal when I see one, and this “Elite Special Forces” hero of yours is one of them- based on the facts- which you are blithely oblivious to. What do you think this project called Israel is? Mother Theresa? They are all about killing people and stealing their land-it ain’t no fairy tale of Brave Underdog Jews Get Tough. Netanyahu is responsible for getting elected to do what he did to Gaza- kill people- including 300 children.

        Reply to Comment