‘Stolen’ election claims among Israel’s latest challenges for democracy

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Even after five wars and multiple terrorist attacks, Israel’s democracy remained resilient. It has taken three indecisive elections and an indicted prime minister desperate to hold onto power to shake confidence in the system. Are we now looking at a new day?

As Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli cities and the Israeli Air Force pummeled neighborhoods in Gaza, it looked like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu would again escape defeat. However, soon after the ceasefire was reached, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid came back together to form a coalition of strange bedfellows, a political spectrum that spanned from a hard-right settler movement to an Islamic Party. Their unifying aim: to end Bibi’s 12-year polarizing reign.

Netanyahu’s attack on the new coalition was unremitting and included claims that the election was “stolen,” that there is “a deep state conspiracy,” and that a “fascist” media is trying to silence him.

Sound familiar? Israel’s democracy is being tested just as is that of the United States. It wasn’t always this way.

In January 1987, I participated in an extraordinary conference  in Sedom on the Dead Sea to discuss the pressures on Israeli democracy and the accommodations needed to preserve its essence. The National Democratic Institute sponsored the three-day meeting and the bipartisan U.S. delegation was headed by former Vice President Walter Mondale, NDI’s chairman. It included then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.), former House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-N.Y.), State Department Counselor Ed Derwinski, American-Israel Public Affairs Committee Director Tom Dine, former presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat and the United States’ longest serving ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, among others. 

In 1987, the Likud and Labor parties were in a unity government. Their leaders would alternate in the prime ministerial role, as per the current agreement between Bennett and Lapid. 

Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister at the time of the conference and he and Labor leader Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, gave keynote speeches. The Israeli delegation was made up of political leaders, prominent journalists, generals and academics, a who’s who of Israeli society.

One of Israel’s most respected academics, Shlomo Avineri, set the tone for the conference when he asked the participants to imagine themselves to be political scientists in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding: 

“A small state has been established in a region of non-democratic regimes. Surrounded by larger, hostile states. Five major wars and chronic terrorism force it to organize as a besieged nation. Immigrants flood in from over 100 countries… most have known only non-democratic regimes. What kind of government would you expect this country to have in 40 years? A democracy or something else?” 

Avineri was expressing pride in the survival of Israeli democracy against all odds. Yet he and the other Israeli participants recognized that Israel’s occupation of lands on its periphery was cause for much hand-wringing. 

United Nations Resolution 181 in 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, was the first to reference a two-state solution. It was also the trigger for the first of the wars Israel fought with its Arab neighbors.

Fast-forward to today. Israel has become a modern high-tech society with a first-world economy. Netanyahu has been credited with both the nation’s economic success and providing for its security. However, his reign polarized the electorate and allegations of corruption had begun to erode his support.

In resolving the dilemma of the occupied territories, Israel confronted two roadblocks: The proliferation of settlements by Israelis who believed that the West Bank constituted the ancient Judea and Samaria homeland; and the absence of a negotiating partner. The Palestinian National Authority, led by 85-year old Mahmoud Abbas, was widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. Abbas recently cancelled a scheduled election, further damaging his legitimacy.

The makeup of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has also been a drawback. The vote-count threshold for a party joining the Knesset initially was set at 1 percent. This produced a proliferation of parties, including some quite extreme. That threshold was moved to 2.5 percent, then to 3.25 percent, still much lower than parliamentary democracies elsewhere. Hence, the coalition formed by Bennett and Lapid with a one-vote majority and a diverse multitude of ideologically incompatible parties.

Perhaps most shocking to the Israeli body politic was the uprising of Israeli-Arab citizens. Provoked by efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, a march through their neighborhoods to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem and  police action against the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan, Palestinians unsurprisingly took to the streets to protest. Then Hamas unleashed its rocket attack.

The new Israeli government has inherited this crisis. Its most realistic aspiration is to maintain a ceasefire, revive democracy and restore unity. Overcoming the polarization that Netanyahu has created won’t be easy. Yet, a majority of Israelis continue to be proud of the country’s democratic past. They know that a democracy cannot survive with second-class citizens and that swallowing up occupied lands and unwilling human beings is unsustainable. 

To paraphrase Shlomo Aineri’s question to the participants of that 1987 conference, what would a political scientist predict for the state of Israel looking forward 73 years after its founding? 

Avineri, now in his late 80s, may have answered his own question last week. Referring to the new government coalition, he told Roger Cohen of the New York Times: “The parties are disparate, but they share a commitment to reconstitute Israel as a functioning liberal democracy.”

If one looks deeply into the history of Israel and the aspiration of its founders, a two-state solution is the only option if liberal democracy is to survive. Getting there will take political courage and strong leadership from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID during the Clinton administration.

Tags Arab citizens of Israel Arlen Specter Benjamin Netanyahu Benjamin Netanyahu Hamas Israel Israeli soldiers Knesset Likud Mahmoud Abbas Naftali Bennett Political ideologies political parties Walter Mondale Yair Lapid Yair Lapid

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