Israelis Just Saved Their Democracy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s tempting to say about an election in any country that this is the election that really matters, that this time, the results will determine the fabric of society for generations to come. In Israel, on the day after the second election of 2019, that’s not bombast.

Had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieved the solid victory that he sought when he had the Knesset dissolve itself almost immediately after a hair-thin victory in April, Israel could have become a different country. He had promised to annex portions of the West Bank — first the Jordan River valley, which would remain under Israeli control under any prime minister, but other places as well — which would erode any hope of an accommodation with Palestinians.

He’s likely to be indicted for corruption, and had thus pledged to have the Knesset give him immunity from prosecution. Since it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Supreme Court would invalidate such an action, he and his colleagues were openly discussing making the court subservient to the Knesset, essentially ending judicial review in Israel.

To bolster the number of votes his right-leaning bloc would receive, Netanyahu also essentially endorsed a racist party that draws from the intellectual legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whom the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 was too dangerous to be allowed to run for office. Netanyahu, in short, was willing to shred Israel’s democracy to stay in power and out of jail.

Netanyahu, though, is a charismatic personality and political genius, and he has long had a spellbinding hold on the Israeli electorate. Most Israelis understood at least some of the dangers he represented, but they also knew that though he is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he has almost never taken his country to war. He has kept them and their children safe. He has managed belligerents like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with Syria and Iran. He’s bonded with U.S. President Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and tore up the Iranian nuclear agreement, which Netanyahu despised. Many Israelis, Netanyahu was sure, would hold their noses and vote for him again, because Israelis vote security first and economics second.

But it seems that Netanyahu didn’t pull it off. The Kahanist party he essentially endorsed did not get enough votes to win seats in the Knesset, where they might have given Netanyahu the support he needed to form a government.

As of Wednesday morning, with just over 90% of the votes counted, Blue and White, the party created and led by former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, is ahead by a slim margin. Gantz may end up prime minister, or Netanyahu could again, if the results shift or Gantz cannot form a coalition. Whatever the outcome, however, Netanyahu does not have the votes to get himself a government that will pass the immunity law or tinker with the Supreme Court. Annexation is probably on hold. Israelis have apparently voted to end the Netanyahu era, deciding to trust a former general even if untried in the political world, and to save their democracy.

Assuming that these results hold, pundits will quarrel about what cost Netanyahu his political hegemony. Was it Trump’s flirtation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani? Was it the revelations in the Israeli news media that Netanyahu was about to take Israel into a military operation in Gaza a week or two ago without consulting the cabinet until he was prevented from doing so by the attorney general? Was it worry about democracy? We may never know, but we do know that Israelis appear to have voted to save themselves and their country.

American Jews will hail this result, because they hate Netanyahu, whom they associate with Trump. But they should be prepared to be disappointed. Gantz appears to be honest, will not pass an immunity law, will not dent the Supreme Court, will stop the race-baiting of Israeli Arabs, and will be a more palatable Israeli leader for American Jews. But he is not going to end the occupation of the West Bank or reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have no interest in the compromises required to reach such a deal at the moment.

What a Gantz administration would show American Jews is that the occupation wasn’t Netanyahu’s doing — it is the product of a world in which Israel tragically has no good alternatives. Gantz the general may not be as reticent about hitting back at Gaza as has been Netanyahu; he may actually decide to batter Hamas, the radical faction that governs that benighted sliver of Arab territory, because he understands that the violent status quo is untenable.

If these results do hold, Israelis will have much to celebrate. American Jews, who tend to imagine an Israel that acts in accord with their progressive values, may find that Netanyahu’s defeat is just the beginning of an even more complex relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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