TEL AVIV — (6:37 p.m. ET) And the winner in Israel’s election is….impossible to call. Mix a fragmented political system, a flawed and unpopular incumbent, an earnest but charismatically challenged opponent, and a deeply polarized electorate, and you get the kind of mess we are seeing in the Promised Land on Tuesday evening.
The incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu feels like he won because a last-minute surge kept him alive politically, long after most pundits had pre-filed their political eulogies for him. His main rival Isaac Herzog feels like a winner because he gave Netanyahu the run of his life and emerges from this contest the strong, internationally popular, un-Bibi. Alas, the Israeli people feel like losers because Tuesday night’s stalemate guarantees more headaches, more clashes, more recriminations, more political torpor, and another Election Day sooner rather than later.
In cinematic terms, Tuesday was one-part summer holiday flick, one part farce, and one part nail-biter. The vacation dimension stemmed from the fact that schools and businesses closed, and Israelis swarmed the parks, malls, and movie theaters on a glorious early-spring day. The chairman of the Central Election Committee, Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab—yes, you Apartheid accusers, that is not a misprint—declared it “Israel’s Democratic Holy Day.”
Many Israelis do approach the day with a touch of reverence amid the revelry. Most appreciate that having a safe, free election in the Middle East qualifies as a modern miracle. Unfortunately, Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, injected an element of farce with his increasingly shrill denunciations of “the left” and “the Arabs,” demagogic cries that diminished him, his party, and his august position. No one knew whether this pandering would work—and all eyes turned to the television at 10 p.m., when the polls closed and the normally accurate exit polls were announced.
In the end, playing to the basest impulses of the right worked. From electoral polls predicting his Likud Party would win between 20 and 24 seats, Netanyahu seems to have emerged with 28 seats. He did it by offering the Israeli equivalent of Lyndon Johnson’s classic story about Southern elections only being won by yelling “n-----, n-----, n-----.” Netanyahu mobilized the right by warning about “the left” and “the Arabs.” He also did it by cannibalizing the rest of the right. Natural allies like Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu both suffered as a result. Today the right is smaller than it was two years ago, even if Netanyahu is stronger than he appeared two weeks ago. One hopes that he will emerge from this near-death experience more humble, less demagogic, more willing to listen, and more willing to reach out, but one doubts it.
Isaac Herzog must be awash in mixed emotions. The 27 seats exit polls expect the Zionist Union leader to win represent an extraordinary victory that no one would have dared predict two months ago. He has emerged as the un-Bibi, the clear alternative to Netanyahu, and an inspirational source of hope in a sea of cynicism and despair. But after two weeks of polls predicting fewer seats yet clear dominance over Netanyahu, the result must be deeply disappointing. Israeli television on Tuesday evening was generating so many governmental combinations and statistical permutations that Herzog, in keeping with his great gift to the Israeli people these last few weeks, can still hope. And there is a chance that Israel’s president, Rueven Rivlin, will designate Herzog to seek the 61-vote majority needed to form the next Knesset and government.
On a day that began in infamy, with Israel’s prime minister warning his supporters about “Arabs” swarming the polls, in the end Israeli Arabs did vote proudly, freely, constructively. Apparently, the third most popular party emerging from this election is the Joint Arab List. This story tells much about Israeli democracy as a work in progress. It tells much about Israeli Arabs’ ambivalence, torn between radical politics that marginalize them and the kind of mainstream politics that may benefit them in concrete ways, with more budgetary goodies and real political power. But it also tells much about where Israel in general needs to go. A system wherein neither “major” party even mustered 25 percent of the vote is a system that needs fixing. In this election, normally quarreling Arab parties joined together—and did much better. As Netanyahu and Herzog fight for the right to form this next government, both should think ahead and start positioning their respective parties to be broader, more inclusive, and, next election, more popular and thus more powerful, leading Israel away from this politics of fragment and stalemate to a politics of constructive action and hope.