The Israeli Elections
This is a translation of a column that appeared in the Israeli daily 'yediot' on May 16, 1999 (a day before the elections).
The last Israeli elections were decided by the ballots that "do not count" - the blank ballots. 148 thousand people, about 5% of the voters opted for this choice in the prime-minister elections. (81 thousand of these voted for a party, but refused to vote for a prime- minister). The Labor candidate, Peres, only needed 30 thousand votes to be reelected.
What the blank-ballot voters had in common is that they knew they were being cheated. They got tired of searching for invisible difference between two identical candidates, and felt that, at the final count, as a voter wrote on his blank ballot, "Peres and Netanyahu are equally bad for the poor".
For the left-wing voters, the only choice left was the choice of protest. It does not have to be this way: The present elections system which is similar, say, to that in France, leaves, in fact, a large space for the democratic play. In France, there are many candidates in the first round. Towards the second round alliances are formed, and the small present the demand of their voters from the big, according to their achievements in the first round.
But the left parties in Israel (which represented about 15% of the votes), gave up the democratic struggle, and instead of presenting a candidate of their own, promised their votes unconditionally to Peres.
Many of the left voters refused this order - many after long and difficult deliberations - and voted a blank ballot. This vote signalled that the left has not disappeared, that it is possible perhaps to buy its representatives, but not its votes. And these votes are waiting for a candidate that will fight their battle.
At the present elections-campaign, it seemed that the blank revolt has had an impact. Azmi Bshara, who was among the first to call for a blank ballot in the previous round, dared to break the silence of the left, and ran for prime minister. For the first time in the history of Israel there was an Arab and a left candidate for prime- minister. Independently, one could also rejoice in the Israeli democracy, which leaped a big step forward, with five candidates in the first round.
But apparently, Barak and his camp do not view democracy as progress, but as nuisance. An unprecedented pressure was put on the smaller candidates to withdraw: slanders, threats, column after column in the press. In a well coordinated division of labor, Barak's party persecuted the center candidate Mordechai, among the Jews, and the Communist party 'Hadash' did the same to Bshara among the Arabs. Their combined message is - The hell with Democracy!; Lets have only one round, with only Barak! Those trying to insist on their right to follow the standard democratic procedures are depicted as crazy weirdos, enemies of Israel, and Netanyahu lovers.
It is particularly difficult to understand the CP (Hadash). Bshara's candidacy could not possibly enlarge the danger that Netanyahu will be elected in the first round. (In the present elections system, a candidate needs 50% of the votes to be elected, and not a relative majority. If Netanyahu does not have that, it does not matter how the votes of his opponents are divided.) One could expect that the CP, that wrote on its banner left and equality to Israeli Arabs, would stand behind Bshara, and call its voters to vote for him for prime- minister, especially in view of his success in the poles. But the CP not only used any means to press him to withdraw, but also called its voters to vote Barak, even if Bshara runs.
It seems that not much has changed in the CP since the glorious days of the Soviet Union: Negotiations between voters and their candidates? Left struggle? These are stupid democratic games. One candidate is more than enough, just as comrades Stalin and Brezhnev were elected. A responsible revolutionary is always loyal to Big Brother, and now it is Barak.
Why precisely are Barak and his vote-suppliers so afraid of a healthy democracy with two rounds? They explain that having voted for a party in the first round, the Arab and left voters will not come to the second round to just vote Barak. In fact, the Israeli voters are amongst the most dedicated in the world (with around 80% participation). It is very simple to bring the left voters to the second round. It is only necessary to convince them that it would matter whether they vote or not - that there is at least some, even small, points that Barak offers them which differ from Netanyahu. That's how it goes in a democracy - a candidate courts his voters.
But that's precisely what Barak refuses to do. He is only willing to court the right-wing and offer more security to the settlers, a 'really' united Jerusalem, and even 'freer' economy.
So, it seems possible, with pressure and threats, to force a decision in the first round. (All candidates agreed to withdraw their candidacy in the last minute.) It is also possible to send vans to the Arab villages and ship the voters to the ballot boxes, as they did in the last elections. What is impossible, in a democracy, is to prevent the voters, when alone in the ballot room, from putting again a blank ballot in the prime-minister envelope.
As for Azmi Bshara, he proved himself as the only courageous parliament member that the Israeli left has today. His party - Balad - is a relatively new party, with many young people and intellectuals, who did not grow up in the frozen establishment of the old left. They deserve being strong in the next parliament.
Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University