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.
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.