Count the Blank Ballots

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Never was Israel further from democracy as it is in the coming elections. In the polls, 60% of the voters wanted another candidate to run against the two generals, but the political system, blatantly ignoring anything known about the will of the majority, forced a choice between only two candidates, neither of whom nears the majority of 50+%, required by law.

Less than a month ago, we were still at the peak of the war hysteria which Barak and his close military circle have generated. “I have not yet managed to understand from Arafat that he is willing to acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel” – he declared. The spirit of 1948 was thick in the air: war with the occupied Palestinians, with the Israeli Palestinians, and “if necessary” – with Syria and the whole Arab world. For the first time in his cadence, Barak looked glowing and focused, like someone who has finally reached self realization.

This dangerous and power driven general is now being packaged as our savior the knight of peace. And those who don’t want him, are stuck with Sharon.

My grandfather in the Pale of Settlement complained against the restrictions of the free movement of Jews in the Russian Empire, while in our generation Anatoli Sharansky became a symbol of struggle for human rights. In our own country, the Gentiles are fenced into reservations and concentration camps that the Pale pales in comparison with. A Palestinian cannot go to the next village without the Jewish ausweis, he is forever checked by our Checkists. He can only dream of the sea, washing the shores of his ancestral home ? we do not let Palestinians to pollute the Jewish purity of our beaches.

We reached this state through a long process of neglect of the basic values of democracy. Formally, the elections system of Israel is similar to that in France. There too, the law states that the (presidency) elections can be decided on the first round only with absolute majority, namely, if there is a candidate who got more than 50% of the votes. But there, there are always more than two candidates. The underlying assumption is that the elections are the time at which the society determines its way for the next few years. If no candidate has gained in advance the support of the majority, there should be a second process of discussion and convincing, towards the second round.

But in Israel, there is already a tradition of forcing a decision in the first round. In the last, 1999, elections massive pressure was exercised on the other candidates to withdraw before the first round. This time this was already guaranteed at the start, with a hasty decision process, in a military style.

Still, even under such circumstances, it would not have been possible in France to force the voters to elect in a single round one of two hated candidates. Assume that one candidate got 35% of the votes, and the other – 40%. The other 25%, who object to both, casted a blank ballot. The result is that no candidate got the required 50%, and a solution should be found in another round.

But in Israel, at the eve of the 1996 elections, when Peres feared the blank ballots which awaited him following his ‘grapes of wrath’ attack on Lebanon, he enforced a regulation stating that the blank ballots are “disqualified”, namely, they are not counted in the total of which 50% is required. Thus, with just one arbitrary law, the most essential principle underlying this system of elections -that an absolute majority is needed to decide in the first round – has simply vanished.

In practice, it is because of this regulation that Peres lost the elections. 5% of the voters, from the left, voted nevertheless blank. Had their votes been counted, Netanyahu too would not have passed in the first round. Nevertheless, the regulation stayed, like so many illegal regulations, so easy to pass in Israel. In the present situation, those who do not accept the predetermined choice generated by the power system face a clear verdict: “disqualified” – out of the political game!

Why should Barak worry about the smashing lack of support he encounters? The winner will be the one who can get the peace-voters, and on this front, Barak believes he is omnipotent.

It is possible to pull out of one’s hat a new peace process. As in the case of Syria, Barak can even instruct his aids to spread rumors about dismantling settlements. As long as it’s all only in the media, and not in any written document – why not? In any case, all that is being discussed is yet another “framework” agreement for three to six years. Possibly, Arafat can be forced again to sign, shake hands, and be photographed in peace positions, as he was trained to do so well during the years of Oslo. To ease his way, the same lies about 67 borders, or division of Jerusalem, can be recycled once again.

It is a bit hard to believe that it will be possible, indeed, to sell the same lies again after Syria, after Camp David, after the attack on the Israeli Arabs, after Barak’s “There is no partner for peace” declarations, and while in the territories, the Israeli army continues to starve, torture and assassinate the Palestinians.

But Barak knows that he is very well covered. At his service there is a government that has long given up its right to be informed of his plans, and three loyal peace parties – One Israel, Meretz and Hadash (CP)- which will each explain to the slice of population it is in charge of, that this time it is really peace and we must vote Barak. He also has obedient media that will recycle happily the praises of his new peace offers, and a battery of intellectuals who will prove with a magic wand that we are only imagining that the king is naked.

If Barak chooses indeed this scenario (rather than opting directly for war, avoiding altogether the nuisance of elections), it is possible that, as the jubilees of the elections peace fade away, we will find ourselves again with a single ruler who consults only with the army, and who will, perhaps, try to argue that he is not subjected to the parliament decisions because he was crowned directly by the people. And then it will just turn out that after all, ‘there is no partner to peace and Arafat does not respect agreements’, and we will go back to 1948.

But before we complete this transition into a military dictatorship in parliamentary disguise, it is still possible to go back to the spirit of democracy and the law. It is necessary, first, to annul the shameful regulation disqualifying the blank ballots, and let the voters decide. If there is no candidate with a 50% majority, the process should be reopened, so we can have real elections.

* Tanya Reinhart is a professor in Tel Aviv University

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