When I worked as an intern in the Knesset a lifetime ago, I recall being asked to phone a senior member of a rival party. My Member of Knesset had to be away from a certain vote the next day, and he hoped the rival’s absence would cancel out his own. I don’t recall the outcome of that particular vote, but Israeli democracy marched on in the regular organized chaos for which the Israeli Knesset is known.
Now some Israeli voters are taking vote-trading to a new level. Rather than celebrating the possibilities of democracy to promote a hoped-for candidate without jeopardizing another favored race—as the longstanding practice of vote-trading in various countries at the citizen level suggests, these Israelis are protesting the very idea that Israel is a democracy. As Ami Kaufman reported in +972 Magazine, a Facebook page went up on December 26 called Real Democracy. There, Israeli citizens (most of whom, by their Hebrew names at least, appear to be Jewish) are offering to give their vote to a Palestinian.
“The State of Israel is a not a democracy,” writes Ofer Neiman. “Millions of Palestinians, the victims of its apartheid and occupation policies, including refugees of the Nakba, are not allowed to vote in the elections which determine their fate.” Bassam Aramin, a Palestinain from East Jerusalem, replied, asking Neiman to cast his vote for Hadash, “the most serious Jewish-Arab party in Israel.”
The initiative, which Kaufman notes echoes a similar project in the U.K., is fascinating on many levels. But for understanding its ultimate political aims, the initiative is also somewhat murky.
For all the insistence that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” these Israelis are reminding the world that for the many Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank who live under Israeli military rule, Israel is far from a democracy. In Israel, where politics is a national pasttime, these Israelis are tossing the ball to their Palestinian brethren in the ultimate act of Jewish-Palestinian political empathy.
But for those who support a two-state solution, there remains something troubling about the protest. If this is about protesting the occupation, then a vote for Israel’s center and Zionist left would express it much more expediently. Restoring the atrophied Israeli Zionist left is the only way to ensure movement on the peace process. As history has shown, Israeli governments are loathe to admit Arab parties into their coalitions. And without a government coalition committed to territorial withdrawal from the West Bank and an equitable solution to East Jerusalem, we can expect a continuation of the status quo.
But sometimes politics isn’t about expedience. Sometimes it’s meant as the kind of cri-de-coeur that democratic radicalism performed publicly, especially in the age of social media, represents. The power of fringe expression, even when not at all pragmatic, is that it can make a person stop and think. And when it comes to Israel’s occupation and settlement addiction, stopping and thinking may be just what the doctor ordered.