Election 2020

Dear Americans: The Election Party Was Bad, but the Hangover Will Be Worse

In Israel, the uncertainty always lasts for weeks after balloting. Here’s how to cope.  

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

An Israeli wearing a mask with the face of U.S. President Donald Trump
An Israeli wearing a mask with the face of U.S. President Donald Trump marches along an alley of the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 7, 2019 MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

A highly polarized electorate split almost neatly in half. A controversial, corruption-tainted incumbent fighting to maintain his grip on power. An election night that continues into the morning with no clear result—followed by a weekslong process to determine the outcome.

Dear America: Welcome to Israel’s reality.

Israel held three hotly contested election campaigns over 15 months, from December 2018 to March of this year. Not one was a simple affair.

In all three campaigns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the long-serving incumbent, failed to win an outright parliamentary majority for his Likud party and its right-wing allies. But neither did his main rival, Benny Gantz, of the centrist Blue and White party. Backroom machinations dragged on for weeks as both sides attempted, in vain, to cobble together a working coalition government.

While Israel’s parliamentary system is more convoluted than the winner-take-all firehose of America’s Electoral College, some tips from the Israeli experience are applicable as the United States—along with the entire world—awaits the winner of Donald Trump versus Joe Biden.

Ignore victory speeches. In close elections, they’re meaningless.

Gantz delivered a rousing one in April 2019 after exit polls showed his Blue and White party leading Likud in the vote count. But he became a laughingstock hours later when the actual results made clear he had no viable path to the premiership.

Eleven months later, Netanyahu committed a similar blunder. Following a day of voting in March of this year, he crowed about his “great victory.” In fact, Netanyahu managed to secure support from only a minority of parliament members, forcing him to offer his rival—the very same Gantz—a power-sharing agreement.

Be skeptical when politicians cry foul. In functioning democracies, irregularities are the exception, not the norm.

In the April 2019 ballot, the pro-settler New Right party failed to pass the electoral threshold for entering parliament, falling short by 1,400 votes out of more than 4 million cast nationally. The results deprived Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of three to four seats and a parliamentary majority.

The New Right alleged irregularities and moved for a recount. Party chief Naftali Bennett recruited a battalion of volunteers to scour election warehouses for lost ballots, but to no avail. After a week he conceded defeat. “We have found irregularities in the polls and beyond, but they do not, in and of themselves, nullify all the election results,” he said. “At this stage we are moving on.”

In the ballot earlier this year, Netanyahu and his Likud party refused to certify the results after suing (unsuccessfully) to have every poll station in the country recanvassed. But the Central Elections Committee, headed by a Supreme Court justice, declared the vote had been conducted fairly.

Be Patient. Democracy takes time.

The post-election process in Israel often takes weeks or longer to run its course—from the ballot counting, to the ceremonial consultation process between the president and the heads of the political parties, and up to the inevitable horse-trading required to strike a coalition deal.

In fact, the horse-trading—who leads it and how long it takes—is governed by law. In last year’s second election, in September, the process went on for three months and ended inconclusively—forcing Israel into yet another campaign. Americans should be thankful that a repeat election isn’t an option in the U.S. electoral process. Imagine going through it all again, and yet again, only to get the same results.

When Israel’s third election also ended in deadlock, Netanyahu and Gantz struck a rotation agreement, with each leader agreeing to serve as prime minister for half of the three-year term. One journalist at the Times of Israel, Raphael Ahren, jokingly advised Americans to at least consider the approach. “Yalla, rotation. Trump goes first for 24 months, Biden will be Alternate President. Then they switch,” he tweeted.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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