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Blank Ballots and the Israeli Elections

By Tanya Reinhart

 A fact that received little coverage is that the Israeli elections were, in effect, decided by the blank-ballots of the left. Non-parliamentary left groups called on left voters to put in a blank ballot, rather than voting for Peres. In the final count, Peres only needed 30.000 more votes to be re-elected and there were 90,000 blank ballots.

The problem that the opponents of government from the left were facing in the last Israeli elections was what options of resistance are still open when the system allows, in practice, only the choice between the bad and the bad. Four years ago, it appeared that the Palestinian Intifada and the long struggle of the left against the occupation had had an enormous effect on public opinion in Israel. More and more people (at least a third of Jewish Israelis, according to all polls) believed that dismantling all settlements and ending the occupation was the solution. The right-wing government was overthrown, after many years in power. 15% of the votes went to the three parties left of Labor, which put a Palestinian state on their platform, and the new coalition that Labor formed with these left parties seemed to many like a beginning of a new era. When the Oslo agreements were presented, in September 1993, almost all Israelis believed that they would lead very soon to evacuation of the settlements and a Palestinian state (since this is how they were presented in the media, at the time). Still, they were received with an enormous enthusiasm, and two thirds of Israelis supported them, consistently, in all polls. The settlers were anxious. Shortly after Oslo, Labor Parliament member Hagai Merom opened an office for settlers wishing to leave with compensations and 50% of them registered.

The government had, thus, a sufficient parliamentary majority, and an overwhelming majority of the people to execute the change. But instead it turned to execute the old autonomy plan of Sharon, which the Likud has always tried to establish. Rabin was explicit from the start that what he wanted was a strong cooperative Palestinian police, "unrestrained by the supreme court or civil-rights organizations." While the Likud's attempts to construct such collaborating forces ('village-councils') have failed, Rabin managed to get Arafat himself as the chief collaborator. The Palestinian police forces were trained by the Israeli secret service, and were sent to do the job of torture and oppression.

None of the settlers who wanted to were allowed to leave. Shortly after the Hebron massacre, in February 1994, a majority of cabinet members demanded evacuating the 400 Hebron settlers. Rabin vetoed this move. From then on, there could be little doubt that the Labor government was among the worst Israel had ever had. Two wars in Lebanon during one term in office break all records of the rightwing governments. Living conditions of the Palestinian people under occupation were never worse than under that government and the dimensions of land confiscations and entrenchment of the Jewish settlement infrastructure which it carried out had no precedent in previous Likud governments. (The Netanyahu government has introduced so far nothing new, and on every single issue, it just continued, or executed the written plans left by the previous government.) Rather than changing policy, Labor showed mastery in changing the language. From now on, occupation is a 'peace process', and the Palestinian Ghettoes are 'the seeds of a Palestinian State'. In fact, using this language, Labor managed to fulfill the Likud's vision much better than the Likud ever could, since it had no opposition on the left. The representatives of the 15% left voters collaborated in presenting the new stage of occupation as a big step towards peace.

By all the criteria of a democratic society, a government which has blundered must pay for its failings and step down. But the catch was that the new political setup left the voters only one choice: either Peres or Netanyahu, and the threat posed by Netanyahu paralyzed leftwing voters. This is a dangerous process. In practice it means that the third of the Israelis which oppose the ideology of force has no way to influence the political system. Democracy which disenfranchises one third of the voters is hidden totalitarianism.

The call to resist this process - to participate in the elections, but put in a blank ballot for prime minister - came from (small) circles of the non-parliamentary left, and it gathered momentum in the protest wave following "Grapes of wrath." (The parliamentary left, including the Communist coalition, continued to support Peres, even then.) The blank ballot voters of the left knew that it was highly plausible that their votes would cause Peres to loose, since all polls showed that his majority was very small. But they decided, many following great conflicts, that these elections should mark the lines which the left really should not cross: Do not help any government that continues the policy of force and occupation.

The idea behind this line of resistance is that the blank ballot is not just a form of protest, but a political weapon. Typical of the system of pseudo choice is that there is always only a narrow margin between the competing parties. If even a small portion of the left-wing voters steps out of its automatic support of the Labor candidate, voting a blank-ballot instead, this seriously jeopardizes the chances of that candidate to be reelected. The ability to overthrow a government is a powerful means that the left should learn to use: The blank ballots are a warning to any future government that it can be overthrown by the left, and not only by the right, and even if it manages to buy off the elected representatives of the left, the left voters still have a weapon, which they will not hesitate to use. The larger the blank ballot camp, the greater the pressure it applies on the parliamentary system to take it into consideration in the future.

The threatening potential of the blank-ballot vote was understood perfectly well by the Labor headquarters. An enormous machinery of pressure and propaganda was employed to dissuade voters from this line of resistance. Official announcements threatened that the blank ballots would not be counted. The parliamentary representatives of the left parties, aided by troops of intellectuals, pleaded with leftist voters to vote for Peres, even if this required 'holding one's nose'.
(The Israeli equivalent of the New York Times) published, almost daily, articles denouncing the adventurers of the blank ballot, and not a single one supporting them.

Still, despite all pressures many of the left voters rebelled. 148.000 people, about 5% of the voters, including 21.000 Arab voters and thousands of soldiers who voted for the first time, put in a blank ballot for prime-minister. If we deduct 67.000 voters who did the same for the party vote, we are left with 81.000 voters who elected a party, properly, and still refused to elect any of the candidates for prime-minister.

An industry of interpretations of the blank-ballots has flourished. For example, Labor circles tried to insinuate that these were faked by the right and promised court appeals, which never materialized. The sophisticated analysts of the mainstream and organized left argue that the blank balloters cannot be viewed as left, or protest voters. But they did not manage to provide any other account. The fact remains that only the left has called for a blank ballot. Even if some account can be found for thousands of these votes, there still remain tens of thousands of people who marked with their votes: There is a border which we do not cross! - Anonymous voters who have no organized voice, no elections headquarters, no broadcasting time, each one of them thinking he might be the only one. This is the beauty of the democratic system: a stubborn minority, refusing to accept the tyranny of the power system, can at times affect the social order.