The Vote That Can Decide


Beneath the surface, there is deep anxiety in Israeli society: The media is full of reports of war preparations: “Home Front Command to stage ‘mother of all exercises’ ” (JP, Jan 22); “Ministry tells purchasers to prepare for emergency” (Ha’aretz, Jan 25); “U.S. sends Patriot missiles s to Israel” (AP, Jan 27). The feared war is of a new and unfamiliar kind, as the region is loaded with missiles and nonconventional weapons. It is enough, for example, that one missile will manage to penetrate the nuclear plant in Dimona, despite all the defence patriot missiles to send us all to Chernoville.

Even if no one seriously intends this, in the tension generated the last few months, even one single spark can ignite the whole region. Only a sane and responsible leadership will, perhaps, still be able to prevent the deterioration into a regional war.

But the leadership standing for elections is the same leadership that brought us to this situation: Sharon has always proposed to withdraw from Lebanon, wait for some incident, and then respond with total war. Barak has left Lebanon, but he insisted on keeping areas of conflict, like Har Dov, or Ghajar, which continue to be a source of tension and potential incidents.

Ever since 1967, all Israeli governments were careful to keep the holy sites (Temple Mount/ Al Aksa) out of the public discourse, and in collaboration with the Israeli chief Rabbinate, they even crowned the Wailing wall as the substitute of the Western Wall which is supposedly located in Temple Mount. Barak and Sharon changed direction. Barak prepared the soil politically, demanding that the Palestinians will recognize once and for all Israeli sovereignty over ‘Mount Temple’, and Sharon lit the match for him. From a conflict over lands and borders, they dragged us into a religious conflict with the whole Muslim world, which may well lead to a holy war.

Those satisfied with this state of affairs may vote for one of the generals. The question is what all the others can do. In the media and the internet, an intensive debate is taking place between the answers ‘vote Barak while holding your nose’ and ‘blank ballot’. This debate is no longer relevant: Barak has no chance. Those who determined the results of the elections are the Israeli Arabs and the left who decided already that they won’t give their vote to Barak again. (In the polls, 15%-20% of those surveyed state they will vote for neither candidate.) Without their votes, Barak cannot be reelected. The question for Sharon’s opponents today is whether Sharon’s election can be prevented.

This may sound like a lunatic question, given that there are only two candidates, but not if we examine the spirit of the Israeli elections law. The elections system for a prime-minister in Israel requires that a candidate can be elected in a single round only if he has absolute majority. (This differs, for example, from the system in the US, which requires a relative majority). As the law states it: a candidate should have over 50% of the valid votes. The catch is that when the law turns to define and list the valid votes in sections 76 and 78, it neglects to define the abstaining blank ballots as valid votes.

One need not be a law professor to observe that the definition of valid votes contradicts the spirit of the elections law. Whenever elections or other decision procedures, in any forum, require absolute majority, those abstaining can determine the results by not allowing a 50% decision. Indeed, The high court discussed this following an appeal after the elections of 1996, and ruled that the way the law is formulated, blank ballots are not ‘valid’, but it added that this is not obviously the preferred state-of-affairs, and possibly the parliament (knesset) should discuss this explicitly.

The last week, several appeals were submitted again to the high court, concerning the blank ballots. The court ruled that it is too late to discuss this before the elections. Still it is reasonable to demand that the required discussion should take place also after the elections, the same way that discussion of the interpretation of the elections laws in the US took place after the elections.

Given the spirit of the law, if Sharon does not get 50 percent of the total number of votes, including the blank ballots, he has no mandate: His election is based only on a technical neglect in the formulation of the law. At the moment, the polls indicate that he might have the required 50%, but in practice, his race towards the 50%, like that of any candidate in previous elections, is a tight one. In the polls, at least 5% of the 52% voting for Sharon switch to Peres, in case he runs. These are not right wing voters, but another segment of the ‘just not Barak’ voters, who vote Sharon out of no choice, and may still consider casting a blank ballot instead.

In a close race, every vote counts.

Many of the opponents of both Barak and Sharon, are still hesitating between boycotting the elections (not voting) and voting blank. But only those who vote can harm Sharon. As far as the law is concerned, there is no way to distinguish between those who do not vote because they boycott the elections, and those who do not vote because they ‘don’t care about politics’. The absolute majority required by the elections law is determined by the number of actual voters.

A blank ballot vote at this stage, is a vote against Sharon – the vote that can decide if Sharon will have mandate for war.

* Tanya Reinhart is a professor in Tel Aviv University