Here in Israel, the election campaign is as brutal and nasty as the winter’s weather has been in New Jersey. It has, though, elicited this rare agreement among all the competing parties. They all agree that anyone who is not a candidate from their own party is a scoundrel, unfit to lead, and will guide the country toward imminent catastrophe if he/she is allowed anywhere near the reins of power. Not all unity is comforting.
The contentiousness is attributable in the first instance to the parliamentary system extant in Israel, with proportional representation that sees many small parties competing for small shares of the pie. Such an unwieldy system has never produced a majority party; yet other parliamentary democracies have not engendered the same viciousness in its campaigns or incapacity to govern after the elections have taken place. (There are eccezioni.) More likely, the acrimony is due to the fragmentation of the electorate and the inability of any leader to project a vision that is appealing to, or even interested in, a majority of the nation.
This “group identity” politics was pioneered by FDR, who concentrated on attracting support from a variety of disparate interest groups (labor unions, farmers, Jews and blacks, to state the four leading blocs) and handily won his elections from that base. In Israel, the “victorious” party will win – if it is fortunate, and if that indeed can be called a victory – anywhere from 20-25% of the national vote. Said another way, the new Prime Minister will be opposed by 75-80% of the nation. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement or a formula for success in governance.
As such, each party seeks just enough votes to get a seat at the governing table, enabling it to provide the benefits (usually money in one form or another) to its voters. These voters reflect different elements of society who each desire its share, and, however incomplete and in no particular order, include: labor unions, peaceniks, settlers, Russians, Arabs, religious Zionists, Haredim, working people, non-working people, the rich, the poor, the middle class, the honest, the not-yet-honest, et al. Each group wants something – and usually something that other groups do not wish to give: increased welfare allowances, more government spending, less government spending, higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for everyone, more army service for all, less army service for all or for some, a more religious state, a more secular state, amore socialist state, a more capitalist state, etc. The various parties contort themselves into finding some way into the governing coalition, get enough of what they need to mollify their base, and then jump ship when they can’t get more. And we wonder why no government is stable or able to effect any meaningful changes in policy.
There are daily polls measuring the sentiment of the electorate. Israelis poll themselves like a hypochondriac measures his pulse: incessantly and always with the direst possible conclusions. It augments the tension that already exists, owing to the constant threat of Arab terror, the Iranian bomb, the perceived unfriendliness of the American President and other such trifles.
The Jewish Home Party (Habayit Hayehudi) is one of the few parties that does aspire to national leadership and seeks to expand its influence beyond its natural base. That is both its strength and its weakness. The fact that in the last election the party list included men and women, religious and secular, was, as noted here, an honest reflection of what today’s Jewish home looks like. It was a welcome and, for the most part, unprecedented development in Israel.
But leader Naftali Bennett stumbled recently in using one of his personal picks for the party list to nominate a secular soccer player. The hostile reaction encouraged the former athlete to decline the offer. Certainly, Bennett meant well – it was an attempt to be trendy, appeal to Sefaradim and to other secular voters. Nonetheless, he violated one of the first rules of politics: do not offend your base! Secure your base and seek to expand it, but do not repel your natural electorate and assume they have nowhere else to go. The most damaging accusation against the “Jewish Home” is that it constitutes just a “Likud B.” If so, then voters will naturally be drawn to “Likud A.” This precipitated a recent decline in the Jewish Home’s standing in the polls, but it seems to have righted itself. And just in time: it is the party of the right, staunch advocates of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, a strong defense both militarily and diplomatically (summarized in the best campaign slogan: “we have ceased apologizing”), and the application of Torah to modern circumstances.
Its other weakness is that, notwithstanding its outreach to all sectors of the population and its desire to be a national party, most of the country is still locked in to the parochial, sectoral, zero-sum politics of the past. Many (most?) voters still want that – the small party that will wield outsized influence and earn them some of the spoils of government. It is as hard to compete against free stuff in Israel as it is in America. (Labor Party billboard with the year’s most astonishing political promise: Efes kshishim aniyim toch shana – or, “no poor elderly people within one year.” Huh? Does anyone believe that?) And so voters remain drawn to the narrow, partisan vision rather than the broad vision, and some secular voters will never vote a religious party no matter how it is constituted.
Most other contestants are essentially vanity parties, led by individuals who want to exercise power for a small group and protect that group’s interests, not to mention their own perks. These parties are headed by Lieberman, Deri, Lapid, Yishai, and Kachlon. Sadly, the Haredi party – Degel HaTorah – has never aspired to national leadership and has little to offer to the debate on the application of Torah to a modern society. It is still mired in the old politics of trying to grab as many things off the table as is possible – welfare, child allowances, kollel stipends, military service exemptions – before others cry foul. That is sad. If Haredim would take a more active role in society, in the public debate, and in the development of the Jewish state, Israel would be a different country.
The main opposition to Likud is a revived Labor Party, cleverly renaming itself “the Zionist camp” even though its list contains candidates who favor the expulsion of Jews from their homes and the end of the Jewish settlement, who construe the Hatikva as racist, and whose leaders present as more post-Zionist than Zionist. Over her long political career, Tzippi Livni has been on every side of every issue at least once, while moving right to left, and, like a circus acrobat, can twist herself into any position for the sake of attracting votes. Her partner – Buji Herzog (with Bibi and Bogie, every Israeli leader seems to require a childish nickname) – is the choice of President Obama, who so admires his malleability that he has sent over part of his campaign team to assist the Labor election effort, much like Bill Clinton did – to Netanyahu in fact – in the 1999 election. One would think that Herzog has no chance but the Israeli public has long been fickle, and swings back and forth from right to left almost every other election since the early 1980’s. And the peace idol still lords over a decreasing but still sizable element of the population. Illusions die hard, but the real problem is that real people die as a result of those illusions.
That leaves the current prime minister and front-runner Binyamin Netanyahu. If elected again he may exceed David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister – hard to fathom given the antipathy so many media types have for him. However one feels about him, the daily accusations against him and especially his wife – and I mean daily – are really beneath contempt, and so obviously contrived as to be laughable. Sara was accused last week of stealing the deposit money on bottles used in the prime minister’s residence, and the two were accused this week of double billing on their overseas trips in years past (both charges quickly disappeared). In every election cycle for almost two decades, she has been attacked by disgruntled employees. In fact, I have yet to hear of even a single “gruntled” employee; they are all disgruntled. It is a shameful display of media distortion and excess and it is hard to imagine a politician who has been more consistently mistreated by the media than PM Netanyahu.
I am lukewarm towards the Prime Minister because, even though his rhetoric – especially during campaigns – is inspiring, he has been a very cautious leader, essentially maintaining the status quo in a very volatile region and gradually leaving Israel more vulnerable. He always seems to do enough so as not to be accused of doing nothing but never enough to actually make a difference and change the dynamic. Perhaps that is part of the tightrope that he walks daily balancing all the diverse interests of the nation, the entreaties of friends and the blandishments of enemies.
In effect, he responds to every enemy attack on Israel – but no more. He has led two invasions of Gaza, both with inconclusive results. He has stood up to a feckless and dangerous American president – but so far in words more than in deeds. He supports Jewish settlement, but officially froze it for almost a year and unofficially for far longer. He supports rights in theory – prayer on the Temple Mount, for example – but not in practice. He has forcefully spoken and written against craven surrenders to terrorists and yet released more than 1000 to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, and continued to provide electricity, food and fuel to Gazans even during the battles. He has championed the right-wing without doing many simple and basic steps that would appeal to the right-wing. Ultimately his words expose a much more determined leader than his actions alone would justify. He is a centrist because that wins elections, even if it disables his actual policies.
Worse, regardless of the campaign slogans, there is a real fear that a victorious Netanyahu will seek a national unity government with the left, if only because that will win him good local and international press and diplomatic plaudits. Whatever protestations are issued now will be ignored the day after the election, as they were in 2012, the last time this dance was held. But such a government would be a disaster for Israel. That prospect alone is worth this timely reminder: it has been Likud politicians who have surrendered most of the land liberated in the 1967 war. It has always been one of the ironies of Israeli political life that Labor proposes and Likud disposes. May Hashem protect us from that scenario again!
In this, Naftali Bennett makes a compelling case for a strong and large “Jewish Home.” It is not only that he is a better ideological fit for the Religious Zionist voter, but also that he is the only leader who can serve as a brake on Netanyahu’s populist ambitions. Today’s insults will be forgotten after the polls close and each party scrambles for its share of the water in the trough.
A large “Jewish Home” will ensure a government of the right that will be sensitive to the traditions and world view of the Torah Zionist world. A small “Jewish Home” will almost ensure the short-term popularity of the Israeli leaders with the most of the international community that has soured on the Jewish historical narrative, Jewish rights and Jewish self-defense but at enormous cost to Israel. It will almost ensure the reality of a second Palestinian state being created with all that entails for Israel’s identity and security.
The strongest argument raised by the left against Netanyahu is the facile appeal for “change.” Americans can surely warn Israelis about the disasters that come about in the wake of that empty call.
The dust storms now sweeping the country have fostered a murkiness that mirrors that of Israel’s political scene. The stakes are great, but then again, the stakes always seem great. Yet, as always, “there are many thoughts in the mind of man, but the plan of G-d that shall prevail.”