Election Fever

Here in Israel, election fever has seized the population or at least some small segment of it, with Knesset elections to be held in exactly two months. As always, old faces predominate even, as per custom, palates are salivating at the rise of the next flavor of the month, a taciturn general who can lead the nation to some place it thinks it hasn’t yet been.

The greatest mystery surrounds the fate of PM Netanyahu, who – if he survives – will shortly become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, to the dismay of those diehard Ben-Gurion aficionados who still see him as the prime minister and to the utter horror of long-time Netanyahu haters. Netanyahu’s problems are not with the voters, who would surely elect the Likud again as Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His main problem is with the Attorney-General, who seems poised to indict him on something, anything. One doesn’t have to be a Netanyahu acolyte to note that none of the accusations are for anything even remotely substantive but the product of relentless investigations that have literally gone on for years in the hopes of pinning something, anything, on him. That should ring a bell for Americans, accustomed by now to the sad reality that you can always get anyone on something, and the clever prosecutor can make the innocuous look sinister, and simple acts of friendship look venal.

Lest one think that voters might get tired of a man who has served almost a decade, Israel’s parliamentary system can enable PM Netanyahu to “win” while receiving the endorsement of barely 25% of the voters, i.e., with 75% of the people voting for some other party. Some win. Some system (!) but at least it allows almost all voices and opinions to have a hearing.

Netanyahu has vowed to run even if indicted while his critics have vowed to end his campaign if he is indicted. The AG Mandelblit may release his findings shortly before the election, an odd practice to be sure. Israel does not use the Grand Jury system for indictments so it is basically one man’s choice. Talk of “one man, one vote.” This one man – Mandelblit – can change the face of Israeli history all by himself; despite Netanyahu’s current protestations, I cannot envision a situation in which even the Likud will allow him to run while under indictment. The pressure of the media (which despise him, for the most part) would be too intense.

The flavor of the month is Benny Gantz and his new Chosen L’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) Party. The name is as awkward in Hebrew as it is in English. Gantz is the latest in a long list of generals to retire from the military, enter politics, sweep to some elective office, and flame out after one or two elections. The names of his predecessors in this pattern might be familiar to some: Yigael Yadin, Yitzchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, and I’ve forgotten several others. Despite these repeated attempts, the only two generals to actually attain the premiership were Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both of whose tenures were marked by catastrophic surrenders of territory, domestic instability and weakened security. That has not stopped the Israeli public’s enchantment with ex-generals, at least for one election.

Gantz has been a cipher to date. His military career was not especially notable and his public policy statements have tended towards platitudes, clichés, half smiles, winks and good wishes. One problem generals have making the transition to politics (besides the need to get elected) was encapsulated by Harry Truman, who said of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The fantasy of the politician-general is that he will know best how to defend the homeland, whereas actually being president or prime minister requires much more than that. The new flavor has always done well, and so Gantz’s party is expected to win double-digit seats. And then he too will decline in the election after this one, to be replaced by another flavor.

By the same token, third parties claiming the center also do well – once – and then recede. Think of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both up, and then down, but still around. This year’s incarnation of the Labor Party is nearing defunct status. And the wild card in the Knesset is always the Arab parties, last time the third largest bloc.

The so-called religious parties present an especially intriguing narrative this election season. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran away from home, i.e., abandoned the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party that they started to form the Yamin Hachadash (New Yamin, or Right, party). Although their maneuver contained not a little duplicity, it was a smart political move. Bennett has always perceived himself as a potential prime minister but felt hampered by leading a party that was perceived as sectoral even as he tried to broaden it. The widening of the traditional National Religious party apparatus led to certain gains but also muted its response to the issues that naturally affected their constituency including the plight of religious soldiers in the army and the leftist’s concoction of the specter of hadata, religious coercion, which they claim threatens their way of life. More impactful? The left’s hachlana (secular coercion), which in many ways has diminished or diluted Israel’s Jewish character.

The New Yamin is taking a gamble. In essence, Bennett has responded to critics of his Bayit Yehudi leadership who accused him of creating “Likud B” by, in effect, creating “Likud B.” If his gamble succeeds, his party might eventually succeed a post-Netanyahu Likud as Israel’s right-wing party but with a greater respect for Jewish tradition that has been found in the Likud. If it fails, well, the right-wing parties can find themselves with more votes but without power or influence in government. A similar and prior fiasco produced the disastrous Oslo Accords.

The traditional religious parties, right and left, never seem to grow despite obvious gains in their percentage of the population. The Agudah party, under whatever name, never rises beyond the six seats it had in the 1980’s. For sure, many of its voters don’t vote or vote for other parties. And since many of the so-called secular parties – especially Likud – contain many Knesset members who are Torah observant, the narrow parties like the Aguda party, the National Religious party, Shas and its various permutations get stuck at a certain threshold, and then reinforce their narrow agendas by focusing only on their constituencies.

The national religious party apparatus is divided into several small groupings that make meeting the electoral threshold a challenge. But the new leadership of these parties is especially promising. Betzalel Smotrich (new head of the National Union Party) has been an especially effective and diligent legislator and is uncompromising in his support of Torah, Jewish life and the land of Israel. We need such people with backbones and ideas. And Rav Rafi Peretz, the new leader of the old Bayit Yehudi, is not a natural politician – former combat helicopter pilot and Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and long-time Rosh Yeshiva – and perhaps that can be his great strength. His humble demeanor masks a steely will, and his unabashed commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the strengthening of Jewish identity and the holiness and inviolability of the land of Israel should stabilize the Jewish Home, both the party and the country. It would be best if these, and some other smaller right-wing parties, merged and created a larger bloc that could effect a proud national-religious agenda.

Surprises await, as always. What is most impressive is that all these parties are not just vying for the perks of power (hey, that’s life) but present substantially different visions of what a Jewish state is and should be. That is a debate that affects Jewish destiny for all Jews across the world. It is also a good reminder that God runs the world His way – and also that (Masechet Makot 10b) He guides us along the way that we want to walk as well.

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