Barely 22 months after we voted this bunch into office, they loathe and mistrust each other so much that they’ve decided to put us through it all again. Iran moves serenely toward the bomb; Hezbollah and Hamas strengthen their rocket arsenals; Mahmoud Abbas accuses us of genocide, dismisses our attachment to the holiest site in Judaism and seeks a UN timetable for our imposed withdrawal from the West Bank; European parliaments chorus their approval for a Palestinian state not at peace with Israel. And the best our politicians can do in our service is get ready to bitch at each other on the campaign trail, paralyze governance for months, and waste hundreds of millions of dollars by sending us back to the polling booths more than two years ahead of schedule.
Happens all the time in countries like Greece, Italy and the Netherlands? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. And, anyway, those countries aren’t perpetually grappling with existential dangers.
The first thing you want to say to the dysfunctional rabble who have self-evidently failed to work together doggedly in the wider interests of the state of Israel is: Grow up. There are bigger issues at stake here than your egos. Democracies around the world have tended to provide for parliamentary terms of four years or so because it takes a while for politicians to learn the ropes, and for policies to be formulated, fine-tuned and implemented. Too long between elections, runs the sensible thinking, and elected leaderships tend to forget the voters on whose behalf they are supposed to be working. Too short a government’s term, and the leaderships get nothing done on behalf of those voters. As is emphatically the case with the now-to-be truncated 19th Knesset.
And the second thing you want to say is: A plague on all of your houses. Rarely has the old anarchist proverb, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” seemed so apposite. Except, of course, that staying away in March or April, or whenever it is our lousy leaders can manage to agree on a voting date, would further weaken our precious, abused democracy.
The first thing you want to say to the dysfunctional rabble who have self-evidently failed to work together doggedly in the wider interests of the state of Israel is: Grow up
Are early elections going to change anything, or are we going to wind up with much the same distribution of seats across the spectrum and, therefore, the same apparently near-impossibility of effective governance, rendering the entire exercise a giant waste of time? I’d be spectacularly wary of anyone who offers a confident answer to that question. This is the volatile Israeli electorate, making its leadership choices in the impossible to predict Middle East, where just about anything can happen at just about any moment — with the potential to reshape the region, never mind recalibrate Israeli electoral preferences.
But one thing has changed since we last voted, on January 22, 2013: The electoral threshold has been raised from 2% to 3.25%. Two of the current Knesset’s three Arab parties and Kadima would have missed out had that been the case last time. There can no longer be small, two- and three-seat parties in our 120-member parliament. And since there are already no big parties — at 19 seats, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is the largest in the outgoing Knesset — Israel is apparently becoming the land of multiple medium-sized parties.
All of which, in turn, means these newly imposed elections are likely to signal not the end of the political jockeying for a while, but just a fresh starting point in our politicians’ remorseless, short-sighted bargaining and extortion games.
We may think we know where to place these numerous, likely mid-sized parties — Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Isaac Herzog’s Labor, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon’s as-yet unnamed new party, Zahava Gal-on’s Meretz, Aryeh Deri’s Shas, and the second ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism — on the political spectrum. But for all the partisan passion with which their (taxpayer-funded) advertising campaign managers will now help them expound their purportedly distinct and incorruptible orientations, wasn’t it the dovish Livni, for instance, having spent the entire election campaign last time warning about the dangers of another Netanyahu government, who then signed the very first coalition partnership with the reviled Netanyahu once the votes were in? The same Livni who, on Tuesday morning, asserted that the new elections will be a choice between a Netanyahu-Bennett “extremist, paranoid government” and the “Zionist, self-confident government” she would hope to lead or dominate? Wasn’t the notion that Livni (“Mahmoud Abbas is a partner”) and Bennett (“annex 60% of the West Bank”) could sit at the same cabinet table thoroughly unthinkable, until it happened? Didn’t we assume that the ultra-Orthodox parties would be Netanyahu’s natural first allies in forging the 2013 coalition, until they weren’t? Wasn’t Liberman Netanyahu’s blood brother, until he assessed that the alliance between their parties was working against him? Wasn’t Bennett a senior cabinet minister bound by the norm of collective responsibility, until he figured that loudly denouncing and distancing himself from his own government’s policy in the midst of a war with the Hamas terror-government in Gaza would raise his profile and potentially yield more votes? Principled politics? Forget about it.
If you think that’s too bleak a summation, too unfair, then tell me, please, over what vital principle has the current coalition collapsed? Which issue was so central to Israel’s well-being, so urgent, and so disputed, as to necessitate turning again to the voters for resolution? Yair Lapid’s bill to remove value added tax from some new home purchases? I don’t think so.
Principled politics? Forget about it. If you think that’s too bleak a summation, too unfair, then tell me, please, over what vital principle has the current coalition collapsed?
As the man who opted not to reconcile with Lapid at their “last-ditch, save-the-coalition” meeting on Monday night, Netanyahu, highly skilled political operator that he is, clearly believes that he’ll again come out on top. But it’s a gamble. He must be calculating that Lapid will be discredited by ostensible failures at the Treasury, that early elections will complicate moves against his leadership within Likud, that Liberman will be a reliable post-election partner. Netanyahu is taking the chance, too, that terrorism and the rise of Islamic extremism all around us will not push too many voters into Bennett’s camp, or that the (less plausible) reverse does not play out, with an alliance on the center-left and a sense among voters of peace-making opportunities being missed, enabling Herzog to mount a prime ministerial challenge.
Again, though, what happens on polling day will likely be only part of the story. Those unthinkable alliances will suddenly again become possible, and earnestly justified by their advocates, as the egotists jostle for power. Legislation — some planned, some already passed — will be easily sacrificed on the altar of expediency. That “Jewish state” law Netanyahu deemed sufficiently essential as to risk unsettling Israel’s fragile Jewish-Arab interaction? Well, that’s gone out the window for now. Evidently not quite so urgent, after all. The legislation intended to increase the quota of ultra-Orthodox recruits to the IDF, forced through this short-lived parliament, will be substantively amended if the ultra-Orthodox parties join the next coalition. Cardinal issues relating to settlements, territorial imperatives, peace-making, all of these can be massaged — as they have been in the past — when ministerial positions are up for grabs in the immediate aftermath of elections, only to erupt as insurmountable obstacles to further coalition cooperation when one or more of the players senses a new political opportunity.
Israeli voters might be forgiven for thinking that their leaders are more interested in power for power’s sake than in the vital, orderly, effective governance of the state of Israel in a region fraught with dangers. Israeli voters would be correct.
The incomparable Winston Churchill observed, rightly of course, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He is also said to have quipped that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute talk with the average voter.” Actually, there’s a far better argument. He just hadn’t met Israel’s modern politicians.