At a time when the American presidential race is reaching its zenith, I can’t help feeling a little depressed about a certain… staleness characterizing the race beginning here in Israel. I’ve decided to compare the two, hoping to define what it is I’m missing, and what we can learn from an older democracy that seems to outstrip our young nation in terms of democracy fever.
First of all, and most obviously, the American elections are interesting because we’re not sure who’s going to win. Just two weeks ago Romney was deep in his streak of embarrassments, yet Obama being a little greyer than usual in a debate has completely switched things around. In Israel, on the other hand, the most interesting thing the papers had to display for weeks before elections were announced was Bibi’s deliberations about when to have the elections: “Now. No… soon. Wait, no… in a few months. Scratch that. Back to soon”. The question of who’s going to win the elections, of course, doesn’t really exist.
Secondly, the American election process is much more interesting to follow because it challenges the candidates to present and defend their platforms: it makes them debate. A civilized structure of discourse and argument is non-existent in Israel regarding the parliamentary elections, and what we’re left with is prime time shouting matches and cheap promos.
Finally, and most alarming of all, the American elections are a true conflict between alternate world views on how the United States should be run. Is government an instrument for actively shaping the lives of its people, or is its job to allow those people to reach their potential through a free market economy? Will America shed its conservatism regarding same-sex marriage, or will it add another layer by outlawing abortion? Can America afford to retain its international stature through superior military force, and a willingness to use it? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are being asked.
In Israel, on the other hand, few seem to be asking many of our hard questions. How must the Tal law be replaced, and how can the Ultra-Orthodox be integrated into the workforce? Should Israeli Arabs be integrated into mainstream society, or are they simply Palestinians who happen to enjoy certain rights in the State of Israel? How many students should there be in a high school classroom? If an apartment costs a million shekel, and a teacher makes around 5000 shekel a month, at what age can she buy her own apartment? Why is there still a difference between men and women in the length of military service? Why is there a subway in Cairo but I’m still waiting for the bus in Tel Aviv?
Instead, most of what we hear towards the elections is what we’ve been hearing about for a decade: Iran. Analysts are saying that Bibi wants to run now because on the one hand, he gains politically seeing as Israelis trusts him more than the rest regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, thus keeping him securely in office. And on the other hand, he’ll have time after the elections until spring to attack Iran if he decides to, with an American president no longer busy with swing states. I just have one quick question – are any of the relevant candidates running for the Knesset supportive of a nuclear Iran? Admittedly, it would make the election more colorful. Unfortunately for my amusement, the leaders of Labor, Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and even Meretz are opposed to a nuclear Iran, and Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich (Bibi’s strongest rival, with 0% chance of winning) repeatedly supported Bibi regarding his attempts to rally the international community against Iran. The mainstream views have a similar resemblance regarding the Palestinian issue. National security is Israel’s first priority, yet in it there are few disagreements between maistream candidates; nonwithstanding, no other topic seems to be more important in the upcoming elections.
Some might say that the social uprising of the past couple years has changed this, that the Israeli middle class has awoken from its political slumber. I regrettably refer these people to all the recent polls; it seems that a vast majority of Israeli voters were not convinced by Dafne Lif.
A solution must be achieved on several levels. First of all, if national security is not up for debate then it shouldn’t be the main issue of the elections; we have to start dealing with the core conflicts of our society even if the reactors are still working in Natanz. Secondly, I believe that changes to the structure of Israel’s democracy are due; the current structure has taken us thus far and its time we fine tuned it. Finally, we need to create a culture of discourse which makes our candidates try and convince us why their strategy is better than the rest. We need to confront them with the tough issues that are ever so present in our lives as Israelis, but unfortunately seem to be irrelevant to them who would be our elected leaders.