A Five Minute Conversation

 “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

So said Winston Churchill – but was he right?

For a man known to posses a dry, English wit, the above quote – one of the most famous of the 20th century – may well have been tongue-in-cheek, yet it is not difficult to see his point.

In the run up to Tuesday’s election, the leading (and not-so leading) parties have cranked up voter excitement to fever pitch, by way of adverts (let’s not go there), public statements of party intent (nor there) and thinly (and not-so-thinly) veiled attacks on their opponents. It seems, therefore, that the most unconvincing argument in favour of democracy at the moment may well be a five minute conversation with the average politician.

Difficulties arise when judging any political race from abroad, relying on social media in the main to inform, educate and shape personal opinion – but this position does allow for limited, broader discussion on the overall picture, away from the melee on the ground, among those who do have to make a decision come Tuesday morning. With such slick political rhetoric being bandied around, this decision is proving to be far from easy, with latest polls showing between 14% and 20% of voters as yet undecided, less than 48 hours before the election.

Such figures highlight an obvious disparity between centre and centre-left voter interests, and that which the respective parties have yet offered up on their agendas.

I confess, whilst not being entitled to vote anyway, I make up part of this undecided bloc. I am yet to be convinced that any party is showing signs of significant change or freshness – or that if they are, they are far more radical than they would like to be seen.

I hereby lay out my ultra-simplistic and no doubt flawed view of the current standing of the election race, and before being hounded for ‘focusing on the negatives’ – yes, that is precisely what I have done. No party will ever be perfect, nor one candidate entirely ideal, but what roots me to the undecided bloc is the seemingly immovable issues that each party sees before them – some of which are entirely self-made. I am summarising a number of views from the print and instant medias, along with opinions I have heard from others, with some of my own added in. They are opinions I have heard directly from voters who will be casting a ballot come Tuesday and which have made up my own ‘five minutes with the average voter.’ They may not be groundbreaking, but they represent views which are mainstream enough to have reached a student in England – and I await to be corrected.

And they shouldn’t take more than five minutes…

“We can’t do any better – so what else should I do?”

Hardly a ringing endorsement for the incumbent. This election, viewed from the outside, could really be mistaken for being quite boring. As David Horovitz rightly said here, the old Prime Minister will be the New Prime Minister and that is that.

It’s hardly a secret that no individual party can garner enough support to gain an outright majority and this election has long been about the shape and dynamic that the new coalition will take. This being the case, the Prime Minister has been able to pass through this election period – somewhat serenely – without fear of losing his working title in the near future. The constant and most oft-repeated criticisms of the PM revolve around his obsessing with Iran, ignoring – and indirectly weakening – Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for any peace and infuriating and distancing the United States as Israel’s closest ally through settlement building.

We can’t do any better…what else should I do?

All this before the Lieberman scandal and long before the name Naftali Bennet was being whispered in schools and youth clubs outside of Israel, and it is understandable why his Likud-Beytenu alliance has gradually lost support.

I disagree, however, with the criticism of Iran. Viewed – and most generally accepted – as Israel’s most immediate and severe threat, it would remiss to the point of disbelief if Israel’s premier did not devote considerable time to this issue. Moreover, during last years’ summit with President Obama, the President made clear that he viewed Iran as a ‘mortal danger’ and adopted a doctrine of prevention against Iran, rather than accepting the premise of a nuclear Iran. This was followed soon after by reports from the UN that Iran has more than tripled is production of 20% grade uranium. I find it laughable that anyone can name Netanyahu’s consistent focus on Iran among his faults.

Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, didn’t even need five minutes.

In a campaign video lasting less than 120 seconds, Lapid encourages ‘Israelis by choice’ – Anglos – to vote for a party committed to ‘taking back the future.’ In an article on this website, he asks potential voters to ‘…imagine electing new…leaders, to replace the…self-serving and corrupt politics of old.”  Aggressive and compelling words from a man dubbed the prom-king politician.

Discussing Yesh Atid with a friend of mine – an oleh, who has lived in Israel for some seven years now – his immediate response to ‘Who is Yair Lapid to you?’ was ‘a TV presenter…the son of a politician.’ For a party less than 12 months old, polling at 12 seats has to be seen as a major success – particularly with the election a full year earlier than anticipated – but, in Lapid, do they have a charismatic former television personality, or a man passionate about representing the Israeli middle, working for the good of all Israelis? Equality of national service , which Netanyahu did not deal with in the summer and on which Yesh Atid have staked much of their campaign, must be a contributing factor to their success. That said, with his policies described as ’empty’ and his statements ‘cliched’, it seems Lapid’s battle is as much to prove himself and his own manifesto to be legitimate as it is to gain votes in this election.

Politicians will always try and campaign around the future. The youth of today will be the MD’s, scientists and teachers of tomorrow and it is that which must surely be concerning Tzipi Livni. Polling at less that 3% of voters under 30, Hatnua has steadily lost support since reaching a predicted 10-high seats at the beginning of January.

An attempt by Livni at a unifying call for Israelis to vote for a centrist party – any centrist party – was slammed in spectacular style by both Labour and Yesh Atid in recent weeks, with both party chairmen calling it a ‘calculated spin…with…no smidgen of truth or content.’

If this was Livni’s attempt at galvanizing the reported 40% of centrist voters who may stay home on Tuesday, it failed in breathtaking fashion, with the former Foreign Minister managing to unite her centre-left competition in their scorn and disdain for her. On a personal level, Livni runs the risk of losing voters whose main concern lies in their belief that, should she lose out in the election, she’ll be off and running. She has form.

…calculated spin with no truth.

Fiercely critical of the Prime Minister for his lack of discourse with Mahmoud Abbas and accusing him of lending legitimacy to Hamas, Livni is campaigning on green issues and further attempts at peace. Backed by two aging former Labour MK’s and with little support from the next generation, however, Hatnua continues to lose support.

As a child, I remember watching a cartoon where a cowboy, full of good cheer and spirit, lassoed two wild horses together and galloped off into the sunset, whooping and with guns blazing, leaving a cheering crowd in his wake. Had I looked closer, the cowboy may well have had the face of Naftali Bennet.

What strikes me as odd first of all is how a man who was formerly Chief-of-Staff to the current Prime Minister could have made his rise up the ladder quite so tough. What strikes me as odd secondly is wondering whether I am the only one who finds him terrifying. I admit to being excited by this English-speaking, excitable and passionate figure, full of vigor and genuine plans for the future, but I can’t help but be troubled by much of Bayit Yehudi’s electoral behaviour. Ignoring the rights and wrongs of statements made in that interview – comments that were taken out of context and over-publicised to the point of becoming good press for Bennet – the party chairman still seems to remind me of the cowboy playing to the crowd, somewhat over-eager and with solid, substantial ideas, but with some way to go before growing up and becoming the finished article.There may well also be a good deal more right-wing extremism beneath the surface than is generally accepted at present.

Spending as little time as possible on the subject, however, the latest controversy to hit Bayit Yehudi may be exceptionally damaging. Arguing that the quote is taken ‘entirely out of context’, a recently-popular video clip of Jeremy Gimpel shows the potential Bayit Yehudi MK discussing the ‘incredible’ possibility of blowing up the Dome of the Rock. In a clear voice, with no heckling and repeated for effect, Gimpel tells a Christian audience how wonderful this fantasy would be for all concerned.

That this was said out loud at all, by a man who is in the running for public office, in public and on record, is context enough. It is indefensible.

Attacked from all sides, Bennet maintains he is entirely unconcerned by the remark and stands by his man. I find it extremely difficult to imagine Bennet being equally placid faced with a fantasy of blowing up the Western Wall. Gimpel’s statement is both reckless and unworthy of any public servant and should be treated as such.

Gimpel’s statement is indefensible.

Whilst most are concerned with Bayit Yehudi’s perceived extremism, others are more concerned with their religious policies. Earlier today, Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called Bennet’s party ‘a party of goyim (gentiles)’ and issued a statement forbidding Jews to vote for the party in light of their stance on conversion. Mind you, Shas haven’t exactly held back in recent weeks. Openly racist adverts, a rift within the party and a leader viewed by many as out of touch with religious life, they are quickly making a career out of finding enemies. Most recently, accusations have been levelled by MK’s from Bayit Yehudi that Ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias, and candidate Aryeh Deri are ‘misleading Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.’ Calling them ‘the three bandits’, MK Uri Orbach and Rabbi Chaim Druckman accused Shas higher-ups of deliberately misleading the party’s aging leader.

Shas’s current attitude has earned them widespread derision and their party adverts from last week offended and shocked in equal measure. If this is the standard by which the country’s ultra-orthodox party wish to rule, they may find widespread support in extremely short supply. That said, coming out in support of the Prime Minister will do them no harm going into a new coalition. They can huff and puff as much as they wish against all other parties, but this will bring them very limited success when coupled with the way they have gone about this election process, although, to quote the leader of ‘the party of goyim’,  Naftali Bennet – ‘Everyone is attacking us…we must be doing something right.’ It is odd and not entirely palatable that the ultra-orthodox party have stooped to some of the lowest levels in this campaign.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the parties competing in the upcoming election. It isn’t even an attempt at mapping out the issues facing each party. It is simply a half-formed narrative, based on my own misapprehensions of the parties, taken from many sources and many conversations.

Not being able to vote makes the decision a great deal easier, but I am genuinely curious as to the reasons people will choose to vote this week.  If each of the candidates spent more time honestly and openly discussing what they stood for rather than bandying words with one another (Hatnua – Labour, Yesh Atid; Likud – Obama; Shas – Everyone) and the media spent less time negatively influencing and depicting politicians, perhaps the decision would be a far simpler one.

Maybe I’m being too cynical. After all, I have only the smallest amount of political understand and cannot be expected to judge which policies make more sense in Israel’s long-term future. I don’t have the benefit of Netanyahu’s long career, or of Three-Party-Tzipi’s experience (too cynical again?) in deciding which is right or wrong. Churchill certainly wouldn’t change his mind after a five minute conversation with me.

Voting isn’t meant to be easy. If the choice was stark, there would be no need for multiple parties and no need for debate. But perhaps it will never be a straightforward and simple decision, least of all in a country as diverse and complex as Israel.

We are truly following the maxim of Laurence Peters, that democracy is a process where the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame.

For that, if nothing else, we should be thankful.

About the Author
Robert Marks is the Director of Leeds Jewish Orthodox Youth, and a part-time Chazan in England, having returned from learning in Yeshivat Hakotel. In any spare time, he enjoys playing cricket and recording music.