Seinfeld, the classic 90’s TV sitcom, was often described, usually derisively, as “a show about nothing”. There were no overarching themes, critics argued. Sure, each episode had a plot, but the storylines were focused primarily on highlighting the characters’ eccentricities rather than conveying any larger idea or message. The show’s “about nothing” reputation became so prominent the writers even parodied it when Jerry and George pitched the idea of “a show about nothing” to NBC execs.
Next week’s election has some disconcerting parallels to the show about nothing. After all, the present Knesset was just elected two years and two months ago, making this the second shortest Knesset in history. So why is this happening exactly? Most people don’t even really grasp why the last coalition fell apart. There’s a vague public recollection about a falling out between Lapid and Bennett and the failure of the former’s 0% housing VAT plan, but that’s about it.
A campaign without a cause
Typically, Israeli elections feature some clear theme or issue that sets the tone, with the competing parties – particularly the larger factions – addressing the issue with clearly distinct solutions. In 2006 the dominant issue was disengagement from the West Bank; in 1988 it was the First Intifada and in 2003 the Second; in 1992 it was the wave of immigration from Russia and Israel’s strained relationship with the White House. Sometimes the theme doesn’t directly relate to a policy issue, but reflects broader sectorial tensions between different segments of the population. The 1981 election, which highlighted ethnic tensions between Sefardim and Ashkenazim, is the classic example.
But what about the upcoming election? What burning issues will it address? What crisis made it necessary to hold them this early? In theory, the cost of living is the focus. But given the economic facts, the rallying cries of a “shrinking middle class” or of declining purchasing power ring hollow. In reality Israelis – middle and working class especially – have never had it so good. Household income has been surging for the past decade, easily outpacing rises in the consumer price index, a key measure of inflation and the cost of living.
While it’s true that average wages have been stagnant after inflation is accounted for, that’s because of the dramatic rise in workforce participation amongst the lower class as Haredi men and Arab women have finally begun entering the jobs market in droves, hence the surge in working class household income. As new workers they understandably begin at the bottom, lowering the average. But the growing employment rates amongst these groups is a triumph, not a failure, of the government. Indeed, unemployment has declined and, remarkably, inflation has remained extremely low, with 2014 averaging zero inflation.
A character-driven election
Compared to the crisis-ridden Eurozone, Israel appears to be an economic success story. At the very least, Israel’s economy does not justify bumping up elections by two years, nor does it yield an adequate theme. So what’s really the impetus behind this election?
Much like the show about nothing, this election emphasizes characters in place of narrative. The left, driven by a virtual obsession with the Prime Minister that can be best described as “Bibi derangement syndrome”, has turned the March 17th vote into a referendum on Netanyahu. Not simply his policies or governance, but Netanyahu personally, and by proxy, his wife. In any other context the raking over the coals of a First Lady would be rightfully decried as not only irrelevant to politics but in bad taste as well. Here, however, the left has deemed it a valid talking point for the campaign, alongside Bottlegate.
And the narrative pushed about the left? At center stage is not the laughably misnamed Zionist Camp’s absurdist throwback economic platform, but the political marriage of Tzippi and Buji, symbolizing the union of the left with the center-left.
The left fails to woo Middle Israel – again
Given the choice between the much demonized incumbent and a relatively substance-free campaign by Labor, it’s hardly surprising that the bulk of Middle Israel – the politically centrist, generally middle class secular or traditional core of the country – has opted, as in 2013, for the third option. This time the center bloc offers two serious contenders, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, and the pair have been steadily draining both the right and left.
While a month ago the Zionist Camp was polling an impressive 25 to 26 seats (compared to the 21 the union possesses today), it’s been averaging just 23 lately. The center bloc, on the other hand, has surged from 15-16 a month ago to 22-23 today, bringing them on par with the Livni-Buji union.
The result of this utterly unnecessary election is likely to be a continuation of the same dynamics that governed the last Knesset: a weakened right again forming a coalition with the center in a government that focuses on the economy and issues of religion and state rather than final status negotiations. One can only hope that this time the coalition will survive the meaningless ego flexing and opportunism that brought down its predecessor so prematurely.