Beyond Slogans: Making Israeli Elections More Meaningful

The campaign for the election of the next Israeli Knesset has begun in earnest.  So far, we have old parties struggling to hold on, new parties flailing to establish an identity, a confused electorate, gyrating polls, and the usual litany of labels, accusations and slogans.  Sound like fun? Actually, it is a pretty dreary imitation of a circus.

The election is going to yield two important outcomes at the same time and the parliamentary system conflates the two – one outcome is the choice of the 120 people who will make the laws under which Israel operates. But the second outcome is far more important. On April 9th, we will choose the person who will lead the country.   Each voter needs to make an informed decision about the stature, vision, integrity and judgment of the leader of the party they vote for.

Between now and the election, each leader of a major party – each potential prime minister — should be presenting their vision and strategy for leading Israel forward.  Their ideas for dealing with the full range of issues facing Israel should be available for public examination.

How could this happen?

Israel should have a series of official, formal televised debates sponsored by the Central Elections Committee.  Each debate would be moderated by a leading political analyst/newscaster.   The TOI debates in English are a good beginning but are not a substitute for national public debates in Hebrew.

One potential roadblock to official debates is the sheer number of parties in Israel.  There were 14 parties in the last Knesset; and new parties have emerged.  A debate between 15 to 20 contenders is infeasible. A process is needed to reduce the number of participants to a manageable number. This is difficult but not impossible.  One option is to invite the leaders of the top five parties to debate.  “Top” could be measured by the combined ranking in the three most-widely recognized polls.  Leaders of all other parties could be invited to submit written responses to the moderator’s questions that would be circulated by the Central Elections Committee. Or two out of three debates could be among the top five party leaders and a third could involve the next tier of party leaders.

Unlike presidential debates in the United States where the moderator selects the topics to be covered and the questions to be asked, I suggest that an independent, blue-ribbon plan selected by of the Central Elections Committee define the topics.  The moderator should choose the specific questions.

Here are some of the important topics that I would like to hear the potential leaders of the country address:

  1. What is your strategy for ensuring the security and safety of the nation and people of Israel?

In the face of the unrelenting hostility of powerful enemies, there can be no question that security and defense top the national agenda. But beyond chest-thumping, it would be helpful to have the candidates articulate a clear set of priorities to inform Israel’s planning for safety and security.

  1. What is your strategy for reaching an accommodation with Palestinians?

The electorate is so skeptical about the possibility of attaining an accommodation with Palestinians, let alone achieving peace, that the entire subject is dynamite for political leadership.  We desperately need a strategy that breaks out of the left-right paradigm. The current situation guarantees that we will continue to hold millions of unwilling and angry Palestinians subject to our rule and that my grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be going into battle.

  1. How do you propose to reduce poverty in Israel, especially poverty of children?

Israel has the second highest rate of poverty among countries tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the fifth highest rate of children living in poverty. The words of the prophets about caring for the poor should be ringing in our ears and driving us to act. Where are our potential leaders on this?

  1. How do you propose to improve education in Israel?

Educational achievement – a core value of the Jewish people, a key element in our survival, and the engine of Israel’s high-tech economic success — is pathetically low. Israel ranks 38th in science, 39th in math and 36th in reading – well below the average score for OECD countries.  In the long term, this is just as dangerous to Israel’s well-being as a missile threat, yet we hear little about educational improvement from any of the party leaders.

  1. How do you propose to reduce inequality in Israel?

By any measure, Israel has one of the highest gaps between rich and poor of any developed country in the world.  Income and wealth inequality tears at the social fabric of the society. Is a society with a sharp division between the ‘haves” and ”have-nots” consistent with a tradition that includes a redistribution of property every fifty years? Is it consistent with the values of the founders of the Zionist state? We need leaders who are prepared to address the deep divisions within Israeli society of which the gap between rich and poor may be the most serious.

Other important topics could be on the agenda for a debate:

  1. How do you propose to improve democracy in Israel? 
  1. What is your approach to strengthening relations with Diaspora Jewry especially American Jewry?
  2. How do you propose to balance environmental protection and economic development?
  1. How do you propose to reduce the cost of living in Israel?

We need find a way to move our national elections from a popularity contest to an arena for focused argument about crucial issues.  The leaders of the major parties who are competing for the right to lead us need to compete with ideas, strategies and plans.

About the Author
Jack Ukeles is the president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a planning, policy research, and management firm for Jewish communities and organizations in the US, Israel, and world-wide.
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