Naomi Chazan
Naomi Chazan
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Hazy, lazy days of summer

The Knesset may be on vacation, but the flurried backroom deals have just begun -- and they warrant Israelis' scrutiny

Israel, like most other parts of the world, is in the midst of its August shutdown. Many are abroad, seeking relief from arduous routines in far-away places. Others are roaming the country in search of some rest and recreation. And those who remain at home are whiling away their time (or tearing out their hair) in the hope that the next few weeks pass as quickly and uneventfully as possible. But between the sun and large doses of the almost intoxicating Olympic Games, much is happening below the public radar. Many of these occurrences will have a greater impact on people’s lives in the coming months than they care to admit at this juncture. A few random reminders may hopefully penetrate the season’s immobilizing lethargy.

In the international arena, the slowdown during the last weeks of summer has been punctuated every four years not only by the spectacle of the revived Greek games, but also by the build-up to the US presidential elections. This time, the Trump candidacy has provided as much consternation as amusement — diverting attention from one of the most worrisome presidential races in recent American history. While so many eyes have been directed to Washington, less attention has been paid to the latest maneuvers of the master of summer deception, Vladimir Putin. His recent dabbling in the Crimea, along with Russia’s ongoing interference further to the East — from Turkey and Syria to Iraq and beyond — is unsettling at best.

Indeed, tensions in the Middle East proliferate, regardless of the August heat. Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, speaking from a position of weakness emanating from his involvement in the Syrian morass, has once again made it clear that he views Israel as the ultimate demon in the region. At the same time, the defeats of ISIS on the ground have provided an impetus for the exportation of their obscene brand of violence into the heart of the West. Too many remain homeless, uprooted and desperate — a very poor recipe for any kind of human security down the road.

Closer to home, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are particularly vulnerable at this time of year: water is in short supply, electricity is far below needs, and settlement construction and home destruction continue apace. Beneath the sweltering sun, preparations for the local elections scheduled for October are in full swing. Few Israelis are even aware that they are to take place before the American ballot, let alone that a new, democratic, alliance is challenging both Fatah and the Hamas.

Within Israel, now that the Knesset has gone into its prolonged three-month recess, the formal break is actually unleashing a flurry of activity far away from ongoing parliamentary scrutiny. For Israeli politicians, August is the beginning of their most intense and important playing season.

Less than a week after the close of the second session of the 20th Knesset, the government conducted its usual budgetary marathon, approving a record NIS 359.7 billion allocation for 2017, and NIS 367 billion for 2018. Even the usually eagle-eyed economic press has been tardy in presenting and analyzing the details of the proposed budget — which deviates by almost 100% from the 2.7% rise allowed by law. With a 4.5% across-the-board budget cut that virtually cancels out increases in the fields of education, health and welfare — new taxes on multiple homeowners and higher income brackets will be effectively erased by lower corporate taxes. This skewed instrument will now be fine-tuned, while most citizens will awaken from their annual timeout much too late to internalize, or, for that matter, adequately respond to its multiple implications for their pockets and their well-being.

While the budget discussions are a predictable — albeit frequently overlooked — ritual, much more significant are the political shenanigans that customarily accompany the official high-summer hiatus. Barely 10 days after the close of the parliamentary session, several major — and exceedingly controversial — legislative proposals have been floated. The first, emanating from the prime minister himself as part of his attempt to harness the press, seeks to prohibit any recordings of conversations without explicit approval, thus seriously narrowing the scope of activity of investigative journalists. Another, by none other than Yoav Kish, the Likud Chair of the Knesset Committee (the Israeli equivalent of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee) would preclude members of the Knesset from petitioning the High Court of Justice on any matter related to Knesset procedures and decisions, thus erasing one of the last vestiges of institutional checks and balances in Israel’s already fragile democracy. And yet another proposal, by novice Likud Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel, seeks to raise the threshold for entry into the Knesset from its current 3.25% to 7%, thereby either eliminating all small parties or forcing them to form (temporary?) electoral alliances with their larger counterparts. Such a move does not have much support even in the governing party; it is, however, indicative of a plethora of suggestions that cannot be summarily dismissed as merely products of seasonal hallucinations.

These and similar proposals are symptomatic of the enormous amount of political dabbling taking place at this time of year. Most of this activity occurs behind the scenes in private conversations and intimate gatherings in which political futures are determined, alliances struck and strategies decided. This is especially true this year, as recent polls on electoral trends (not only those disseminated publicly, but also those conducted privately by potential contenders) point to possible shifts in the party-political map of the country. Is a new “moderate-right” party headed by Moshe Ya’alon and others in the making? Is Netanyahu going to face his first serious homegrown challenge within the Likud? Is it possible to knit together a viable Democratic alliance in the country? How sustainable is the Joint List? At every political coffee shop and drinking hole in the country, these matters are being weighed and schemes are being designed as most Israelis are preoccupied with blocking the media along with the relentless rays of the August sun.

Skeptics used to belittling the energies of their elected officials during the working year (and hence even more disbelieving about their hyperactivity when supposedly on vacation) would do well to take note of the shudder of discomfort accompanying the induction of the right-wing rapper Yoav Eliasi (“The Shadow”) into the Likud. The new political aspirant’s attack on Benny Begin and Tzahi Hanegbi is just one, extraordinarily telling, snippet of the unusual amount of political machinations currently in motion. The impact of the deals now being knitted together will have a direct effect not only on the durability of the present government, but also on the identity of its successor.

Israel’s manic-depressive reaction to the performance of its athletes in the Rio Olympics is perhaps the best way to capture what is going on during these avowedly hazy lazy days of summer 2016 (a vast real relief from the Protective Edge nightmare of two years ago or the traumas of the Second Lebanon War of 2006). The respite from the intensity of daily life is, indeed, refreshing. At the same time, for some eager-beavers, this break provides precisely the opportunity they need to lay the groundwork for their plans far away from the sharp eyes of a generally unusually-attuned public. A periodic wake-up now (even between naps) might be in order to avoid too many nasty jolts later on.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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