Today, I made a bold and slightly melodramatic claim.
Writing on Twitter — which often means writing to myself — I proclaimed that I had “given up” on Israeli politics.
That’s it! I’m out! No more!
The truth is that that was slightly dishonest.
After all, if I didn’t care about Israeli politics, why would I be sitting here writing this? I think the answer is that I do care but think that — right now — the political circus isn’t worth caring about.
Here’s why I feel that way.
Nothing New Under The Sun
Excuse my pessimism, but as a longtime observer of the political field here it seems as if we’ve reached a point in the road at which change has become impossible.
The dynamic has become truly circular.
Netanyahu is the country’s longtime political leader. He shows no signs of wanting to cede his grip on power. Right now, there’s no immediate successor in sight to his lengthy reign at Israel’s helm.
Behind him is Israel’s right-wing conservative base. Tourists visiting Tel Aviv would be forgiven that Israel is a bastion of left wing liberalism. One need only look at the poll numbers to understand that this is not the country’s true character.
In today’s Israel, the young are more right wing than their parents. Trump is lionized here. Whatever tourism brochures would have you believe, the country’s character is largely right wing, nationalistic, and conservative. And Bibi — who many credit for bringing relative security to Israel and for converting Israel form a socialist backwater to a regional high-tech power — neatly epitomizes those values.
The Prime Minister, however, is subject to an ongoing judicial investigation. Even though the court system says otherwise, many of his opponents have opined that this makes him unfit to hold office.
Splinter Parties And Generals
In Israel’s political system, the electorates votes for a political party’s list rather than for an individual candidate.
Israel’s democracy can best be described as factious. This is complicated by the fact that many of the parties represent narrow interest groups. And there are many of them.
The emergence of repetitive splinter groups — typically led by a disaffected individual who felt wronged by his hitherto party’s leader—has traditionally served merely to dilute the voter base. Many of these parties don’t reach the electoral threshold.
Often, these splinter groups—who in recent years have been at the helm of the “anybody but Bibi” movement—are led by former IDF generals. For many Israelis, strength appears to be the ultimate personal virtue (or at least this is my opinion).
The suitability of the IDF as a breeding ground for the country’s future leaders has never really been proven. But this is not a fact that does anything to slow down those who throw their hat into the race.
The futility of following this broken playbook seems lost on many Israeli political leaders. As does the fact that following this broken formula is what has brought us to the current protected and bitter stalemate.
What’s Missing: Representation
Israel’s political circus appears bereft of a few things.
For one, it strikes me as obvious that the system we have today has created a system in which politicians feel a primary sense of allegiance to their party leader and not to the voter. This is highly problematic for a few reasons.
The interests of the average citizen is conspicuously average in Israeli political discourse. It has been this way for such a long time that it’s hard to remember a time when things were otherwise.
Israeli politicians do not feel the need to explain what they can do for the people, as many politicians do. The concept of representation and accountability are about as foreign here as cold summers.
Instead, manifestos tout the strength of the party or create a cult of personality around the leader or merely set out the party’s stance on issues of national importance. The left is as guilty of this as the right. Those that buck this trend become known for their policy like Gesher (cost of living) or Alei Yarok (legalization of cannabis).
Successful branding for the Israeli market also means that the leader should be perceived as tough, unflinching, and a good deal-maker. Which is why successive former army chiefs have been spun as good candidates.
Where policy can be found, it most often comes in the shape of positions about macro security issues—like the omniscient Iran threat—rather than about trifling domestic causes like Israel’s sky–high cost of living or its potential lagging competency in STEM subjects, the engine that will drive tomorrow’s high tech growth. Israelis remain focused primarily on survival — even if that means getting a lousy deal form their representatives in return.
Lest I be mistaken, I don’t argue that those running for office shouldn’t have to prove their suitability to run for office or personal virtue. I simply argue that that can’t be all that’s on the party agenda. As Israelis currently let it be.
Israelis have allowed themselves to become accustomed to a political system that doesn’t even pretend to watch out for their interests.
With no constituencies, politicians don’t feel answerable to anybody but the party leader. The bitter fruits of this: unyielding loyalty, rather than proficiency, has become the foremost value which politicians will go to enormous lengths to exemplify. Unsurprisingly, a system of mafia-like cronyism has taken hold and percolated through all levels of the political system from the Knesset down to municipal governments.
Israel and Israelis need to move past the Bibi vs. Anybody-but-Bibi charade for their own good. And to begin holding their politicians to account. But they stubbornly refuse to let themselves.
For many, observing the soap opera unfold seems like a more appealing proposition than asking candidates what they can do for the people. Likewise, whether those arguing the case are former IDF generals or repurposed needn’t matter one iota.
Israel needs unity, strong policy, and a a leadership that cares about the people. Whoever can bring that change should be welcomed. They just better have a better reason than that their name isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel needs a political system in which politicians are made to understand that they work for the people. A disruption of the status quo. One in which polticians should vouch for their constituents’ interests in parliament. And not merely for their own.
Israel needs a system in which politicians feel obliged to field manifestos for running than office and to articulate a positive vision for the country and all its citizens.
A system which calls for a higher standard of debate than negative campaigning. It won’t emerge through expecting more of the same and demanding nothing more of candidates than a shared disdain for the current leadership.
Until then what’s in the news is a soap opera. Not politics.