Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Israel, April 2021: What’s New, What’s Not

The dust has settled from the 4th round of Knesset elections in two years. Those rounds produced mountains of ballot paper, oceans of political machinations, miles of media punditry, waves of public protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu but almost no change in the basic Left-Right impasse among Israeli voters. If Netanyahu assembles a new coalition under our chaotic parliamentary system, he will do so despite his Likud party again receiving only a small fraction of the total vote.

Because this deadlock blocks progress toward a better future, I’ll take this opportunity to account for what’s new and what’s not. This assessment may not help anyone feel better about the abysmal state of Israeli politics. At least it might allow for clear-eyed view toward our near future.

By now the world has adjusted to the end of the Trump administration.  One might think that similarly populist leaders in Europe, South America and Israel would have made course corrections to account for Trump’s failure at reelection and the unravelling of his isolationist foreign policy. Yet Netanyahu still seems to undervalue Israel’s relations with fellow democracies while remaining embarrassingly proximate to thug regimes and autocrats.

Since the Biden administration took office, Netanyahu has doubled-down in attacks against Israel’s own legal system. And, akin to one of Trump’s most notable traits, Bibi still monopolizes Israel’s news cycle at the crossroads of his corruption trials and orchestrating coalition politics to preserve political power and protect himself from prosecution.  Netanyahu still stokes fears about imminent security threats facing Israel. In this way he has for years bolstered an image of indispensability for Israel’s defense: last week this manifest on Yom Hashoah, when during the prime minister’s ceremonial remarks at Yad Vashem, Netanyahu reminded the nation about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

In contrast, a marked change did occur recently in discourse among government ministers: after the March elections far fewer have commented about the Covid pandemic or the road to economic recovery. A more naïve person than me might attribute this sudden quiet to what many see as impending herd immunity in Israel. I believe, however, that once the pre-election political utility of speaking about the pandemic passed, our politicians lost interest in the issue. Netanyahu himself mostly disappeared from the public discussion in late March, probably once it became clear that, despite prior hopes, his prominence in Israel’s Covid response did not generate the desired electoral “bump.”

This brings me to another observation about policy discussions in Israel’s public space. This round of elections changed little: political punditry, fed by jockeying among ministerial hopefuls, long ago overshadowed meaningful policy debates among Israel’s politicians. The absence of debates between candidates for Prime Minister during these election cycles magnified the shallowness of our national politics. Most troubling, no one expects that our next government – certainly if led by Netanyahu – will address the core challenges facing Israel. Instead, Israeli politics have evolved into a kind of grotesque theatre devoid of positivist policy suggestions. Rather, our politicians for more than a decade have haggled over personality conflicts within and outside of their own parties, focused on discrediting competitors instead of leading Israelis to a more just future, and deflected accountability for their own failures.

A clear conclusion, at least for me, arising from the last four rounds of elections is the inadequacy of our electoral system, which lacks any mechanism to ensure geographic representation. Aside from Jewish communities in the West Bank, no member of the Knesset is obliged to consider as constituents Jewish Israelis residing outside the narrow coastal strip and Jerusalem. Consequently, Israelis living in more than 50 percent of Israel’s pre-1967 landmass can hardly point to a single Knesset member who will not prioritize his or her own political benefit ahead of the interests of communities in the Golan, Galilee, Negev and Arava.  This structure has led to an institutionalization of non-accountability in the Knesset and to chronic neglect of Israel’s geographic and socio-economic peripheries. As a case in point, while in recent months a surge of murders has engulfed Arab towns, our government ignores the issue or exhibits hand-wringing or finger-pointing, instead of seriously addressing the clear systemic causes of this criminal violence.

What can be done in light of these long-lasting truths?  I cannot foresee substantive change to Israel’s parliamentary system or movement toward a Constitution. But there’s reason for hope. I’d like to believe that the majority of Jewish Israelis – who lest we forget are not ultra-Orthodox and do not reside in the West Bank – are increasingly coming to grips with the consequences of the toxic, dead-end, morally vacant nature of our national politics. Israelis are forming widening circles of non-profit groups committed to bridging old ideological and religious divides; they are increasingly marrying across old ethnic divides; through their global contacts and travels they encounter the power of diversity; younger generations are less inclined to absorb the fear and hate-mongering promoted by too many of our politicians; and young Israelis can’t help but be inspired by the global spread of courageous “ground-up” social justice and democracy movements.

I cannot say when wholly cynical, tribal, transactional, divisive politics will pass from our country. I am confident, however, that it cannot continue much longer. It surely must not.

About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a member of the History Department and the Department of Jewish History & Contemporary Jewry. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol (relocated at Kibbutz Ein Gedi in 2021), which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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