The Israeli Elections, Warts and All

If you want proof that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East (we will see how long Tunisia’s lasts) you need look no further than the Israeli elections scheduled for March 17. The cacophony of voices venting various ideas and ideologies is discordant indeed. While I would never claim to be an expert on Israeli politics, as a longtime believer in and follower of the Zionist enterprise, I have some observations that may be of use.

The flowering of Israeli democracy seems to have come to a Latin American or Italian conclusion. Everything that could be said of Brazil or Italy can be said of Israel. The detainment some 10 days ago of 30 members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party on “suspicion that they illegally allocated funds to non-sanctioned organizations and laundered money through a straw company” is just the latest evidence of this. Among the 30 were members of the Knesset, regional authorities, union members, and political activists. It is impossible to tell the difference between this scandal and Brazil’s Petrobras scandal or the latest corruption scandal in Rome, except that based on population statistics there are proportionally more thieves in Israel.

As a secular Jew, I have always been skeptical of those who claim to speak to God or for him. So when the religious parties in Israel that have shown themselves to be equally corrupt and venal were not included in the present government I was relieved. Using public money to further religious interests under the pretext that God wants it this way or that is unnerving and, I believe, rather backward for a modern and technologically advanced country. Shas, the grandest party of this cabal, never impressed me as anything other than the Tammany Hall of old – with skullcaps. Like Italy, Israel has both religious corruption (see the Vatican), and secular corruption (see the Mafia’s penetration of nearly the entire Italian economy).

Modern Israel, with all its behavioral problems, begs the question: If the Jewish people are the “chosen people,” for what have they been chosen? Are they Louis Brandeis or Bernie Madoff? Have all the wars won to keep the Zionist state safe only been to allow for opportunistic enrichment and material gain? For corrupt rabbis to extort funding from the government? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the Jewish people are not so chosen or special after all and that the ultimate expression of Zionism is a profound humanism, a realistic assessment that God made the Jewish people and Israelis exactly like everyone else on earth: good, bad and in between. These questions lie at the heart of the upcoming elections.

Then there are the uncompromising Jewish zealots. Last month, former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit issued a dire warning. He compared the religious nationalistic movement in Israel to the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans from 132 to 135 CE. The Jewish messianic call to arms against overwhelming odds resulted in the destruction of Israel and two thousand years of exile for her people. Shavit’s message is clear: extremists who are following orders from above will bring havoc to those below.

The opposition to Netanyahu from the secular left (and center) seems fairly straightforward. It’s Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater. The mushroom cloud of the daisy chain political commercial is not an atomic bomb but Netanyahu’s propensity to alienate just about everyone. This left-center opposition, having lived in the government for a long time, probably knows of what it speaks. There are not too many capitols Netanyahu can visit and receive a very warm welcome. Not a good thing when you represent one of the smallest states on earth.

Of the 10 or so political parties likely to be represented after March 17 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (parliament), it looks like none will win more than 25 seats. This factional splintering and the resultant circus called “coalition-building” reminds me of the old joke “two Jews, four temples.” This campaign cycle – like others in Israel’s recent history – seems like blood politics, all according to what can be negotiated or purchased, power to be bought and sold. Nothing for the larger national interest here; only selfish politicians with their own narrow concerns.

Israel seems bereft of statespersons. Shimon Peres is arguably the last of the living ones, but he is 91 and no longer in politics. The ghosts of men like David Ben-Gurion or Abba Eban do not seem to visit often. Even superficially unifying figures like Moshe Dayan have disappeared.

As the elections approach there are sure to be frequent and breathtaking alliances formed, deals cut and support given and withdrawn. Only one thing can be stated for sure: Israel has joined the rest of the modern world that is exemplified by political fractionalization and personal promotion that is both pervasive and ruinous. This current manifestation of Zionism resembles the politics that everyone should have left behind when making Aliyah.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.
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