Gideon Israel
Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center

Welcome to the circus

The recent U.S. presidential election was a very tight contest until the very end when the results were counted. In the days and weeks leading up to the voting, one could feel the enthusiasm in the air. The elections had the same excitement as a tight pennant race and the suspense of a football game going down to the wire. In the U.S., where not everybody cares about politics, there was a feeling that this election was important and that every vote counted. There was a strong feeling that the opposing candidates, especially in the Presidential election, and also in many of the Congressional elections, espoused different views on so many major issues and that each would lead the country in a different direction.

In Israel, there is also a sense of excitement about the upcoming elections, but it seems that the excitement is not about what direction the country is heading. Rather, it is the suspense and intrigue of having no clue as to what will happen next.

Consider the following “earth-shattering” events that have already “highlighted” this election season: Netanyahu and Liberman made nice. Moshe Kachlon announced that he is leaving politics, only for us to find out that he is considering starting his own political party or holding out for a better ministerial position – and then leaves politics. Ehud Barak seems finished, but then he meets with Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini trying to gain his support, which would help Atzmaut remain in the Knesset, and then resigns. Can the Shas Party’s Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai resolve their differences?  Will Labor merge with another party? Tzippi Livni has formed her own party and is desperately trying to fill it with people who a) have credibility and/or b) will bring in lots of money. Will Ehud Olmert come out of his retirement?

What will happen next? No one knows yet. The final party maps, slates and personalities remain to be determined, and the farfetched and fantastic possibilities are seemingly endless.

While the election process engenders a lot of drama, at the end of the day it is largely devoid of substance. Hope for improvement or change in the political arena is slim. Not change or other cheap slogans that are so often facilitated during campaigns. Rather, people running for Knesset who can offer new ideas and innovative ways of addressing our current problems and not just offer more ways to bankrupt the government and raise taxes. Instead, the election season is a complete circus. Welcome.

What adds to the circus atmosphere is not only having no clue what will happen next on a national level, but the seemingly complete disregard for the voting public. For example: Netanyahu was disappointed with the list that resulted from the Likud primary, since his friends or the people who will give him more power and legitimacy were elected to lower spots than he wished. On the night of the elections, where the Likud members said loud and clear who they want, Netanyahu says, “Begin, Meridor, regardless of the will of my parties voters – I want you to join me in the next government.”

The primary was viewed by the’ powers that be’ as nothing more than merely a suggestion from us simple, uneducated, culture-less, citizens.  After Tzippi Livini ,so ‘successful’ in leading Kadima, gets crushed in the Kadima elections, she decides to team up with Amram Mitzna, who, if you haven’t already forgotten, was hammered in the Labor elections, to form  the powerful one-two punch for their new high-profile party. The circus promises to provide better and more entertaining scenarios as election day nears.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even see a lineup including Livni-Yacimovich-Merridor-Barak!

The unfortunate reality is that as long as there aren’t direct elections for Prime Minister together with direct regional elections for individual Knesset members, the circus will continue. The present system for electing the Knesset encourages ideological rifts and promotes a Knesset whose members do not work together to move the country forward and solve problems.

Knesset members are elected strictly based on their party allegiance and ability to draw votes for the party and not their potential ability as a legislator who is willing tackle tough issues and generate results. Worst of all is that the current system encourages parties to focus on a few issues, or to promote issue or sector related candidates because the elections are based on ideas and not actual issues. Every party brings in as many ideas as possible. For example: Netanyahu brings in security man Ya’alon, religious woman Hotoveli to pull votes from the religious and women, Rami Levi or Shlomo Maoz who is Mr. Social, and Dan Merridor who is Mr. Left. Completely ridiculous.

Similarly, Shelly Yacimovich tried to fill out her ticket with a Mr. Army, Mr. Foreign Policy, Mr. Defense Expert, Mr. Religious with this type of kippa or that type of of kippa. It’s like a poker game – Netanyahu has a full house, therefore Yacimovich must be able to find four of a kind to beat Netanyahu, or perhaps teaming up with Yair Lapid and Tzippi Livni will give her the Royal Flush that she needs.

Direct regional elections of Knesset members and direct election of the Prime Minister – who are thereby directly accountable to voters – are what Israel desperately needs. This encourages a system where candidates represent – and are accountable to – real people and their real life challenges, candidates who are familiar with local, domestic and international issues.

Direct election of MKs will force MK’s to realize that while ideology is important, getting the job done is more important, since they will ultimately be judged on the job they have done, and not how many protests they organized or media statements they released. Until election reform arrives, however, the circus continues, don’t go away, because maybe Aryeh Deri will leave Shas and Netanyahu will pick up the very valuable free agent and I just heard a heavenly voice saying Ehud Olmert is teaming up with Meretz.

About the Author
Gideon Israel is the Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center which focuses on strengthening US-Israel relations through mutually beneficial policy projects.