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March 20, 2015 10:37 am

Israeli Elections – Then and Now

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The first Israeli election I experienced was in the summer of 1961. I was in Yeshivah in Jerusalem, and heard both Ben Gurion and Begin campaign. There was no comparison. Ben Gurion was dull and uninspiring. Begin was magnetic and charismatic. But Ben Gurion won more than twice as many votes as Begin did. The left-wing socialist monopoly of power in Israel would continue until 1977. I learnt then that elections had little to do with charisma or indeed honest politicians, for there was none as honest and materially modest as Menachem Begin.

Given the Israeli system of proportional representation, there will always be a wide range of parties. And given that no party has ever received more than 50% of the votes cast, it would be impossible to govern without coalition partners. Mapai, Ben Gurion’s party, would win around 45 votes and in the early years governed thanks, in the main, to the votes of the left-wing Mapam (around 18) and the National Religious party (12), who naturally were paid their political prices. But times change. The old order is out.

The issues that faced Israel then were of the same order as those facing Israel today, even though the circumstances are very different:

  • What place would religion play in the state?
  • How would the government deal with housing its citizens?
  • The economy.
  • What would the relationship with Israeli Arabs be?
  • How could one make peace with the outside Arab world?

Over the years, the issues have remained. Although each one has become more complex, the categories remain the same:

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  • Whereas once the Charedi citizens were a despised minority, now they are growing exponentially and need huge infusions of cash to support a religious life that despises secular education and in general refuses to shoulder its share of the security issues.
  • Large, state-funded housing and building cheaply on occupied territory once helped provide affordable housing for thousands. But the switch from socialist housing to capitalism has meant that market forces determine prices. Those with money from within Israel or world Jewry want to be in Tel Aviv or nearby Haifa or Jerusalem. But housing there is now prohibitive. The only option is to live further away where housing is cheaper, but then that affects jobs in the center. Demonstrations of mainly middle-class Israelis who cannot afford Tel Aviv life have highlighted the financial divides in the country. The gap between the rich and poor in Israel is growing wider and more problematic.
  • Relations with the Israeli Arab population are fraught. Most of them say they’d prefer to live under Israeli authority than Palestinian, but even so they feel discriminated against in Israel. They do not have to serve in the army, but this then limits job opportunities and benefits. But they can vote and sit in the Knesset. This year, for the first time, their fragmented parties of the left and right, religious and secular, are uniting. Something the Jewish religious parties show no sign of achieving.
  • Once Israel was at war with all the Arab world. Now its conflict is essentially with the Palestinians. But they are divided into Hamas, which wants Israel eliminated, and Fatah, which is divided between those who want accommodation and those who prefer to hold out for more.

The one major difference nowadays is that the Israeli economy has done remarkably well. If the actual facts have changed over the years, the issues have not.

I heartily dislike and distrust politicians. Politicians are an unattractive breed of self-interested wheeler-dealers. No honest, self-respecting man or woman can survive with integrity intact in a system of constant bargaining, disagreement, and shifting alliances. It is the same everywhere of course. Israeli politicians are particularly prone to come and go, rise and fall. Each election a new “savior” arises, and each time he or she shines for a while and then fades.

The fact is that Israel is a very divided and mixed but vibrant country with lots of different minorities and interests. Outsiders like to think elections will lead to rational clear-cut decisions, but they rarely do. Politics are messy. Democracy is messy. But, dammit all, don’t we prefer democracy, inadequate as it is? So why are we such sore losers? When George W. Bush won, the liberals wept and swore to leave the country. When Obama won, the right swore he’d ruin it. Somehow we survive because we have other institutions.

Now that Netanyahu has won, the left wing is ready to up and leave. Obama sent his men to influence the election and then gets petulant like a child because it did not turn out the way he wanted. He is threatening to throw Israel under the bus. Let him, I say. Israel voted. Respect the vote, even if you hate it. Otherwise you cannot argue for democracy. It’s their country, not yours. So they are back where they started – that’s their choice.

Sure Netanyahu scared the electorate against the Left, just as the Left tried to scare everyone against Netanyahu. The Left doesn’t want the religious, the Right, or the Russians. The Right doesn’t want the left or the Arabs. Each partner in a messy coalition will sap the blood of the others. It’s possible (but unlikely) that Netanyahu and Herzog might form an alliance, but if they do it will only hobble them both. There is no one there who can be a game changer. It’s not completely dissimilar to the Republicans desperately trying to find a presidential candidate who can bring all wings of the party together. Change will only come when both sides want it badly enough.

It’s at moments like this that I can see the sense in the Charedi position that all of this is meaningless, it is all in the hands of the Almighty. Yet ironically the Charedi leadership still insists its people should vote, not so much for the good of the country, but because it wants to get its hands on the money.

Logically, I despair. I see no solution. And I agree, no deal is better than a bad deal. But what can you and I do? We want Israel to survive and be strong. We want peace. But we do not want capitulation. It’s like a bad marriage. Both sides are usually to blame.

It’s the Almighty who got us into this mess. Just as He did when He took us out of Egypt and landed us amongst the Canaanites. I guess He will have to solve it because we do not seem able to.

The Talmud says in Shabbat 32a: “You do not stand in a dangerous place and hope that God will perform a miracle for you.” You have to try to find a solution yourself. But what if you can’t? What else can you do but pray?

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  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    I am afraid you speak for many of us American Jews, more appalled by an American President’s petulance and only marginally veiled threats, than Netanyahu’s reckless last minute policy announcements which he has now begun to backtrack from. As the son of a political figure, though admittedly only on a state level, I have more admiration for those who go into politics than you allow in this piece, because I witnessed the toll it takes on those who try to be honest brokers and vote their conscience. Those of us who followed Senator Kerry’s career in Massachusetts have every reason to wonder about his ability to negotiate a real de-escalation of the tension with Iran and now that the President rather than reassuring Israel as the negotiations approach a critical point, has chosen to exacerbate the situation, one wonders just where American foreign policy will find itself.

    I walk about with anxiety and as you suggest, with little choice in regard to the place, the only place to turn is prayer, which is probably what Ha-Mokom meant in other grave moments in Jewish history.

    Thank you again for your good sense.

    Mark

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