On Israeli Elections

It is hard to describe the feeling of voting in israel. Like many aspects of life here, the mere fact of voting feels like nothing less than a celebration of life itself. Election Day in Israel is a time for all the old Zionist kitsch to well up inside – deep gratitude for the first Jewish-majority country in 2000 years, for the revival of the Hebrew language, for the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years, for the privilege of living in the Holy Land. For generations of Jews, including our greatest scholars and leaders, Eretz Yisrael was nothing more than a dream. The enormity of living here is not lost on me.

For me, the religious significance and Divine privilege of living my life here is not limited to holidays. I try to remain cognisant of that on a daily basis feelings, but those feelings are emphasised ten-fold on special Israeli occasions such as Independence Day, Jerusalem Reunification Day and Election Day. Yes, many aspects of life in Israel are challenging, and our ongoing inability to win out over those challenges is particularly frustrating. But overall, I am grateful for the challenges, for the opportunity to face these them as a sovereign nation. I am proud of what Zionism and Israel have accomplished over the past 150 years. Election Day is a critical time to remember all that.

In addition, given the challenges we face, electing a new Knesset also carries with it a strong, palpable sense of doom, even of fate. In 1996, my first election in Israel, my hands literally trembled as I put the white slip in the little blue envelope. In America, a Republican or Democratic victory might be cause for celebration or sadness, but little more than that. Elections might be important, but the future existence of the country was never in doubt.

In contrast, Election Day in 1996 felt like the Zionist experiment could come to a violent end, with the re-exile of the Jewish People, had Shimon Peres won that election. Opponents of Binyamin Netanyahu clearly feel the same feeling in the other direction today.

Altogether, then, the decision not to vote is a serious matter, far beyond the proportions and emotions of voting or not voting in other places. Many Americans view voting as a chore, rather than privilege, and voting competes there with work and university obligations, shopping or just plain laziness or apathy. This is reflected in the fact that less than 60 percent of eligible voters voted for president in 2012. Similarly, in Australia nearly all citizens vote, but many people say openly that they would not feel a strong moral voice compelling them to do so were it not for the $75 fine they would receive for not voting.

In contrast, my decision not to vote in the elections following the 2005 destruction of Jewish communities in Gush Katif and the subsequent abuse of the victims of th at operation was fraught and painful. I believed, and still do, that disengagement, as the Israeli left euphemistically called it, and especially the neglect of the victims of that move, was nothing more than the abuse and exploitation of democratic norms in order to save then-prime minister Ariel Sharon from indictment on a series of corruption charges. In the years following that trauma, hundreds of families complained that they had had their homes stolen in broad daylight, while consecutive governments refused to provide fair compensation for their losses, and made it difficult to obtain the minimal compensation that was available.

To me, the poor treatment of the Gaza refugees seemed – and still seems – like a clear message to the settlement community: If you oppose a future pullout from areas of Judea and Samaria, the Gush Katif model can and will be replicated for you. If that was what Israeli democracy had become, I wanted no part of it.

As a result, in 2006 and 2009 I took the principled stand not to participate in Israeli democracy. That decision was a painful and sad reminder of my inner pain and sadness at the notion that were it to become politically expedient, I knew Israeli society would not hesitate to violate democratic principles in order to evict me from my home. Simply put, I felt that Israel had lost faith in me, and I reciprocated that feeling. My decision not to vote was (at least to me) a stinging rebuke of Israel. I rejected the legitimacy of Israel itself in light of Gush Katif.

I returned to the voting booth in 2013, for two reasons: First, the Gush Katif settlers themselves had turned out en masse to vote in the elections following their eviction.They said clearly that even if this country had betrayed them, they would not betray Israel. “This isn’t about us,” one settler told me five years after Disengagement. “Israel didn’t stick a knife in our backs. Israel stuck a knife in our country’s back. Ariel Sharon did not betray us. He betrayed Israel.” I found comfort in Eliyahu Uzen’s words, and decided that if he could continue to vote in Israeli elections,if he did not reject the legitimacy of Israel, then I had a responsibility to find the inner space to do the same.

The second reason I voted in 2013 was the emergence of the Yesh Atid party. I was never enthralled with Party Chairman Yair Lapid, but I liked his strong list of non-politicians. I have said and written for years that Israeli politicians are largely responsible for having creating much of the messy situations that Israel faces toadying that committed, intelligent, fresh-thinking new voices that were unbound by “how politics works” could at the very least inject new tone and content into the Israeli poltiic. Whether or not they accomplished that goal is not the subject of this essay, other to say that I continue to identify with that attempt to re-define the way in which our country is governed. I also felt that that redefining politics was an important step towards repairing my broken feelings following Gush Katif.

Despite those reasons, the decision to vote was difficult. It was tough to reconcile my dreams and hopes for Israel and the rational understanding of what a world without Israel means for Jews with the deep hurt that lingered as a result of the Gush Katif pullout.

All of which brings us to today. Unlike post-Disengagement , there was a small movement over the past several months of Israelis who said they would take the principled stand not to vote. Their argument is simple: The current elections, and indeed the current crop of candidates for the Knesset, collectively represent their contempt for Israel, Israelis and for democracy. In their view, today’s election was a sign of Israel’s failed leadership, not a celebration of democracy. According to that view, voting for the current crop of candidates, with no prospect for change on anyone’s horizon, would have been irresponsible. As in 2006 and 2009, I strongly identify with that message.

And yet, having overcome the trauma of Gush Katif to vote in 2013 – essentially deciding that the sins of Disengagement did not outweigh the overall good of Israel – I could not stay away from the ballot box today. In part, this feeling was inspired by Facebook – so many of my friends wrote passionately about the privilege and blessing they felt when voting here, it was hard for me to disagree. It is a privilege and an honour to live here, and I try to remain thankful for that.

But I simply could not give my sacred vote to any of the candidates running. While I continue to value the message that Yesh Atid represents, I felt they did not sufficiently acknowledge the areas in which they were unsuccessful during the 19th Knesset. That felt to me like they had fallen into the traditional Israeli political refusal to take responsibility and to learn from mistakes. Walking into the voting booth, I told my wife that I was going to vote for BeZchutan – the small group of haredi women who tried to challenge the rabbinic establishment by forming their own party. It was not a joke, and I seriously considered voting for those brave women.

Ultimately, however, I felt that while I had a holy obligation to vote, I had an equally strong obligation to vote “no confidence.” While I agree and disagree with certain elements of every single platform on offer (including the United Arab List), there was no way for me to avoid the fact that none of the parties have earned my vote, or give me any confidence that they would serve the country’s needs – rather than their party’s needs – as members of the 20th Knesset. My white slip of paper indicated to all candidates that while I celebrate the State of Israel, I am offended by the way their politics operates. To that, I will not be a party.

And so, with my hands trembling the way they did in 1996, I placed the white slip into the little blue envelope. I voted, and voted with my conscience, and I am whole with my decision.

May God bless Israel, and grant the members of the 20th Knesset the wisdom, courage and insight to guide this country towards peace, security, economic prosperity and more. As we celebrate Israel on this Election Day, I pray that our leaders deliver on their obligations to serve Israel faithfully and honestly, and that their efforts create an Israel that is truly a Light Unto the Nations.


Going out on a limb

Prophecy is the handiwork of fools, as the saying goes (or something like that). Still, at the risk of falling into the well-known trap, a small prediction about what we’ll see in the coming days and weeks. I, like many others, believe the country will be in for a shock tomorrow night at 10. In contrast to many others (and especially many of my neighbours who I believe are afflicted with hopeful blindness), I believe the results of tomorrow’s election will be something like this:

Zionist Camp 26
Jewish Home 16
United Arab List 14
Likud 14
Kulanu 14
Yesh Atid 14
Haredim 13
Meretz 6

The main reason for this layout, I believe, is Bibi Netanyahu. While neither the Zionist Camp nor the Likud campaigns addressed any substantive issues (both said merely “it’s either us or them/him”), the economic situation faced by most Israelis will deliver this election definitively to Labour. Simply put, life in Israel is simply too expensive. Too many people work too hard, only to fall deeper and deeper into debt every month. Too many people say our schools do not meet the needs of today’s Israeli children, and they do not prepare them for adulthood in the 21st century. Too many people feel our elected officials have turned John F. Kennedy’s dictum on its head, asking themselves primarily “what can this country do for me?”.

Worse, Netanyahu has fallen deep into the trap of surrounding himself with yes men, sidelining those who present differing opinions, and believing that adulation from committed supporters is an indication of widespread support. This was seen most clearly during his trip to Washington earlier this month. Yes, the prime minister delivered polished, convincing speeches both to AIPAC and to Congress, both time to rousing applause.

But even before arriving at those forums Netanyahu was assured of a fawning reception (indeed, there is ample indication that Netanyahu would never have agreed to travel to Washington had there even been a question about those standing ovations). But in influential circles that take a cautious view of Netanyahu, or even of Israel – the State Department, the White House, academia, Europe, the United Nations – Netanyahu’s voice simply is not heard. It isn’t that they argue with the facts that he presents, or with his analysis of the danger presented by a nuclear Iran. It is that they find the messenger so objectionable that they simply cannot hear the message.

This is equally true on the domestic front, which is why he is likely to lead his party to a crashing defeat tomorrow. As Nahum Barnea reported from last night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, “the audience was overwhelmingly religious Zionist, overwhelmingly men, nearly all from outside Tel Aviv.” Rather than address the left-wing rally last week earlier – i.e. the people who say they will not vote for Netanyahu – the prime minister preferred to look out at an adoring choir and assumed his passionate preaching had convinced the masses. Rather than addressing the very criticisms of the anti-Netanyahu camp, the Likud campaign has focused only on amorphous slogans suggesting that Herzog and Livni will divide Jerusalem, that they aren’t strong enough on security, that they will endanger the very future of Israel.

But if my non-scientific observations are accurate, people aren’t buying it. Netanyahu’s condescending assumption that there is no other viable candidate is clearly not true. Working class Israelis who form an important part of the Likud voter base, and many of whom take a hawksh stance on security issues, have told this reporter for months that they would not be voting for the Likud, and they feel strongly it is time for change.

“Bibi has been carrying on about Iran for 20 years,” one Jerusalem shopkeeper said, “but nothing happens. In the meanwhile, my daughter and her husband live with us because there’s no way they can afford to rent an apartment of their own.

“I don’t know if I’ll vote at all, but if I do, it certainly won’t be for Netanyahu,” the man concluded.

With that layout, Yitzhak Herzog will easily put together a narrow, 61-member coalition consisting of the Zionist Camp, Meretz and Yesh Atid and Kulanu – barely scraping past the threshold for a government, but scraping past nonetheless.

In order to broaden the coalition to a very stable 74 members, Herzog could try hard to make peace between Yesh Atid and the Haredi parties. To those who say “bah, forget it, Andye you’ve lost the plot!”, it pays to bear in mind that the Haredim’s true political venom is reserved for the religious Zionist camp, not Yair Lapid. Yes, United Torah Judaism and Shas will drive a hard bargain in order to reverse some of the draft legislation passed in the 19th Knesset, but this is an area in which Yesh Atid can afford to be flexible: As long as there is movement towards expanding the draft (or civilian national service inside the Haredi community) and bringing Haredim into the work force, Yesh Atid will be able to tell its voters that there is overall positive movement, and that that is what counts. The Haredim, for their part, will be able to tell their voters honestly that their agreement in this area represents a victory over proposed criminal charges for draft dodgers, as well as a cost-free recognition of developments that have been going on in the Haredi community for years in any event.

So there it is: If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to shrug my shoulders and admit openly that I’m very, very far from being a prophet, political or otherwise. But if I’m right, or even close to being right, don’t forget that you read it here first.

From Canberra to Jerusalem

From 1996 to 2007 John Howard served as prime minister of Australia. Although Howard’s conservative politics were anathema to the country’s vocal left wing, the country flourished under Howard’s leadership in away it never had previously. Economically the country flourished. On the international stage Howard forged close ties with two US presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, and he asserted Canberra as a regional power in southeast Asia, and as a second-tier world power, one rung under the United States, England and France in global forums such as the United Nations.

Ultimately, however, Howard’s political successes proved to short lived. Throughout his in office -both as prime minister and as head of the Liberal Party, Howard stiffly resisted repeated attempts to establish a number two personality in the party that could assume the reigns of power when the time came for Howard to retire. When Howard was elected prime minister in 1996 the event was barely noted on the world stage; in contrast, as the result of his successes, his electoral defeat in November 2007 garnered international news coverage.

But his unplanned departure from the political stage left Australia in turmoil. Labour prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard quickly showed themselves to be unprepared for the task at hand: the Labour Party has a long history of fierce infighting, something that ultimately Rudd and Gillard proved unable to overcome. Rudd enjoyed widespread popularity for a limited period of time, but a serious of unpopular tax initiatives and foreign relations gaffes prepared fertile ground for a blindside attack by Gillard two years later that was described as a “midnight knock on the door, followed by midnight execution”.

Gillard proved no better: One commentator said she “dug an enormous political hole for the Australian Labour Party” and added that “it is really difficult to draw up a list of achievements of her time in office”. Eventually, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned the Liberal Party to office in 2013, but Abbott cannot compete with the towering shadow left by Howard nearly a decade ago.

From Canberra to Jerusalem 

The Australian example is relevant as Israel prepares to go to the polls next Tuesday. Binyamin Netanyahu, already the longest-nerving prime minister in Israeli history, is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. Like Howard, Netanyahu has moved repeatedly to sideline potential successors, most recently Gidon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon, viewing them instead as potential threats. As a result, Netanyahu is not wrong in his assertion that there is not one left i the Likud that could reasonably claim to be “prime ministerial material.”

The Australia comparison is relevant, too, to the Zionist Camp, the current incarnation of the historic Labour Party. Here, too, there is no Labour leader with the leadership qualities to lead the country, and party infighting threatens to derail any Labour-led government sooner rather than later.

It is on this point that Netanyahu has rolled the dice – he is betting hat the lack of seasoned leadership personalities in other parties – Zionist Camp leaders Yitzhak (Boogie) Herzog and Tzipi Livni hardly inspire confidence or excitement, even amongst their own voters – will push voters to select the Likud on March 17. With little to show for six years in government, on the economic, domestic or diplomatic fronts, Likud ads say simply “it’s either us or them,” with the threat of a left-wing camp clear.

(Significantly, the Zionist Camp has adopted the identical campaign strategy. In an apparent admission that Israelis will simply not get excited about Boogie or Tzipi, the Zionist Camp campaign message goes no further than “at least we’re not him.”)

But there are growing signs that like John Howard, Netanyahu may have run one race too many. In traditional Likud strongholds such as Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, shopkeepers who run stalls adorned with posters of mythical Likud prime minister Menachem Begin spit derisively at the mention of Netanyahu’s name. In national religious communities such as Efrat, Raanana, Netanya and elsewhere, voters who have supported right-wing politics for years say they will cast their ballots for Naftali Bennett or Moshe Kahlon (not for the “Jewish Home” or “Kulanu’ parties, mind you, but for the compelling personalities that head those groups). There, sighs of frustration are common when people are faced with the prospect of four more years of Netanyahu’s “just do nothing” policies.

There are clear reasons for this. Like most Israelis, double-salary right-wing and centre-right voters are frustrated by their inability to meet their monthly expenses. Like left-wing Tel Avivians, they line up for treatment in the hallways of overcrowded Israeli hospitals an send their children to under-funded schools that cannot address the needs of 21st century students, thanks both to a debilitating bureaucracy and outmoded thinking throughout the ministry of education.

Like most people, potential Likud voters understand that the current Palestinian leadership will not sign any deal with Israeli, no matter what party is in power nor what potential deal is put on the table. In short, the minimal Palestinian demands are far in excess of Israel’s maximum ability to compromise, regardless of who is sitting in the prime minister’s chair. Given that reality, the issue of “concessions” to the PLO are irrelevant, meaning that one of the two central elements of Netanyahu’s scare campaigns is irrelevant.

On Iran, too, Netanyahu’s fear mongering has begun to wear thin after 20-plus years. While the notion of a nuclear Iran is indeed the blackest of nightmares for Israel – and while few Israelis doubt the veracity of Netanyahu’s analysis – it is equally clear that that situation is one that Israel will eventually have to deal with, like it or not. If Israel had had the ability, either militarily or politically, to eliminate the program Osirak-style, it would have been accomplished a decade ago or more. Ditto for Washington: Had the United States viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a strategic threat in the 1990s, or even after September 11, the issue would not be a topic for discussion any longer.

Given these realities, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu’s scare tactic s vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Iran have lost their potency. Yes, the threats are real, but after two undecided mini-wars with Hamas in Gaza – operations that were not fought to bring about Hamas’ unconditional surrender, but rather with the evasive goal of “restoring security to the citizens of Israel,” as the prime minister’s spokesman told this reporter in 2012 and again in 2014 – Netanyahu’s self-portrayal as Mr Security has little validity.

If non-scientific discussions and observations are any indication – at Shabbat kiddushes and coffee shops in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and on line at the bank – a strong majority of Israelis feel that a Herzog/Livni-led government would indeed be terrible for Israel, but a smaller disaster than a redux of Netanyahu. Livni – she of the Likud-Kadima-Hatnua-Labour Party – is the ultimate political opportunist, committed only to remaining in politics at any cost, regardless of the principles that must be shed in order to do so. As for Herzog, it is difficult to imagine a more un-statesman like politician representing Israel on the international stage. Domestically, it is hard to see how a man who made a career as one of Israel’s leading corporate lawyers can serve the people as the Great Hope of the middle class.

But one gets the feeling that Netanyahu’s rhetorical, sneering question – “heh, what – do you want to vote for them?” – is losing currency, and fast. For whatever disaster a Herzog/Livni government creates, Netanyahu’s repeated clashes with world leaders and his uncanny ability to alienate friends of Israel – think California Senator Diane Feinstein and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have rendered his astute analysis of Middle East politics irrelevant. In short, his objectionable personality and inability to act within global and regional political realities has silenced his voice in Europe and the White House.

In that light, the threat of European boycotts and international censure is far more of an immediate threat to average Israelis than the very real political and military challenges Israel is sure to contend with in the coming decade.