Middle Israel: Strategic threat looming

Unfortunately, democracies can fall ill, even if they don’t execute politicians.

November 1, 2012 16:44
The Sephardi Nelson Mandela?

Arye Deri_521. (photo credit: Reuters)

Following his ringing electoral defeat in 1945, Winston Churchill said that a friend of his had learned of the result while in Zagreb, where a local woman told the Englishman with genuine sorrow: “Poor Mr. Churchill, I suppose he will now be shot.”

Fortunately, that woman had no idea how democracy works. Unfortunately, democracies can fall ill, even if they don’t execute politicians. Israeli politics, for instance, has been plagued in recent generations by two illnesses: territory-itis and tribal-itis.

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The former we have finally cured; the latter has been removed from our body’s Russian side, but on another side it has taken a turn for the worse.

FOR NEARLY half a century, our political energies were sapped by the futile territorial debate between Land for Peace and Greater Israel.

Inspired by gullible movements that never stood for election – Peace Now and Gush Emunim – the political system cultivated the illusion that the territorial dilemma lay at the heart of our future. As it were, between the settlement drive and the Oslo Accords each school had its day in the sun and each failed to deliver the goods. Consequently, Labor now avoids discussing the conflict, while Likud leaders have built the separation fence, evacuated Gaza and accepted the two-state solution.

Disillusioned and exhausted like two boxers after 16 inconclusive rounds, both schools have lost the public’s attention along with the entire Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, the public has learned that the same politicians that are in no position to end the conflict indeed are in a position to affect jobs, prices, taxation and savings. In post-intifada Israel, that passed for a revelation.

That is how we finally end up with a domestically dominated election, for the first time since the great recession of 1965.

Better yet, the debate is led by two economic ideologues: the neo-conservative Binyamin Netanyahu and the neo-socialist Shelly Yacimovich, who represent opposite views while speaking honestly, knowledgeably and also respectfully of each other. Following decades of empty demagoguery, this is a breath of fresh air.

ON OUR OTHER disease, tribal-itis, the good news is that for the first time since 1996 no “Russian” party will be running for election.

Yes, Avigdor Liberman’s combination of Bluto-the-sailor looks with occasional Dr Strangelove rhetoric makes many cringe, and his record on other fronts deserves separate scrutiny, but in the tribal regard he has just done the Zionist dream a great service.

Following Likud’s merger with Liberman’s party the Russian electorate has once and for all joined the political mainstream. Yes, Russian-speaking Israelis still have their problems – who doesn’t? But the politicians no longer see in them much of an electoral reservoir, and that is because they no longer feel a need to be patronized by tribal hacks.

Having been here for nearly a quarter-century they have mostly learned Hebrew and seen their children serve in the IDF, graduate from Israeli schools and join the local job market and business scene – warts and all.

Alas, all this progress is being offset by someone else, a dude who is already hard at work inspiring and embodying here a grand political reaction. His name is Arye Deri.

THE OLD-NEW Shas leader’s supporters ask: what do you want from Rabbi Arye? Yes, he had his run-in with the law, but so did Liberman; only the foreign minister is from Kishinev while the former interior minister is from Meknes, and the Israeli system, when faced with such a choice, picks on the “Moroccan.”

Well, that’s libel. Liberman has not been indicted of anything, much less convicted.

Deri has been convicted – of bribery, of all felonies. Deri should therefore be morally compared not to Liberman but to former finance minister Avraham Hirchson, who is doing time for embezzlement. Middle Israelis would have fumed had that thoroughbred Ashkenazi attempted to return to politics, and they are livid in the face of Deri’s return.

Deri never admitted, let alone apologized for, his felonies, and the insinuation to his voters is that the judiciary mistreated and also framed him. This is the message he will effectively be peddling into the political fray, backed by a battery of rabbis. That’s a scandal, a tragedy and a strategic threat on par with an enemy’s army.

It is in this general anarchic setting that Deri is entering the emergency room, his surgeon’s gloves hardly concealing the brass knuckles with which he is about to treat the tribal-itis patient on the operating table.

“I DIDN’T COME from Caesarea,” a sanctimonious Deri said on TV this week in a thinly veiled allusion to Netanyahu, before declaring this election as “pitting the haves against the have-nots” and adding that Israel’s current leaders don’t know what poverty is because they never saw a parent halve an egg lest he wouldn’t be able to feed each of his many kids.

Well maybe the one who didn’t see is Deri, and what he didn’t see is the European parents who arrived here traumatized, penniless and orphaned and then lived ascetically, spending their modest incomes, not on the kind of luxuries that he is known to appreciate, but on the good secular education of which he deprives thousands in the morning before decrying their consequent poverty in the evening.

Now the healthy economic debate that awaits us this winter stands to be hijacked and debased by this convicted felon’s fiscal populism, social demagoguery and tribal incitement. Worse yet, the morning after the election he plans to be in the thick of our lives, mediating between parties, concocting bills, funneling budgets, briefing journalists, appointing ministers, directors and advisers and generally telling us what matters, who counts, where to go and what to do.

None of us, particularly Deri’s target constituency, deserve the acid cloud he is about to hang above our heads. It is therefore our civic duty to tell anyone who intends to vote Shas that in doing so he will be dealing the Jewish state a strategic blow. No one is asking Shas voters to vote Meretz. They can vote Likud, they can vote Labor, they can vote Habayit Hayehudi and, if they are really into ultra-Orthodoxy, they can vote for the original: United Torah Judaism Party.

UTJ may be wrong about many things, but its lawmakers aren’t felons and they don’t approach the law-abiding, taxpaying and hardworking majority with libel in their mouths, hatred in their hearts and bribes in their pockets.

The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. www.MiddleIsrael.com

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