Pop! It wasn’t the sound of a champagne bottle opening that I heard last week;
it was the noise the election genie makes when he bursts out of his cramped
quarters, flexes his muscles, tests his strength and sets about creating his
usual pre-poll havoc. He’s not a very nice genie. He brings with him that
peculiar disease: election fever. And he is accompanied by a certain smell known
in Hebrew as “reah behirot” – the smell of elections.
Wake up and smell
reality: This is not the aroma of the beautiful flowers flourishing in the Rose
Garden across from the Knesset but something festering and putrid.
French are holding their presidential elections in their own style today, May 6
– reminiscent of an expensive perfume being sprayed too heavily for it to remain
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the smell of Independence Day
barbecues had barely died down when – as if scared that we might actually enter
a period of unity, stability and boredom – Israelis decided it was time to spice
up life with another round of national elections.
themselves – usually so good at saying what’s best for us – don’t seem to be
able to explain why we need to go to the polls any time soon.
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had hoped to complete a full four-year term and hold
elections as originally scheduled in October 2013. Defense Minister Ehud Barak,
who led the breakaway from Labor into the tiny Independence party, doesn’t want
elections now. And Kadima, the main opposition party, certainly does not want to
compete in the polls any time soon. Tzipi Livni walked out of the Knesset, and
possibly the Kadima party, last week looking like she was struggling to deal
with a bad you-know-what – which, I suppose, she was: the smell of defeat. Even
if it successfully regroups under the leadership of Shaul Mofaz, Kadima is
likely to suffer a drastic drop in the number of MKs from its current
Nonetheless the pungent emanation wafting around the political
establishment is unmistakable. It helped Netanyahu figure out which way the wind
was blowing and decide that early elections would work in his favor. Since the
government hasn’t actually been toppled – in the way his first government fell
over the Oslo Accords – he needed an excuse, and the “Tal Law” provided just
that. The initial hot topic these elections is not the Iranian threat or a
diplomatic deal with the Palestinians but the numbers of ultra-Orthodox
receiving exemptions from what is meant to be compulsory military
Political reporters have started sniffing out electoral stories:
Can Labor under Shelly Yacimovich really compete on a social platform or will
these elections ultimately focus on security issues as has sadly been the
necessity in the past? Will former Shas leader Aryeh Deri run on a new list,
settle for a return to behind-the-scenes action, or even link up with Livni?
Will Livni truly retire or will the intoxicating smell of power lead her back to
the Knesset corridors, perhaps with Yair Lapid? Lapid, whose party is so new its
name Yesh Atid (There is a Future) has not yet received official approval, is –
as his late father Yosef (Tommy) Lapid did before him – definitely building an
anti-haredi (and anti-settlement) platform.
It seems before every
election there is a discussion about the likelihood that Yisrael Beytenu leader
Avigdor Liberman will be indicted and unable to run. The inquiries into Liberman
have gone on so long that I recall covering them even before Deri was arrested,
and yet the former kingmaker of Israeli politics has already served his prison
term and been out of jail long enough to contend yet again. It provides the
phrase “political convictions” with an interesting twist.
But to hell with political correctness.
We should brace ourselves for election
gimmicks, the tricks of the genie’s trade.
These, of course, carry a
price. Now is the time for election economics, kalkalat behirot, when those who
are not sure they are going to remain in power use the genie to grant wishes to
the general public, even if the country cannot afford it without breaching the
framework of the national budget.
Knesset members have begun pushing
populist bills, and the smell of something fishy could combine with the smell of
burning tires when “spontaneous” social protests make their longawaited return
Without a true change in the electoral system and raising
the threshold for entrance into the Knesset, it seems likely that Netanyahu will
once again head the largest political bloc in a new Knesset and hence again have
the first shot at establishing a coalition (helped no doubt but the powerful
smell of the leather seats around the government’s table).
Even if Likud
fails to become the largest list, Netanyahu will probably be the preferred
candidate for the premiership.
Lapid might have a certain self-confidence
– an arrogance, even – but he is not aiming for the top spot.
following his nose to the education portfolio. Yacimovich, too, might be happy
to settle for some ministerial experience as head of a coalition party before
setting her sights on the post of prime minister.
No wonder Mofaz is
suddenly playing the Sephardi ethnic card and trumpeting his social awareness
along with his experience as a former IDF chief of staff and former defense
minister. He’s hoping to produce a scent that will attract voters from Shas and
the middle- class socioeconomic center, and perhaps set up the possibility of a
coalition deal with the largely secular, security-conscious Yisrael Beytenu
In the meantime, Netanyahu – known as The Magician for his ability
to pull off political tricks that challenge the genie – hopes to put them all
off the trail as he heads to the fresh air at the peak of the
Seeing as he is likely to be reelected to the prime minister’s
job, Netanyahu has less to fear from the upcoming elections than most of those
ostensibly sniffing at his heels. Ironically, however, in terms of controlling
blocs and the balance of power between coalition and opposition, the next
Knesset is likely to be considerably less stable than the current one, which
means it won’t take much for it to fall and bring about another round of early
It stinks, but there’s some consolation in the fact that at
least we are holding elections: a democratic ballot; one man, one vote and all
that. This is not something to be sneezed at, particularly in this corner of the
world, especially in current times. The need to hold our noses now and again
during the electioneering is a small price to pay for knowing the sweet smell of
freedom.The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.