There should be double reason to celebrate in the Israeli parliament next week.
The general elections are scheduled for January 22, and the Hebrew date of Tu
Bishvat, which this year falls on January 26, marks not only the Jewish New Year
for Trees but also the Knesset’s birthday.
If the political maneuvering
by the country’s politicians is frequently embarrassing, the fact that this is
the only parliament in the world that marks its anniversary according to the
Hebrew calendar is a cause for pride.
It’s hard to predict the
composition of the next Knesset, although I doubt “pride” will be the first word
I’ll use when writing about it. Even the weather could have an impact. A rainy
day might be good for the trees, but it plays hell with voter turnout. And this
is Israel. It’s not only the weather that swings from snow to sunshine within
For instance, the massive missile attacks that preceded Operation
Pillar of Defense in November – not to mention the missiles from Gaza aimed at
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the mini-war – shot down the socioeconomic agenda.
Try as she might, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich can’t get it back to where it
was before the latest conflict. Tzipi Livni and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On,
meanwhile, are having a hard time telling Israelis that the top priority is to
immediately kickstart negotiations with the Palestinians.
If there’s one
thing to keep in mind when it comes to Israeli elections it is that it ain’t
over until it’s over. Following the elections, the real work begins – the
political trading to try to create a broad and stable government.
1996, most of the country went to sleep on election night convinced that Shimon
Peres would be the next prime minister and woke up to find that Binyamin
Netanyahu had more votes. In the last elections, due either to wishful thinking
or to political naivete, Livni gave a premature victory address.
the problem is the system in which the president has to ask the party leader
most likely to create a stable, viable coalition to form the next government.
Another obstacle is that previous attempts at holding direct elections for prime
minister only weakened the system.
Although the direct election system
was rescinded in 2001, it remains in the minds of many voters who feel free to
support the smaller parties on the assumption that the leaders of the bigger
parties don’t need their votes.
IF ANYTHING marks the Israeli elections
this year it is the lack of ideology, the lack of leadership and, strangely, the
lack of sectors. The Likud-Yisrael Beytenu merge symbolizes the end of a
“Russian” vote; Bayit Yehudi incorporates National Religious Party motifs but
does not see its main task as helping build more ritual baths and local
synagogues; and Shas’s poor showing in the political surveys also suggests it
has lost its sectoral appeal.
The main exceptions seem to be the
Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties and the Arab parties.
Perhaps the move
away from a sectoral approach marks a certain measure of
Eventually, we might even end up with something like two main
The composition of the next government will be clearly
influenced by the different needs of the various party leaders. Yesh Atid’s Yair
Lapid, for instance, more than anything else needs to gain ministerial
experience. I wasn’t surprised to hear him this week promising that he wouldn’t
accept the job of minister without portfolio: Apart from the very obvious (and
unpopular) financial waste involved in maintaining an office and staff for a
minister without a clear job, Lapid – a political novice – needs a ministry he
can put on his CV.
Yacimovich has also been criticized for never having
been a minister, but were she to be the official leader of the opposition, she
would at least have a respectable position.
I have long felt that Israeli
politics could benefit from having a British-style “shadow
Many opposition MKs, especially former ministers, find it
frustrating not to be in power, and having a shadow government could provide
them with a greater sense of purpose. When former Labor finance minister Avraham
Shochat carried on monitoring the work of the Finance Ministry after he was no
longer in office he seemed much more satisfied than most of his title-less
Somebody like Livni would be far more productive were she to have
a defined role. But whereas Yacimovich found her niche in social welfare and
labor issues, Livni seems driven by the need to have a second chance at either
leading the country or at least again being foreign minister. Yacimovich has her
name on a host of legislation; Livni lost enthusiasm as a parliamentarian the
minute she lost a ministerial office.
After every election, there is talk
of passing the so-called “Norwegian Law,” which would require MKs to leave their
Knesset seats upon joining the government. This would mean ministers could
concentrate on their cabinet-level responsibilities and it would bring more
people on coalition party lists into the House.
In the current political
environment, however, it is unlikely that ministers and MKs will vote on a
measure that would so endanger their professional lives. When party leaders
don’t bat an eyelid as they announce at press conferences that they themselves
are switching from one party to another, those under them know their ministerial
jobs and fortunes can quickly change.
It wasn’t that long ago that
Defense Minister Ehud Barak quit the Labor Party he led to establish the
Independence list – a list that didn’t even survive to these elections. And it’s
worth recalling that the date of the elections was influenced by Kadima head
Shaul Mofaz’s 70-day stint in the coalition.
In May, the country nearly
went to early elections over the Tal Law and calls to end the mass exemption
from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. Mofaz’s maneuver stalled
those polls, but in October Netanyahu announced he was bringing the elections
forward because of failure to agree on the 2013 budget.
If the last
government couldn’t agree on the budget it’s hard to imagine how the next one
will fare, especially following news of the unexpectedly large deficit. But
politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. To put it crudely, it’s not
about love between partners but about the price one side is willing to pay and
what the other side is willing to do.
Unfortunately, the most memorable
moments of the last Knesset were rarely its loftiest: The image of Israel
Beytenu MK Anastasia Michaeli throwing a glass of water at Israeli-Arab MK
Ghaleb Majadle springs uncomfortably to mind and seems determined to linger
there. Nonetheless, there are hardworking parliamentarians across the political
spectrum and we shouldn’t throw cold water on their achievements. Orly
Levy-Abecassis, another Israel Beytenu MK (and, it’s almost obligatory to note,
like Michaeli, a former model) quietly and relentlessly worked on children’s
welfare issues, while on the far Left, Hadash MK Dov Henin also worked on
children’s rights and gained a name for his environmentally friendly
As long as there are humble MKs in committees working to ensure a
better quality of life for our children and protecting the environment for
future generations, the Knesset can feel a moment of pride on its birthday, this
Tu Bishvat.The writer is the editor of the
International Jerusalem Post.