The rawness of democratic politics does not appear in the most thrilling run-up to the final voting, but in the maneuvering at the early stages. Americans see it in presidential primaries, and even lower on the political food chain in jostling for nominations for governor, senator, House of Representatives, and even lower where the public largely ignores individuals wanting an office in a state or locality dealing with schools, sewage, water, parks, libraries, planning, or much else--most of which in other democracies is left to the professional civil service.
The rawness of Israel''s democracy is now underway. Its politics are mostly national, insofar as there is some accuracy to the point that Israel is really one large urban area (think of the Los Angeles metropolis) in the guise of a country. Proportional representation based on voting for party lists rather than individuals means that parties are at the center of the commotion. If past practice is a guide, there will be something like 30 of them finally offering themselves to the voters, many of which will be new creations for this election, with probably only ten or so (most of them established parties) gaining the minimum percentage of the votes necessary to enter the Knesset.
Yet another feature is maneuvering within and between the ten or so parties that have been in the Knesset, and are likely to return. Some parties have primaries of dues-paying members to select and rank the individuals on their list. Others rely on a committee of party leaders to make the choices. For some, it is one rabbi or politician who pretty much decides the selection and ranking of individuals on the party list.
All told it is hard to follow this without some knowledge of parties'' histories, ideology or theology, and the formal rules written into each party''s constitution.
Among the events, or blips in an ongoing fluidity that will not resolve itself until the official date when the parties enrolled for the election will have to register their ranked lists of candidates:
- The ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party, once called Agudat Israel, then Torah Judaism, shows signs of splitting, with a new party formed around an octogenarian rabbi, in protest against another octogenarian rabbi chosen somehow to replace the recently deceased nonagenarian rabbi who had been the leading figure in Torah Judaism''s "Council of Sages." The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox have done well in politics with high turnout and usual unanimity, but have also lost political opportunities due to squabbles among the rabbis.
- The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS has settled its leadership struggle with one rabbi (and former minister until he was jailed for accepting bribes) given responsibility for managing the campaign, another rabbi and serving minister given responsibility for managing what happens on election day, and a third rabbi and serving minister given responsibility for the messages that the party will offer to the voters.
- SHAS may also make an effort to reach out beyond its ethnic and religious constituency, hoping to draw some secular voters, mostly likely those who have voted Likud.
- Avigdor Lieberman''s Israel our Home is also nipping at the heels of Likud, as it is trying to appeal beyond its largely Russian-speaking constituency, said to have supplied up to 80 percent of its votes.
- At least two competing leaders of the university student-Yuppie demonstrations of a year ago are competing among themselves and with the chair of Peace Now for places on the Labor party''s list.
- An entirely new entity has appeared on the party firmament, with a commitment to imposing control on the "tycoons" who have amassed considerable wealth and have gained favorable, but not-so popular rulings from governmental bodies. Such a narrow focus is not unusual in Israeli politics. Previous elections have seen the rise and decline of a Taxi-drivers'' party, a Pensioners'' party, several parties favoring the legalization of marijuana and other goodies, and parties seeking better deals or more prominence for one or another of the middle-sized Jewish ethnic communities.
- Getting more headlines than any of the above are the ditherings of Ehud Olmert and Yair Lapid. One is well known as a former prime minister and the other as a former media personality. As yet unknown is whether Olmert will seek to overcome the burdens of several trials for corruption and capitalize on indications of his political viability. Yair Lapid has formed a party, but has not yet indicated who he will select to join him on its list of candidates. Two days ago the media broadcast that a former head of an intelligence agency would be number two on Lapid''s list, but more recent news is that he will not be number two. Among the possible explanations of the change: the former intelligence chief''s subsequent position at the top of a major corporation does not look good for a party wanting to bring a new look to Israel; and what may be Lapid''s aspirations to broaden his appeal by placing a rabbi in the number two spot.
- Also in the news is Tzipi Livni, former Likudnik before she was former head of Kadima. Will she or won''t she create a new centrist party, with a primary mission of restarting the peace process, with or without Yair Lapid, with or without Ehud Olmert, and whatever her party would mean for the fortunes of Kadima? Kadima has been withering away with defections of prominent figures back to their Likud roots or elsewhere. It still exits, ostensibly led by former head of the IDF and then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
- There is also speculation about the future of Ehud Barak, another former IDF commander, former Prime Minister and currently Minister of Defense, one time head of the Labor Party until he departed to form a party called "independence," which may or may not have enough support to get back into the Knesset.
All this is mostly Jewish stuff. Individual Arab politicians do appear high on the lists of the largely Jewish parties, and Arabs vote for those parties. Most Arabs vote for three or four largely Arab parties that will gain a total of 10 or so seats in the Knesset, but render themselves irrelevant due to perpetual opposition of just about everything done by the Zionist government. Among the largely Arab parties is one that once was the Israel Communist party, which typically has one Jew high on its list, and gets votes from Jews proud of their Communism.
Confusing? Yes. Vibrant? Also. Hardly less so than American presidential primaries or the maneuvering at the bottom of American politics. Politics in the raw they may be, but the confusion and fluidity are also signs of healthy democracies sorting themselves out for another few years of government until the next election.
Political campaigns are the stuff of media excitement, family arguments, and sometimes nastiness, but the vast majority of what comes out of modern governments has little to do with electoral politics, or who wins at the polls. Well trained professionals, of the kind who would bring pride to the breasts of Otto von Bismarck and Max Weber, make most of the decisions considered governmental.
Political models significantly less admirable appear in the violence of the United States'' southern neighbors and over Israel''s borders with Syria and Lebanon, extremist religious proclamations heard from those claiming to be part of the new Egyptian regime, and much else in this part of the world from North Africa to the south and east.