Coronavirus isn't Israel's biggest problem, it's the politicians – opinion

Like all things this past year, the novel coronavirus is no different, as Israel’s grand interregnum keeps chugging along.

A REPORTER RECORDS Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A REPORTER RECORDS Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Like all things this past year, the novel coronavirus is no different, as Israel’s grand interregnum keeps chugging along. Whomever will end up at the top of the electoral heap, will be leading a deeply divided and cynical polity. Israelis no longer see their representatives as leaders but politicians.
After the most recent election, Israel is bewildered, the prime minister’s lawyers will be defending him in court this week and the ex-IDF head is negotiating the minority scraps with the United Arab List. In short: The emperor has no clothes. With the pandemic forcing the politicians to see beyond themselves, there are now sensible calls for a parley in the politicking, in order to erect a temporary emergency coalition, and, as of now, they are still bickering.
Looking at this election imbroglio, all can see: Its the politicians, stupid. After three elections in less than a year, we have seen again and again, the same crop of politicians coming onto center stage to only spend their energies in parochial squabbles, subversive leaking, double-dealing, and ultimately snubbing their nose at one another. Complementing ideologies and policy alignments have taken a back seat as ministerial jockeying, legislative fault-lines and personal vendettas are the main focus.
So how did Israel get here?
It’s a big question with many vantage points, but there are two main features to Israel’s slide to governing chaos. The first, is the ad hoc origins of Israel’s democratic institutions. This is more of the backdrop, setting the stage for the sad national carnival we see today. The second feature, and the more palpable of the two, is the immature character of Israel’s governing class, maligned by all, as divided, petty and filled to the brim with power-hungry Knesset climbers.
The dysfunction at root in Israeli democracy has been metastasizing for decades. Israel never had a constitutional moment, a Philadelphia convention, to figure out the right power combinations, nor the time to reflect on how its Jewish character could gel with modern notions of democracy. Instead, Israel has fought for its life since its beginning. In 1948, it cobbled a state together by its pioneers, freedom fighters, and survivors, not by diplomats, statesmen or professors. Issues about citizenship were relegated, separation of powers ignored, rights of the individuals were swept under the proverbial rug. By the 70s, the fractalization of Israel’s politics was complete – no party on its own could muster a simple majority – coalition wrangling has been the norm ever since.
That a unitary 120-member parliament governed in 1948 as it does in 2020 – despite a near 10-fold population increase – should make one pause. A quarter, if not more, of its members must also provide for the executive branch (remember former prime minister Ariel Sharon had 40 ministers in his cabinet), which creates a legislative tipping point.
In addition, that narrow remaining group of legislators gets further bifurcated by the growing number of Arab backbenchers who play the game of spoiler, further constricting the number of effective lawmakers available. Today, this top-down power structure, with a very limited membership, recycles the same group of elitists accelerating a total breakdown of governing cohesion.
TODAY, WE don’t see the seeds of 1948, instead we are given front-row tickets to a political grudge fest. The final straw that has broken the Knesset’s back is the politicians themselves, their caliber and character. Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, the “king-maker,” has forced the previous two elections and looks to do the same in this latest round. That Lieberman – once a former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – is willing to turn his back on 30 years of professed nationalist ideology to sit with the United Arab List all for the purpose of taking down Netanyahu, is truly remarkable.
Liberman isn’t bashful about the personal nature of his national decision either, “he is going after my family,” referring to a bunch of police investigations at his doorstep, which he accuses the Prime Minister of initiating. And maybe he is right, which only reinforces the point, the depths to which Israel’s political culture has fallen.
In the last 10 years, an Israeli prime minister and president have sat in prison, a Knesset member fled the country due to charges of espionage, and we might just see another prime minister locked away this year. It is a sorry state indeed, and though the road to how we got here is understandable, it doesn’t remove the responsibility from those charged to lead.
For too long Israeli voters have lowered their expectations where the request for courage, energy and reform from its leaders is considered naive pipe dreams, mere satire for another Eretz Nehederet skit. Instead, we have been force-fed decades of pantomime politicians practicing petty politics at a time of international instability and regional upheaval. It’s a bad combination, with potentially combustible outcomes. Time is up and Israeli voters need to get off the sidelines and start rejoining their chosen political parties and begin making the grassroots felt once again inside these moribund organizations.
Whoever turns out to be the last one standing will need to do better. That better path begins with the restoration of the basic fundamental to any political culture: putting national duty above personal politics. Beyond this cultural shift is the actual building up of a clean and energetic governing coalition that will make good on the promise of real and enduring government reform.
It is quite unusual to expect the powerful to speak truth to itself, but Israel has reached a political precipice, it requires something that it has obviously been lacking, a mature vision of a Jewish democracy that will not just survive but thrive, not just for itself but for its children’s children. If not, we must expect many more useless elections in our near future.
The writer is an Israeli hi-tech executive and co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative, an advocacy movement.