LIKUD PARTY leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 18th Knesset in 2009.
(photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER / POOL / REUTERS)
After a long rainy February day spent traversing across the country, we found refuge in the warm confines of a Tel Aviv hotel. As the clock ticked ever closer to the moment of truth, we gathered around the television screen in the small living room. Heart thumping and holding my breath, the television anchor announced the exit poll results. Tzipi Livni and Kadima, 28 seats, Likud, 27. Not the results we wanted to hear, but doing a quick mathematical calculation we knew we had won. Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to me would be the next prime minister of Israel.
The victory speech was mostly finished, but we spent the next hour tweaking and preparing. The drive to the exhibition grounds was full of anticipation. After years in the opposition, and a decade since his first term, the Likud gathering was the first stop on the celebratory road back.
We entered the hall to the Likud jingle and the packed room went wild; to call it electric would be an understatement. As we made our way to the stage, we were met with hugs and kisses from the party leadership. Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu put on a rousing display, and the change the country had been seeking was finally coming to fruition. Before the obligatory finale of singing the Hatikvah, Netanyahu invited all of the soon-to-be Knesset Members to join him on stage. As I looked out on the large collection, I saw a talented, experienced, and ideological team. Benny Begin, Yuli Edelstein, Rubi Rivlin, Dan Meridor, Bogie Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar, Limor Livnat, Silvan Shalom and more. This team of leaders was the Likud answer to the heated debate which engulfed the country in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal and the subsequent attempt by Olmert and Livni to strike a final agreement with the Palestinians. The Likud and Netanyahu put up a team of leaders with purpose and vision, and as a result won the hearts and minds of voters.
Ten years have passed since that eventful night and much has changed on the political stage. While Netanyahu remains the prime minister, the ideological debate of yesteryear has mostly been replaced by a personality competition. Peace with the Palestinians is no longer center stage, neither are matters of security nor social welfare. Elections have become a popularity contest; ideology and policy but a distant memory.
One striking example of this shift in the early stages of this election cycle is the new party of former IDF chief Benny Gantz. Rumors of Gantz entering politics have circulated for years, but now it is official. Current polling has him garnering in the range of 15 seats, and potentially combining efforts with another party to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership.
WHILE THERE is no questioning Gantz’s resume, the public support around him leaves one very important question unanswered. What does Benny Gantz stand for? The challenges we face are serious enough to demand clear answers and a coherent vision from our elected leaders. How does Gantz propose we deal with the serious security challenges on our southern and northern borders? What are his ideas for tackling the social and economic gaps that plague our country? Or the need for dialogue with the Diaspora community? Educational reform? At this stage all we know is that he is polling as the potential alternative to Netanyahu, but what does he believe?
Gantz is just a more prominent sign of the times. We have over the past six years been introduced to the Lapid Party, the Kahlon Party, Tzipi Livni, Orly Levy-Abecassis, Ya’alon, Feiglin and Eli Yishai. The prevailing strategy among the new wave of parties is that the more ambiguous you are, the less ideologically identified or policy driven, the better your chances of stealing votes from outside your base. Although this may seem logical from a political perspective, it is detrimental to actually solving problems and implementing policy. We are being sold supposed leaders to replace the parties of old, but what we are getting is followers.
Politicians hiding behind political vagueness and nonsensical slogans in order to trick voters out of their comfort zone is not leadership and will not solve our problems.
The old, half-comical adage heard in Anglo circles is that there is no Hebrew word for accountability. Due to the Israeli parliamentary system, this is accurate for the individual Knesset Member. Historically though, there was clear political party answerability. When new parties and their candidates evade taking a clear stance on the very matters their constituencies are looking for answers on, accountability at the party level vanishes as well.
One year ago, I was asked to speak at a political conference in Brazil in the run up to that country’s elections. I started my presentation by sharing the story of our Start-Up Nation and focused specifically on Waze. Everyone in the room was familiar with the navigation app, and smiles crossed their faces. I went on to tell them that there is one glaring limitation when using this tool. If you do not tell it where you are going, it cannot give you directions!
The first and most important question political leaders need to ask themselves is – where am I going? What is my goal? Once this is set, as with Waze, various routes can be mapped out. This is precisely the question the Israeli voting public deserves an answer to before going to the ballot booth. To quote Indira Gandhi, “popularity is not a guarantee of quality.”The writer served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is now an international political consultant.
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