Terra Incognita: #IsraElex: From ghetto politics to the hangover

After the votes are tallied and the results are clear, whats left is much of the same.

March 15, 2015 22:35
The 11th annual Jerusalem Wine Festival

A server pours a glass of champagne at the 11th annual Jerusalem Wine Festival.. (photo credit: COURTESY GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY)

Israel’s elections are upon us. Now that all the dirty tricks, campaign propaganda and other ups and downs are in the past it is worthwhile to consider what hasn’t been revealed. Here are five aspects of the Israeli elections that the pollsters, pundits and politicos missed.

Zombie voters

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More than half of the electorate is made up of zombies.

It doesn’t matter what a political party does, they are attached to it. They will continue to vote, year after year, for a party that is demonstrably working against their own interests. They don’t ask questions of their elected officials. They are never outraged.

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The Israeli electorate faces real financial troubles and yet it does not demand answers of its politicians. Whether it is sub-standard schools or rising tuition costs, housing, or the price of everyday products, there is a collective shrug of the shoulders.

This election more than most illustrated the fact that the politicians did not have to provide answers and clear policies for a laundry list of issues. Whether it was conscription to the army, civil marriage, peace with the Palestinians, there was virtually no frank discussion of the various parties’ strategies. Issues such as unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev or the issue of African migrants were left untouched. As long as some of the parties can count on the slavish devotion of voters, they will never provide an answer or come up with a plan.

The never-ending diminishing returns of searching for a new center

Since the 1970s Israeli voters have been on a never- ending quest for a new centrist party. It has the air of a magical quest, at the end of which is a promised “new politics” that never emerges. Over the years parties like Third War, Shinui, Kadima and Yesh Atid achieved impressive results with upwards of 20 percent of the vote. Yet their long-term achievement is marginal.

The electorate likes “new politics” and is forever moving from one of these new centrist parties to another. The new Koolanu Party seemed like it would eclipse Yesh Atid, becoming the new “center” in this election. That hasn’t happened, but it still shows that around 20 percent of the voters are hungering for this new center.

But what do the centrist parties bring voters? Their lists tend to be more diverse than the old parties, usually including more minorities and women, and representing a broader cross-section of society. This is because the parties are generally undemocratic; their leaders cherry-pick interesting individuals to staff the lists. The 20 percent of the electorate who vote for these parties tend to be slightly better educated than average and more urban (as revealed by looking at the locales they come from). But they choose parties that are weak on ideology and strong on promises.

These centrist parties end up being the plaything of the old Left and Right; they get some plum position in the coalition, but are frustrated in their attempts to make real changes by the Old Guard who fear that the new politics, if it were allowed to succeed, would make the old parties and their zombie voters irrelevant.

Ghetto politics

A unique element of the Israeli political system is how balkanized it is. Each ethnic and religious group has its own party. Like districts in other democracies that are controlled by one political party (so-called safe seats), the creation of these electoral ghettos is good for the parties that have a monopoly on them and bad for the voters and the country in the long run.

Is it good that there are Meretz kibbutzim, Labor kibbutzim, Shas neighborhoods and United Torah Judaism neighborhoods? The positive aspect is that it guarantees some diversity in the Knesset, so that the interests of smaller minority groups are represented.

But it feeds racism and stereotypes.

In early March artist Yair Gerboz gave an offensive speech at a Tel Aviv anti-Netanyahu rally where he accused right-wing voters of being “amulet kissers...bowers at the graves of saints,” a reference to them being more traditional and religious.

If the political parties were larger and not so balkanized then there wouldn’t be a feeling that one party was secular and European-origin and another party was “Mizrahi” and full of “mezuzah kissers.” The fact is that a poor person from the Arab community and a poor person from the Jewish community, whether religious or not, faces the same economic woes. The whole story of Israel and its “ingathering of exiles” and its “melting pot of IDF service” always speaks to a unity, but when it comes to politics we see disunity every year.

The failure of the old Labor Party to open its ranks and reach out to Jewish voters from religious and Middle Eastern backgrounds, or Arabs, encouraged all of the minority groups to seek out their own parties.

Often the existence of Shas, UTJ or Balad are presented as some sort of conspiracy undermining the “good,” secular Israel, but the opposite is true: it was the disregarding of the masses of poor people in development towns and the total neglect of Arab villages that led to the creation of the special-interest parties.

How to get past this issue is unclear, because it is so ingrained in Israeli politics. Around 40 percent of voters will choose parties that reflect their own ethnic or religious community. Coalitions will be formed around pleasing those smaller parties. And yet, each party that is then left out of the coalition means its voters are left out, whether it is Arabs or National Religious or haredim (ultra-Orthodox), it means they lose out.

Nixonyahu and the revenge of the establishment

When one weighs the sheer scale of the anti-Netanyahu agenda it is no surprise he has been saying there is a conspiracy against him. From Israel’s largest Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharonot to the group V15, his own Likud “princes” like Dan Meridor and former Mossad chiefs like Meir Dagan, it seems almost everyone is against Netanyahu. This includes many foreign voices, such as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

Netanyahu seems besieged, Richard Nixon-like, and it is a reminder of how much of this present election represents the long-awaited revenge of the establishment.

Israel’s “deep state” of security officials, foreign generals and politicians from old Zionist families, such as Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog, have come forward to remove Netanyahu. It isn’t an anti-Likud coalition; like Olmert before her, Livni is a former Likud member, as is Koolanu’s Moshe Kahlon. No, it is an anti-Netanyahu coalition.

This is an election about returning Israel to the status quo, which is why they call it a “revolution,” just as in the 1977 revolution that brought Likud to power. The quiet mantra of the voices arrayed against Netanyahu is, “Our Israel was taken from us, now we can take it back and return it to its roots.”

The hangover

Think of the coming coalition agreement, whatever it is, and take a shot of alcohol for every party you believe will be in it. However you choose, you’ll be suffering a hangover. The current elections will not change Israel. A victory by Herzog and Livni will change the image of Israel abroad and buy it time in its negotiations with the Palestinians, but nothing substantive will change.

Israel will continue to be a balkanized society, where the poorest people are abandoned by the state, where the middle class watch their bank accounts drift deeper and deeper into the red. Army service will never be equalized – just the opposite. It will continue to be a greater burden on the poor and middle class, while the wealthy increasingly avoid it and other sectors, such as Arabs and haredim, remain exempt. The situation in the West Bank will not change.

The public will have to await the next round of elections to demand real change. That requires shaking the zombies from their trance, encouraging people to emerge from their ghettos and demanding that a real new politics will emerge that treats the voters like a mature electorate capable of making tough sacrifices of sacred cows. The status quo won’t last forever, whether it is in the Negev, army conscription or the West Bank.

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