Israel’s campaign is turning nastier with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the prime target. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah has two main slogans: “BIBI-LIEBERMAN DANGER; LIVNI HOPE” and “BIBI-LIEBERMAN INTERNATIONAL EXCOMMUNICATION; LIVNI PEACE AGREEMENT.” Labor insists: “BIBI IS GOOD FOR THE RICH, SHELLY IS GOOD FOR ME.” And Yesh Atid is less hostile, proclaiming “WE CAME TO CHANGE,” although Yair Lapid has said “Netanyahu will levy more taxes on the Israeli middle class and won’t make cuts on [allocations for] the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, or the large unions.”
Amid the mudslinging, the three leading left-center parties have most distinguished themselves as being against Bibi, but have not really distinguished themselves from one another. Anti-Bibi Party A promises to “revive the peace process,” to push for “social justice,” to protect the environment, to implement “Military/National/Community Service for all,” and to demand “Religious pluralism.” Party B vows to reform the “system of government,” overhaul “the educational system,” create “a more equitable system for the enlistment of young Israelis in serving their country,” jumpstart the economy by offering “small business assistance for the middle class,” and provide “housing opportunities for IDF veterans and young couples.” Party C will return to focusing on basic services such as quality education, accessible yet excellent health care, reliable transportation, and wants a fair wage for hard work, cheaper housing and food costs, fair competition, and fair taxation. These not-so-conflicting agendas evoke the American journalist William Allen White, who said that when comparing Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912, all he could see “was that fantastic imaginary gulf that always has existed between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee."
While there are differences – Party A has a foreign policy. Party B is more creative, specific, and is capitalist. Party C often pretends it does not need a foreign policy and is more open to socialism. Moreover, Party A’s leader – Livni -- cannot stand Netanyahu but might work with him, Party B’s leader – Lapid -- seems the least contemptuous toward Netanyahu, and Party C – Yachimovitch’s Labor -- refuses to join with Netanyahu.
With Netanyahu foundering, the three amoeba-like parties should unite. They have enough ideological overlap that fusing should be easy. All want to end the Haredi stranglehold on religious issues and the state budget, all want a more humane, efficient, and idealistic Israel. All fear a Netanyahu-led coalition of status quo sluggishness, veering right, alienating Americans, lacking creative solutions, devoid of courage. But in this Israeli electoral version of the classic game theory problem, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” while these politicians, like the imaginary prisoners, will gain most by cooperating, so far, they cannot see how to do it. In fairness, they fear the toxic alchemy of Israeli political math, whereby 1 + 1 often ends up equaling 1 – Bibi Netanyahu’s merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s party has diminished not magnified that alliance.
But egos are also involved here. Shelley Yachimovich believes she should lead. The other two are aspartame parties build from nothing around a celebrity candidate, while hers is the real thing, rooted in Israeli history, and the most popular of the three. Tzipi Livni believes she should lead. The other two are political rookies while she has served as Justice Minister and Foreign Minister. Ironically, perhaps the most desirable of the three as prime minister, Yair Lapid, is the most modest, least presumptuous.
Imagine if these three politicians – and their parties, which are filled with quality individuals like Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Avishai Braverman, HaTnuah’s Elazar Stern and Alon Tal, Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman and Ruth Calderon – focused on principles not personalities. What if the three hashed out a joint vision for governance? They all believe in ending the ultra-Orthodox draft exemption, encouraging religious pluralism, making Israeli life more affordable, and trying to advance the peace process without being “freiers,” suckers. They could then up the ante by defining their modern Zionist vision, articulating core principles not just policy statements.
And during these negotiations, let the others judge to see who emerges as the natural leader among the three for an amalgamated party. The way out of this prisoner’s dilemma is, by secret ballot, for each of the three leaders – or everyone on the list -- to pick someone from the other party as a leader. Perhaps then, a consensus leader might emerge. Perhaps then these elections will encourage hope not despair, faith not fatigue.
Alas, such selflessness by the three is as likely as the other utopian schemes envisioned in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But this thought-exercise should test the leaders – and stretch them. For too long Israeli politics has been viewed as quicksand, sinking reputations, drowning hopes, soiling all involved. True to form, the secret summit of the three left-center leaders ended in accusations of double-cross with Lapid and Yachimovich blaming Livni for demonstrating just how veteran an Israeli politician she was by acting like every other spoiled, scheming, double-dealing Knesset lout.
Statesmanship is the art of elevating politics from the tawdry to the sublime. Once, tough tacticians like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin frequently conjured ideological gold from the lead of everyday life. Now, Israeli politicians are better at reducing the potentially sublime to the crass and the tawdry. If this campaign lacks one hero to reverse the trend, perhaps Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich can pool their courage and foresight, forge a powerful principled coalition, and excite democrats worldwide with the kind of honorable example Zionism envisioned – and once delivered. Then we will be able to associate Livni with “HOPE” not careerism, believe that Yachimovich is “GOOD” for Israel not more of the same, and delight in the kind of upbeat, future-oriented “CHANGE” Lapid and the others promise – and we all know we need.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.