Israel Elections: Israel has many issues, election campaigns avoid them

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Most of the candidates in Israel's elections are spending an inordinate amount of time on the unimportant, and barely talking about what genuinely matters

 SHOPPING FOR pomegranates in the Mahaneh Yehudah shuk. That even A stitch of solidarity remains in this country after five election campaigns in three-and-a-half years, campaigns that highlight and underline the country’s division, is a testament to this country’s overall internal strength. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
SHOPPING FOR pomegranates in the Mahaneh Yehudah shuk. That even A stitch of solidarity remains in this country after five election campaigns in three-and-a-half years, campaigns that highlight and underline the country’s division, is a testament to this country’s overall internal strength.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Jews in Israel and around the world will be flocking to synagogues on Monday and Tuesday for Rosh Hashanah prayers.

By any measuring stick, these prayers are long. Some will use the hours in the synagogue to introspect deeply, reflect, and focus their minds on the significance of the day and the meaning of the prayers.

Others will find their minds wandering to other, much more mundane matters: sports, politics, travel plans, what’s for lunch.

And still others – most of us – will do a little of both, their minds flitting back and forth from the sublime to the mundane, from the wheat to the chaff, from the important to the ridiculously insignificant.

Kind of like our current election campaign.

Illustration of voting notes in the Israeli general elections on March 02, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Illustration of voting notes in the Israeli general elections on March 02, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Ideally, most people will spend more time on the big issues in their prayers than the candidates are spending on significant matters as they run for the Knesset. Most of the candidates are spending an inordinate amount of time on the unimportant, and barely talking about what genuinely matters.

The current campaign, like the Rosh Hashanah davening, is long – at four months it is longer than most campaigns in recent memory.

Unlike the Rosh Hashanah prayers, however, there has been nothing uplifting about it in the least. On the contrary, like each of the last four election campaigns in the current election cycle, it has been negative. That even a stitch of solidarity remains in this country after five election campaigns in three-and-a-half years, campaigns that highlight and underline the country’s division, is a testament to this country’s overall internal strength. If the rhetoric of five back-to-back election campaigns does not pit brother against brother in this land, nothing will.

Don’t get the mistaken idea that the extra time in this campaign has been used to debate or flesh out policy. It hasn’t. It has just been used to mow the same lawn over and over and over again: Prime Minister Yair Lapid will sell the country out to supporters of terrorism; former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will turn it over to the fascists. The haredim inside the government will turn Israel into theocratic Iran; Meretz and Labor inside the government will rid the country of anything that makes it Jewish.

Same old, same old. All slogans – most of them personal attacks. No meat. How did that television advertisement for a hamburger restaurant once go in America? Where’s the beef?

What are Israel's real issues?

This has so far been a meatless campaign. And it’s not as if the country is without meaty issues to discuss. How about what Israel’s policy should be after a new nuclear deal is signed with Iran? Or how Israel should be responding to the new developments in Ukraine? Or whether Jerusalem should put more limits on Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure?

Does anyone really have any idea what the Likud thinks about any of that? Or Yesh Atid? Or the National Unity Party?

Is diplomacy not your bag? Then how about economic and social issues? Why don’t the candidates debate their plans to recruit more teachers and daycare workers, what steps the state can take to bring down the price of bread, or what the government needs to do to put owning an apartment within the reach of the middle and lower classes?

These are real issues, issues that affect real people’s real lives. But they are being avoided, drowned out by Likud social media spots focusing on charges that Lapid plans to put Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh in his government, and by interviews given by Yesh Atid MKs charging that Netanyahu plans to lead an all-out assault on the judiciary.

OUT OF nowhere, someone appeared on the TikTok horizon who tried to put economic issues front and center: Hadar Muchtar. Muchtar’s youth, social media savvy, appearance, and the way she delivered her antiestablishment message forced a comparison with New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The 20-year-old Muchtar, not old enough to enter the Knesset but the chairwoman of a long-shot party called the Fiery Youth, went on TikTok tirades – which then turned into tirades in television studios – about the prohibitive cost of buying or even renting an apartment.

Her message struck a chord, until it was diluted by the revelation this week that her parents bought her an apartment. It’s tough to take seriously a candidate moaning about never being able to afford to rent or buy an apartment, when it turns out that at 20 years old she already has one all her own.

Regardless, Muchtar did put the issue on the table in a manner that the established politicians have failed to do. It’s just a shame that – and this is her own fault – her disingenuousness made her the issue, instead of the very real issue of housing costs itself.

Israeli politics is all about the person, not the issues

And that’s the pattern in our recent campaigns. It’s all about the person, not the issues. Personalities, not ideas, are what matters. This is why a small buzz was created earlier in the campaign when former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot joined the race as part of Benny Gantz’s National Unity list. No one knows where Eisenkot stands on the issues, but he is a personality people are believed to trust and respect. Again, personality trumps ideas.

It hasn’t always been this way. Even in recent memory, ideology and ideas and issues did play a part in the country’s election campaigns.

When ideals and ideology and issues played a role in Israeli elections

The 1996 elections that brought Netanyahu to power for the first time dealt with whether the Oslo agreements were a blessing or a curse. The 2001 race for prime minister between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak – an election that followed the breakdown of the Camp David talks and the outbreak of the Second Intifada – revolved around whether Israel should be making far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. The 2006 elections won by Ehud Olmert and Kadima were an ex post facto referendum on the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Those were at least issues. Now, the central issue of this campaign, like in the four previous ones, remains Netanyahu – whether he should be allowed to serve again as prime minister, and whether others are willing to sit in a coalition that he leads. Six years since the police investigations into Netanyahu began, three years since he was formally indicted, two years since his trial began, five election campaigns later, and the main issue at this stage of the race remains “Bibi, yes or no.”

LAPID SHOOK things up a bit on Wednesday, when it was revealed that, during his maiden speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, he would pledge allegiance to the idea of a two-state solution.

Even before Lapid actually delivered the speech, the reaction was swift and at times furious, with the Likud, former prime minister Naftali Bennett and even some members of Gantz’s party blasting him for resurrecting this idea.

With a mini-terror wave on the country’s doorstep, Gaza firmly in the hands of Hamas, and the West Bank in the throes of what is quickly becoming a violent succession battle for the day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it is clear that the implementation of this idea is far, far, far down the road.

Then why bring it up?

To change the conversation, to move the discussion from Netanyahu to something else. Lapid does not have to convince the voters in his bloc about how bad Netanyahu is; they are already convinced, which is why they are in his bloc. What he needs to do, however, is make a case to voters in his bloc about why they should vote for him and not, for instance, Gantz.

Gantz, over the last few months, has been careful not to voice support for a two-state solution, speaking instead of a separate Palestinian “entity.” Bringing the issue up precisely now is a way for Lapid to set himself apart from Gantz and his party. Up until now, one would be hard-pressed to identify differences between Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party. Lapid’s support for the two states draws a line between his party and Gantz’s.

It also sets the stage – at long last – for a debate in this election campaign about a real issue: whether the two-state solution is a policy that Israel should truly pursue at some point, and if not, what alternative ideas Israel has to put on the table and promote.

The question is whether the parties will take the bait and engage in a genuine discussion about the issue, or whether the debate will just deteriorate into more empty slogan slinging, with Lapid being accused of wanting to set up a terror base in the heart of the country, and those opposed to a two-state solution dismissed as nattering nabobs of anti-peace negativism.

The way things have gone so far in the campaign, the latter seems by far the safer bet.•