Don't believe the hype - Israel's elections neither 'historic' nor 'a battle for its soul'

It will be a miracle if on March 18, the day after the election, anyone still wants to live in this country.

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It will be a miracle if on March 18, the day after the election, anyone still wants to live in this country.
Because from now until then, all we will hear from those vying for our votes is how bad – how terribly, depressingly, shockingly, historically bad – everything is.
How bad the economy is. How bad life is here for everyone.
How many people are living in poverty. How undemocratic we are becoming. How dangerous the neighborhood is. How bad our security situation is.
How there is no Palestinian interlocutor to talk to. How we don’t have any friends anymore, anywhere. How everyone is against us. How everything, but everything, is falling apart, just crumbling right before our very eyes.
As Israelis and as Jews we are prone to hyperbole, to over-dramatizing our situation. We see ourselves as the center of everything, and expect the news cycle to reflect that. And if it doesn’t – if there is not a huge drama on the news everyday – we take ordinary incidents and blow them out of the water.
Poverty figures show that our children are going hungry, criticism from abroad shows that we are on the verge of isolation and sanctions, differences between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama indicate an imminent rupture in US-Israel ties.
As Yair Lapid’s father, former justice minister Tommy Lapid, wrote in this paper in 2007, “When a reporter is sent to report on a burst sewage pipe in the Greater Tel Aviv area, he knows that an item describing ‘difficulties’ in the sewage system has no chance of getting any attention. But if the headline says ‘Greater Tel Aviv sewage line collapsing,’ it will make the front page. This is because no one living in the Greater Tel Aviv area wants to drown in sewage.
The pipe is repaired in a day or two, but the impression created in the public’s minds and hearts is that yet another system is falling apart, this time the sewage system.”
And that is all during regular periods. During election season our regular hyperbole becomes hyperbole on steroids.
The Center-Left, led by its newest devotee Tzipi Livni, will say – in fact she already said it during a speech on Wednesday – that if the current trend is not stopped, Israel will turn into a “settler, messianic, extreme nationalistic state, based on Halacha, with sectoral economics.”
Novelist Amos Oz, described by The New York Times’ Roger Cohen as someone “widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel,” warned against the possibility – if the two-state solution is not implemented – of an “Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”
On the other side, Netanyahu talks darkly about the dangers lurking on our immediate doorstep, about rampant anti-Semitism, about a world largely against us and nothing but storm clouds on the horizon.
And abroad the pundits – most of them Jewish – will pontificate about how this election is about Israel’s soul. Oops, they are already pontificating. “Here we get to the nub of the election,” Cohen wrote in the Times this week. “A battle has been engaged for Israel’s soul.”
Relax, Israel’s soul is just fine, with numerous checks and balances in place in this vibrant, contentious, democratic state – the courts, the press, the opposition, civil society, public opinion, NGOs – to ensure that the soul does not stray too far from its moorings. There are also other institutions in place – i.e. the IDF – to ensure that there will always be a body for that soul to rest in, for a noble soul without a body doesn’t amount to much.
Those – like the Cohens and the Thomas Friedmans – who worry aloud and often about Israel’s soul, are just unhappy that the soul they see does not necessarily reflect what they want it to look like, or their own lofty expectations. But so be it – what you see from here, to re-work a well-known Israeli song, you don’t see from there.
But Livni does see things from here, and she said these elections, which just a month ago people were saying were completely unnecessary, are nothing less than historic.
“These are, and can and need to be, historic elections,” she said Wednesday. “Historic elections that replace the government of the extremists; historic elections that return responsibility, Zionism and the Declaration of Independence, which people have begun doubting over the last few months; historic elections that change the direction in economics, security, society, religion and state.”
It will be interesting to see whether she will claim these elections are historic if the electorate – again – does not give her the mandate she expects.
This election is no more or less historic – no more or less about Israel’s “soul” – than any of the other elections this country has faced over the last 22 years. And we have faced eight of them.
The 1992 election, in the wake of the Madrid conference and the first intifada, was not historic? The 1996 election, after the trauma of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, was not over Israel’s soul? The 2001 election, just after the outbreak of the second intifada? The 2006 balloting, following the withdrawal from Gaza? On February 9, 2009, Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote an article on the upcoming election that year which ended with this observation: “Asked what’s at stake in this election, one scholar at Tel Aviv University answered instantly: ‘Israel’s soul.’” Indeed, it always seems that way, because there are always huge challenges facing the country, huge problems to deal with. But the elections are not about our soul, they are about more mundane matters such as who – at a particular moment in time – we feel is best equipped to deal with a whole basket-full of problems and challenges.
The upcoming election will be about the cost of living, and the security situation, and negotiations with the Palestinians, and settlement construction, and Israel’s ties with the world, and a referendum on Netanyahu.
And after we all go to the polls, we will then spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what exactly we said, because the message – if history and the current public opinion polls are any indication – will be muffled and equivocal.
Those expecting that Israelis will walk into the polling booths, feel faced with two clearly different blueprints for its soul, and pick one, will surely be disappointed.
The country will not decide that it wants to rush headlong into one direction or the other.
Rather, five or six medium-sized parties will – in the end – have to get together again and cobble a coalition that will reflect a snapshot of where this multi-colored country is at one particular moment in time.
And that snapshot – that reflection of Israel’s “soul” – will be neither black nor white; neither all light, nor all dark; neither enlightened nor primitive; neither warmongers nor Utopian peace seekers. That snapshot will be a mixture of all of the above, as well as all kinds of gray shades in between; just as it has always been, just as the country is.