Israel Elections: Inflation of new parties exposes system's ailments

MIDDLE EAST: At least three of the approaching election’s central contestants head new parties, that's not counting Ron Huldai's, or Benny Gantz's, or Ofer Shelah's.

INFLATABLE COSTUMES depict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, at a demonstration in Jerusalem in August. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
INFLATABLE COSTUMES depict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, at a demonstration in Jerusalem in August.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
With another politician introducing another new party every other day, one feels like a customer in a supermarket facing 10 different types of toothpaste, all of which are effectively the same.
At least three of the approaching election’s central contestants head new parties: Yair Lapid’s didn’t exist a decade ago, Naftali Bennett’s is hardly two-years-old, and Gideon Sa’ar’s is still recovering from its brit.
This is not counting Ron Huldai’s political embryo, which is expected to win about 5% of the vote, or Benny Gantz’s, which is predicted to win even less, not to mention Ofer Shelah’s.
At the same time, two of Israeli politics’ time-honored pillars, Labor and the National Religious Party (now called Bayit Yehudi), are expected to vanish.
Added up, one might judge this traffic as healthy generational replacement. It isn’t. In fact, this commotion is a symptom of political degeneration.
ON THE face of it, all parties are ill except one, the Likud, which seems electorally unbeatable, even as its leader faces legal prosecution and collegial revolt. Such an impression is unfounded. The Likud actually epitomizes Israel’s political ailments, and its own disintegration has already begun.
What is a political party, the creature which Edmund Burke said is a prerequisite for a free country? Well a party is a group of people fighting together for beliefs they share. That is at least what parties were for centuries.
In Israel, back when parties were parties, they routinely held conferences and consultations in order to put together platforms and respond to events. In Likud, as charged by its former education minister Sa’ar, such forums have ceased to convene. Instead, as charged by its resigning higher education minister Ze’ev Elkin, the party has morphed from a guiding compass into an infallible leader’s cheerleading troupe.
The Party Center, once a forum where ideas were introduced and debated, has become a job exchange where public office is bought and sold. The typical Likud hack’s thinking was just articulated by Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar, who told KAN TV that because “you can’t get the entire threesome of money, honor and power,” he is focusing on gathering power. “Ultimately,” he then completed his value system’s mapping, “I hope this will also grant me honor.”
It is in line with this institutional degeneration that Benjamin Netanyahu did not even make the pretense of reporting to his party before accepting Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” – even though that blueprint compromised Likud’s ideology – nor did he do so before he shed that same plan, en route to the peace deal with the United Arab Emirates.
The Likud, in other words, has long ceased to be an organization that promotes or even just discusses policy. The political hegemon, whose founder, Menachem Begin, believed in the power of ideas and in the leader’s subservience to the party, now believes in the idea of power, and in the party’s subservience to the leader.
That is what happened in the Likud. Sadly, the other parties are following suit.
THE COMMON denominator among the new parties is their focus on personalities and avoidance of issues.
Initially, Israelis rejected personalized politics, even when it centered on David Ben-Gurion himself. The new party he fielded in 1965, Rafi, won a mere 10 seats while his original party, Labor, won a decisive 45, even though it lacked his charisma and aura.
Historians will wonder when exactly we began drifting away from that legacy, but there will be no debating that we now have arrived at its opposite end.
Nothing other than ego justifies separate parties for Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, just like no guiding idea or program distinguishes Lapid from Huldai or Gantz. Worse, people will vote for new parties while knowing close to nothing about most of the people their leaders will insert into the Knesset.
And the reason for this democratic dissonance is that none of the new parties has actually established a party, namely, a network of local chapters where members debate issues, confirm platforms and elect candidates. Instead, lawmakers are handpicked by the leader, while the party’s positions are whatever he will shoot from the hip as events will unfold.
That is why even the ostensibly ideological Bennett’s main election pitch is not about conviction, but about management. Bibi, he says, should go not because of his moral record, and not because he has undermined Israeli democracy, but because he mismanaged the pandemic.
POLITICAL DEGENERATION is a global crisis.
In America, the Republican Party’s dysfunctionality is not the result of Donald Trump’s emergence, but its cause. In Britain, Labour’s decay is not the result of Jeremy Corbyn’s traumatic stint at its helm, but its cause.
The common denominator between British, American and Israeli politics is that their contemporary Churchills, Roosevelts and Ben-Gurions don’t go into politics. That is why throughout the West, postwar political establishments are dying.
Some countries can perhaps afford several decades of political degeneration. Israel can’t. It needs good people in politics, and its politics needs real parties, vibrant forums that will regularly discuss issues, review programs and debate ideas.
Chances that any of our many new parties will deliver any of this are low, even though they all saw how Blue and White’s lack of such a structure resulted in its disintegration as soon as its leaders faced their first policy dilemma.
The good news is that, as always in Israel, change will come. The bad news is that, also as always in Israel, it will only come once crisis matures, perhaps after Netanyahu departs and Likud, too, falls apart. Until then we will have yet more of Israeli politics’ current version; the version of this much me and this little we, the politics of so much who, and so little what.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.