Israel Elections: What went wrong with Israeli politics?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: One of the system’s main defects – too many retired generals – will vanish. The other two – the electoral and ministerial systems – will not.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures.
 “Everybody knows the deal is rotten,” wrote Leonard Cohen, capturing a widespread sense of despair in the face of rampant greed, racism, debauchery and AIDS. 
That was in America in 1988. Here and now people think the problem is not the deal, but one man, the same man others think is the solution. Well, he is neither. The problem is the system and the solution is its reform. 
Like a bleeding boxer limping back into the ring for yet another hook to the chin, our salvation will remain elusive even after next month’s fourth election in less than two years, because people are thinking personally instead of systemically. 
The good news is that one of the system’s main defects – too many retired generals – will vanish. The bad news is that the other two – the electoral and ministerial systems – will not even be dented. 
THE GENERALS’ ubiquity in Israeli politics is unparalleled in any of the world’s many democracies. 
Yes, there have been notable cases of generals becoming national leaders – from the Duke of Wellington to Ulysses Grant – and also statesmen, from Dwight Eisenhower to Charles de Gaulle. No democracy, however, turned generals into politicians nearly as frequently, and as disastrously, as the Jewish state. 
The process began soon after the state’s establishment, and spun out of control following the Six Day War, so much so that since then 10 of 14 former chiefs of General Staff went into politics. 
Some former generals bred national disasters like the Yom Kippur War (Moshe Dayan), the First Lebanon War (Ariel Sharon), the First Intifada (Yitzhak Rabin), and the Second Intifada (Ehud Barak).
Other generals wrought great political failure, the way Shaul Mofaz led Kadima’s plunge in 2015 from 28 Knesset seats to two. 
Retired generals’ political deployment reached a new peak during the past two-year crisis of repeated and inconclusive elections, and then sank to new depths. 
The fielding of three former IDF chiefs as a new political formation’s leaders was unprecedented even for Israel. The result, alas, was ideological incoherence, programmatic disorientation and political fiasco. Like Shaul Mofaz when he led Kadima, the politically clueless Benny Gantz first lost half his faction, then over the past six months was abandoned by most of its remainder.
Gantz’s number two, Gabi Ashkenazi, brought to the Foreign Ministry much needed managerial acumen, but politically he was just as vacuous as Gantz. Like most retired generals, he too failed to articulate an original idea or devise a plan of action worthy of a national leader. 
How much more empirical proof will Israel’s generals need in order to understand that, for most of them, elected office is not a good career choice. It doesn’t work; not for them and not for the country. 
Fortunately, Gantz’s successor in the IDF, Gadi Eisenkot, is for now avoiding joining the political fray. Hopefully, he already drew this simple conclusion. The rest of Israel, judging by Blue and White’s shrinkage in recent polls, already has. The system’s other ailments, however, continue to fester. 
GENERALS KEPT parachuting into the Knesset because the way to enter it is through a national list of candidates. Had our lawmakers been elected directly by the people, and thus represented not party machineries, but districts, most generals would not run, because they would have to canvas neighborhoods as candidates, and write laws as backbenchers. 
At the same time, such a system would have attracted the young Israelis with leadership skills who currently don’t go to politics. There are great leaders in Israel, but they go to hi-tech, business, academia, medicine, law, the arts, you name it, only not to politics. 
Why would they? They know that climbing Israeli politics’ ladders means spending decades as someone else’s briefcase carrier while sharing space with ignorant loudmouths. 
The Knesset’s levity then feeds the cabinet, because in the Israeli system the executive branch is an extension of the legislative branch. 
AN ISRAELI cabinet ordinarily includes some 25 ministers and five deputy ministers, practically all of them retrieved from the Knesset. Since the Knesset has only 120 members – one of the world’s smallest legislatures – the result is that about a quarter of those elected to legislate are actually busy governing. 
Worse, other lawmakers spend their days seeking executive office as well. Consequently, lawmakers are not seen as equal to, but as inferior to ministers, and most MKs’ own ambition is not to represent the people, but to govern them.
The government for its part is an oversized and disjointed debating club where officers don’t hold on to a specific portfolio for more than two or three years. 
When heading their agencies, Israeli ministers think not as members of a board who act collectively and think strategically, but like lawmakers faced with an imminent election. Consequently, rather than be preoccupied with long-term national planning, Israeli ministers are often driven by short-term, personal concerns. 
The legislative and executive flaws in Israeli governance became glaring as the past two years’ political crisis climaxed, when Benjamin Netanyahu further deformed the system by creating an inflated cabinet that included not a quarter, but one third of the Knesset. 
While nominal government became that bloated, actual government became the one-man act in which the prime minister didn’t even tell his foreign minister that he was negotiating peace agreements, or tell his defense minister that he gave a green light to an Arab army’s purchase of the world’s best fighter plane. 
All this will change some day when our lawmakers are elected personally and our ministers come from outside the Knesset. 
“Everybody knows the boat is leaking,” sang Leonard Cohen. “Everybody knows it’s coming apart... everybody knows that the captain lied.” That was in America in 1988. Here and now not everybody knows, as a multitude will make plain next month, expecting in their gullibility “a box of chocolates, and a long-stem rose.”
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.