2020: The year Israeli politics went to hell and back

The year began with an easily avoidable election campaign full of mudslinging and ended with another easily avoidable election campaign full of mudslinging.

BROKEN PROMISES: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
BROKEN PROMISES: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queirós was quoted as saying that “politicians and diapers should be changed frequently, and all for the same reason.”
He said that in the 19th century. But it could just as easily have been observed in 2020.
A year universally acknowledged around the world as extraordinarily awful would be judged similarly even if the coronavirus had never existed and Israeli politics were the only criteria.
It was a year when Israeli politics stooped to a new low, as politicians lost their shame, and American-style hyperpolarization paralyzed the government and the Knesset.
The year began with an easily avoidable election campaign full of mudslinging and ended with another easily avoidable election campaign full of mudslinging. What came in the middle between those two bookends was nothing to write home about.
To understand just how bad the year in politics was, it is important to look back to a day when there was potential for the year to be so much better.
On the eve of the March 2 election, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz promised that if elected prime minister, he would form a special cabinet that would work on reaching a national consensus on issues of conflict in Israeli society. Regardless of political viewpoints, it was an idea recognizing that healing was necessary.
Gantz made the announcement at a press conference at Expo Tel Aviv surrounded by diverse MKs from a variety of backgrounds, who each told his or her life story. He promised the cabinet would work on a new covenant that would be published by Independence Day 2021.
Needless to say, such a cabinet was never formed, but it was repeatedly cited as an example of the unfilled potential of the national-unity government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gantz formed in May.
That unity government became a symbol of broken promises: Gantz’s to not join a Netanyahu-led government; Netanyahu’s to rotate with Gantz in the Prime Minister’s Office; and many promises by both of them to the people.
According to the coalition agreement, the unity government was supposed to deal with nothing but the coronavirus and its economic implications on Israeli citizens.
Instead of talking about reconciliation, MKs in the governing coalition bickered constantly among themselves, refused to pass each other’s legislation and, week after week, canceled key meetings because they could not even agree on their agenda.
The coalition did, however, convene to vote for cringeworthy bills. In June, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis were unemployed, the Knesset Finance Committee voted to approve retroactive tax reimbursements for Netanyahu worth about NIS 1 million.
Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar said it was necessary to approve Netanyahu’s request for nine years of tax refunds on expenses for his work as prime minister at his private home in Caesarea that were paid by the state. Zohar warned that Netanyahu could not make ends meet and was becoming “financially handicapped.”
Blue and White MKs boycotted the vote, and even the most loyal Likud ministers declined to defend the move. But Netanyahu’s loyalists did stand behind him one month earlier when his criminal trial began and he accused his judges of being “wolves” and part of a conspiracy to bring him down due to his political views.
Those who hate Netanyahu and those who hate those who hate Netanyahu each found ways to cross new redlines.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered Netanyahu’s son Yair to remove a tweet in which he published the personal information of people leading the protests against his father and calling on followers to protest in front of their homes. The judges also ordered Yair to “avoid harassing in every way, shape and form” the protest leaders for six months.
Demonstrators protested outside the home of the parents of Capt. Tom Farkash, who was killed in action in the Second Lebanon War. The protesters were objecting to the Farkash family allowing anti-Netanyahu protesters to use their rooftop for protests. One told Farkash’s mother that they wished she would lose another child.
Before the outrage over the protest subsided, radical left-wing activist Sadi Ben Shitrit of the “Crime Minister” group compared Netanyahu to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
“In the 1930s, the leader of Germany oppressed the Jews, and he behaved just like you,” said Ben Shitrit in a video posted on social media. “There is no pardon for [someone so] corrupt. There is no forgiveness for the destruction and abuse of Israelis. In the 1930s, in Germany, there was a bitter enemy of the Jewish people – he behaved just like you, inciting and destroying.”
The language used by Knesset members was not much better. It was a year when cusswords became common in the Knesset. When then-Likud MK Michal Shir defected to former minister Gideon Sa’ar’s party last week, Likud MK Osnat Mark called her a bitch. In a speech from the Knesset rostrum two months ago, Likud minister David Amsalem repeatedly used the word “maniac,” which is much more pejorative in Hebrew than in English.
Even inside the Likud, animosity reached new levels. In a fight between three female MKs in the Knesset plenum in October, Likud MK Keren Barak used strong language in criticizing Mark and MK May Golan.
“You are not worth the heel on my shoe,” Barak told Golan. “Not you, and not the retarded blonde,” referring to Mark. Barak also said that she could step on them, but they are not worth the sole of her shoe. Golan responded to Barak that she had embarrassed herself and would not stoop to her level. The Knesset Guard separated the women.
Barak’s office initially denied that such a conversation happened, but then the Ynet website revealed the tapes. Barak’s office then criticized the other MKs for giving the tapes to the press and shaming their colleague publicly.
“I was taught that you keep your dirty laundry at home,” a source close to Barak said.
In July, Joint List MK Ofer Cassif called the Likud’s Mark a “chattel slave of the dictator’s family” in remarks in the Knesset plenum about the Judicial Selection Committee. Mark responded: “When such a statement comes from him, it is a certificate of honesty for me. And yet, every day that this disgusting man ascends the Knesset podium is a day of depression for Zionism.”
In a meeting of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee, MKs called each other several Hebrew synonyms of idiot and told each other they would go straight to hell.
The Knesset members did find time to work as well, submitting 2,605 private member bills, of which only 19 were passed into law, and 558 parliamentary queries, the overwhelming majority of which will remain forever unanswered.
The politicians worked under challenging conditions due to the coronavirus, but they lost an opportunity to set an example for the public about obeying regulations the politicians themselves drafted.
During the Passover Seder, when all citizens were expected to eat with only their nuclear families residing at home, Netanyahu invited his grown son, President Reuven Rivlin hosted his daughter, Yoav Gallant was illegally with family and MKs Avigdor Liberman and Nir Barkat were caught with their own violations.
Rivlin issued a well-publicized apology, as did Barkat, and none of the MKs lied once their offense was revealed. But none of them resigned in shame, which created an atmosphere of increased permissiveness for politicians. In September, two Netanyahu advisers violated quarantine without blinking. One of them even did it twice.
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) not only spent Yom Kippur with extended family when she was supposed to stay home, she drove 150 kilometers to do it, when average citizens were limited to only one kilometer. Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy also met with family members when it was not permitted.
The most recent news about coronavirus and politicians was that Blue and White leaders threatened Health Ministry professionals in an attempt to get out of quarantine.
Last week’s Uvda newsmagazine on Channel 12 revealed how dirty the election campaign became. It had already been known that the Likud sent a rabbi to tape Gantz’s political strategist warning about his boss’s weakness. What was not known until the show aired was that both the Likud and Blue and White paid massive sums of money to the same private investigator, who went back and forth defecting between the parties.
Ahead of the March election, Netanyahu’s right-hand man Natan Eshel said Sephardim “vote only on hatred” and called Likud minister Miri Regev “a beast.”
NOW, THERE is another March election ahead next year. It has already started dirty, with the attack on Netanyahu by his former confidant, then-water and higher education minister Ze’ev Elkin, who warned that Netanyahu destroyed the Likud and initiated unnecessary elections in order to evade prosecution. In response, the Likud mocked the title Netanyahu gave him, calling him the government’s water boy.
Much more mudslinging is expected as soon as the Center-Left unites behind its candidate for prime minister.
In one positive political accomplishment in 2020, Israel taught the United States how to enable quarantined voters to cast ballots. Our Central Elections Committee conducted an online workshop for its American counterpart to study, and lessons were implemented.
When another election will be held as the coronavirus crisis rages, Israel will undoubtedly learn more lessons to teach the world.
But especially if there ends up being more than one election in 2021, the Israel political system and its politicians will certainly not be seen as role models.
Israel moved into first place in the frequency of elections since 1996. According to Israel Democracy Institute researcher Prof. Ofer Kenig, elections have been held an average of every 2.3 years, passing Greece, where elections have been held every 2.5 years.
So at least Israel is following the advice of the Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queirós in frequently changing its politicians. What the politicians left behind in 2020 will be flushed down in memories of what may have been the most abhorrent year in Israeli politics ever, as the Jewish state looks ahead to a year that can only be better. 