My Word: Political repeat cycle and spin

If we’re going to look like fools, I’d rather have a pleasant silly season than witness the political theater of the absurd. 

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and his government attend their inauguration ceremony at the Knesset in July 2021. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and his government attend their inauguration ceremony at the Knesset in July 2021.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

It’s June. In a perfect world, we should be looking ahead to the start of a journalistic silly season, known in Israel as Cucumber Season. But this is not a perfect world and instead of silliness and cucumbers, the summer seems set to highlight the ridiculous and getting in a pickle, at least when it comes to Israeli politics. We know what to expect because we’ve been here before, several times. The country is heading to the fifth general election in less than four years. Practice does not make perfect. 

The official collapse of the coalition this week, just one year after it was formed, was not a surprise. The government, composed of eight parties ranging from the far-Left to the far-Right was more a political nightmare than a dream team. Political paralysis was built in. 

Doomed from the start

The government started with the narrowest of majorities, and went down from there. Naftali Bennett managed to get himself appointed prime minister even though he led a faction of just seven out of the 120-member parliament. By the time he and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid convened their joint press conference on Monday night to announce they would be dissolving the Knesset, Bennett’s Yamina faction was down to just four members. And if Bennett’s longtime political partner Ayelet Shaked is still talking to him, I’d love to hear what it is she’s saying.

Bennett clearly failed to inform the interior minister of the decision to end the so-called experiment and head back to the ballot box. On Monday, Shaked was seen looking as cool as a cucumber, drinking a glass of white wine, in Morocco – where she was drawing up an agreement on workers’ visas – and warning the public not to believe everything they heard in the media about political turmoil. Forget silly season: She looked stupid.

 Israel's Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Israel's Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Well, at least I can stop criticizing Bennett for his decision to remain in his family home in Ra’anana rather than move into the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Lapid, too, who next week takes over as interim premier until a new government is sworn in, can probably save the expense of moving to the capital. There will be so many expenses relating to the election as it is. 

Bennett's speech

In his speech on Monday, Bennett was full of praise for himself. There are certain motifs that recur frequently when this government wants to highlight its successes. One of them is pride in the fact that it passed a state budget, although this was literally the least it could do. Had it not passed the budget, it would have been forced to disperse immediately. Under the circumstances, the one-year anniversary is an achievement.

Boasting that unemployment had dropped is disingenuous considering that the previous year had been marked by Covid lockdowns, largely solved when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu oversaw the swift rollout of vaccinations.

One of the problems of the endless round of elections is that every minister wants to make an instant impact – particularly among their own voters – rather than taking time to draw up and implement long-term reforms. Labor leader Merav Michaeli’s proposed reform as transport minister is an example. Blue and White’s Michael Biton, a former mayor of Yerucham, boycotted some coalition votes in protest, saying Michaeli’s reform would  benefit residents of the center of the country at the expense of the weaker residents of the South.

When it comes to foreign policy, the government has successfully built on the foundation of the Abraham Accords which it inherited from the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration (not that Bennett would like to be reminded of the fact.) Sorting out visas for Moroccan construction and nursing sector workers is not the highlight of regional cooperation. 

Lapid gets some credit for convening the Negev Summit, hosting the foreign ministers of four Arab countries and the US secretary of state, in March. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by the wave of terror attacks. It’s clear that Israel has an important regional role to play when dealing with the threats of Iranian nuclear aspirations and terrorism by both Shi’ite and Sunni extremists. This does not depend on a specific leader or government. The threats are too great.

Given the enormous challenges in this region, it was a surprise that Bennett should decide to jump into the international arena as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Images of him sitting with Vladimir Putin, having traveled to meet him on Shabbat, are likely to haunt him in future elections. Shaked, sipping wine and dismissing the government collapse as rumors, looks foolish but innocuous by comparison.

There’s still an outside chance that an alternate government could be formed, thus negating the need for more elections right now. Opposition leader Netanyahu is obviously considering his options. 

We’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Almost anything goes – particularly if personal goals override ideology. Every MK becomes a potential defector with the ability to hold the government hostage.

“Politics is a game of compromise, not promises.”

Maariv’s Lilac Sigan 

Ra’am-United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas at least remained faithful to his public. Unlike his main political rivals, Ahmed Tibi and Ayman Odeh of the Joint List, Abbas realized that he represented the Arab-Israeli public rather than the Palestinians. 

The trouble with the disparate government was that everyone pulled in a different direction: Abbas and Meretz on the Left wanted unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev hooked up to the national grid, but didn’t want similar recognition for Jewish outposts in Judea and Samaria, as the Right demanded.

The final straw for the government came when it had to extend the regulations applying civilian law to Judea and Samaria, something that had taken place almost automatically every five years until now, no matter who was in power. It became clear to everyone that they wouldn’t pass this time without help from the opposition. Bennett pointed out that the Likud and rightwing opposition members should have been able to put politics aside to support the crucial bill; Netanyahu countered that the government should not have put itself in the position when it couldn’t rely on its own coalition partners.

The law will now be extended until three months into the next government’s term. Just whose headache it will be then is the multi-million-shekel question. Not every party in the current Knesset will cross the electoral threshold in the next elections, to be held in October or November. And there has been a lot of musical chairs among the political parties. As Maariv’s Lilac Sigan noted: “Politics is a game of compromise, not promises.”

A major part of the problem is the electoral system. It has been noted that after the presidential elections in the US – whether you’re happy with the results, or not – you can assume that the new president will be in power for at least four years, whereas in Israel, the start of a new government’s term also signals the beginning of the next election cycle and attempts to remove it as soon as possible. It goes so fast, it seems to be spinning out of control.

During the past year, President Isaac Herzog has often stepped in as a sort of senior statesman, theoretically beyond the political. It will be interesting to see how his role plays out in the post-election scene. The president’s most significant function is to determine who has the best chance of forming a workable coalition. 

Initial poll results

Initial polls, and previous experience, indicate that the next election will not change the stalemate when it comes to the creation of blocs. Basing everything on a “Just not Bibi” philosophy obviously only goes so far. This is especially true when Likud consistently wins the largest number of votes. 

Ma’ariv’s Sigan this week suggested the time had come to ask politicians not with whom they would or would not sit, but what they were going to do to create a new formula and long-term solution to the political mess.

The more is not the merrier when it comes to elections. If we’re going to look like fools, I’d rather have a pleasant silly season than witness the political theater of the absurd. 

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