Critical Currents: Can we?

We will not throw off today's political lethargy until citizens demand lucid answers

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The primary season is mercifully over. Now that the election campaign has begun in earnest, for broad segments of the public it seems that it is virtually over. Although recent polls show Kadima and the Likud in a dead heat, 43 percent of the electorate believe that Binyamin Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister despite the fact that the vast majority don't consider him to be the best choice for the job (only 28% want him to win and a full 45% don't think he is worthy of resuming this position). In a patently open race, the Israeli version of Barack Obama's "yes, we can" appears to be "no, we can't." The outcome of these elections - or for that matter of any ballot - is a foregone conclusion only if people let it happen. Voter fatalism, however, is becoming deeply embedded in the Israeli mind-set. Overcoming this listless determinism is critical not only for deciding the identity of the next government. It is also absolutely vital for reviving the confidence of citizens in their political order, in the country's democratic underpinnings and, above all, in themselves. THE PAST few national elections have been marked by two equally troubling characteristics: extreme voter mobility and growing voter abstinence. The first reflects a lack of trust in existing political parties and those at their helm ("anti-politics"). The second mirrors a growing propensity to shun the political world and all that it represents ("non-politics"). Distaste with politics and disaffection with incumbent politicians helps to account for the rapid rise (and subsequently quick demise) of boutique parties which pride themselves on their apolitical aura (the latest edition being the Gil Pensioners' Party). Unlike the type of protest exhibited by the abandonment of veteran parties, rising indifference to all things political has been expressed by skillfully crafted physical and mental escapism. A large number of Israelis, suffering from overdoses of political aversion, have honed their apathy into masterful forms of withdrawal. The superficial manifestation of anti-politics and non-politics has been the declining rate of voter turnout (the 63.5% recorded in the 2006 national elections is the lowest in the country's history). The more profound articulation of these trends is the massive reduction in the sense of efficacy of individual citizens: too many feel that whatever they do, they can't make a difference. THESE ELECTIONS appear to be a continuation of this disconcerting pattern of disengagement and despair. People seem united on one point: their common political malaise. There is widespread discomfort with the agendas of political parties and with their ability to carry them out. The Likud, according to a recent Camille Fuchs poll published in Ha'aretz, has convinced only 36% of its own voters that it has answers to today's economic, security and diplomatic dilemmas. Kadima's situation is even worse: Only 20% of those who are certain they will vote for the party are attracted by its platform. And even if 50% of Labor supporters identify with its policy directions, few are pleased with its overall image. With the exception of the ideological lists on the Right (most notably Israel Beiteinu) and on the Left (The New Movement/Meretz), the main contenders for the ruling-party title continue to promote personalities over substance. While Netanyahu (uncharacteristically close-lipped in recent weeks), Tzipi Livni (more forthcoming than ever) and Ehud Barak (studiously pugnacious) are seemingly sparring over Iran, Gaza, the Arab Peace Initiative and the future of the economy, their strategists are actually underlining their supposedly unique qualities while highlighting the obvious drawbacks of their rivals. The predictability of it all only contributes to the combination of cynicism and apathy that is permeating the country. It can be otherwise. The Obama campaign instilled hope in a depressed and passive electorate. It built a campaign from the bottom up - financially, organizationally and programmatically. This country possesses the ingredients necessary to do the same. Many citizens who fled the formal arena are heavily engaged in civil society. They prove, on a daily basis, that their energies can yield substantial results and that they can induce positive change, even if only on a small scale. But they have yet to translate this self-awareness and sense of empowerment into an effective tool that can significantly alter the political landscape. AWAKENING FROM the political lethargy that exists today will not occur until - individually and collectively - citizens demand - and receive - lucid answers from those who are courting their support. In a period of insecurity domestically and externally, they do have the right to know, precisely, where each of the candidates - from Avigdor Lieberman and Haim Oron to Netanyahu, Livni and Barak - stands on socioeconomic policy as well as on issues of peace and security. They have the power to make it clear that a surfeit of amorphous promises unaccompanied by concrete plans is off-putting. Above all, they can insist on a clear vision and plan of action where empty verbiage prevails. The vying political parties and their leaders have a vested interest in responding to this challenge. Failure to do so will not only lead to progressively lower participation rates on February 10, it will surely further hamper the capacity of any future coalition to govern. There are barely six weeks until the elections. This is the amount of time left for both Israeli citizens and those who want their votes to show that they are capable of molding their destiny. The onus lies equally on the shoulders of an increasingly wary electorate and those who have manipulatively tried to gain its confidence. There is no inevitability in the political arena. Election results are a self-fulfilling prophecy only if people make them so. Failure to rise to the occasion means that we will get what we deserve - but nobody else does.