My Word: A nose for politics

The smell of Independence Day barbecues has been replaced by the smell of election politics.

Independence Day barbecue 370 (photo credit: Tanya Sermer)
Independence Day barbecue 370
(photo credit: Tanya Sermer)
Pop! It wasn’t the sound of a champagne bottle opening that I heard last week; it was the noise the election genie makes when he bursts out of his cramped quarters, flexes his muscles, tests his strength and sets about creating his usual pre-poll havoc. He’s not a very nice genie. He brings with him that peculiar disease: election fever. And he is accompanied by a certain smell known in Hebrew as “reah behirot” – the smell of elections.
Wake up and smell reality: This is not the aroma of the beautiful flowers flourishing in the Rose Garden across from the Knesset but something festering and putrid.
The French are holding their presidential elections in their own style today, May 6 – reminiscent of an expensive perfume being sprayed too heavily for it to remain pleasant.
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the smell of Independence Day barbecues had barely died down when – as if scared that we might actually enter a period of unity, stability and boredom – Israelis decided it was time to spice up life with another round of national elections.
The politicians themselves – usually so good at saying what’s best for us – don’t seem to be able to explain why we need to go to the polls any time soon.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had hoped to complete a full four-year term and hold elections as originally scheduled in October 2013. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who led the breakaway from Labor into the tiny Independence party, doesn’t want elections now. And Kadima, the main opposition party, certainly does not want to compete in the polls any time soon. Tzipi Livni walked out of the Knesset, and possibly the Kadima party, last week looking like she was struggling to deal with a bad you-know-what – which, I suppose, she was: the smell of defeat. Even if it successfully regroups under the leadership of Shaul Mofaz, Kadima is likely to suffer a drastic drop in the number of MKs from its current 28.
Nonetheless the pungent emanation wafting around the political establishment is unmistakable. It helped Netanyahu figure out which way the wind was blowing and decide that early elections would work in his favor. Since the government hasn’t actually been toppled – in the way his first government fell over the Oslo Accords – he needed an excuse, and the “Tal Law” provided just that. The initial hot topic these elections is not the Iranian threat or a diplomatic deal with the Palestinians but the numbers of ultra-Orthodox receiving exemptions from what is meant to be compulsory military service.
Political reporters have started sniffing out electoral stories: Can Labor under Shelly Yacimovich really compete on a social platform or will these elections ultimately focus on security issues as has sadly been the necessity in the past? Will former Shas leader Aryeh Deri run on a new list, settle for a return to behind-the-scenes action, or even link up with Livni? Will Livni truly retire or will the intoxicating smell of power lead her back to the Knesset corridors, perhaps with Yair Lapid? Lapid, whose party is so new its name Yesh Atid (There is a Future) has not yet received official approval, is – as his late father Yosef (Tommy) Lapid did before him – definitely building an anti-haredi (and anti-settlement) platform.
It seems before every election there is a discussion about the likelihood that Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman will be indicted and unable to run. The inquiries into Liberman have gone on so long that I recall covering them even before Deri was arrested, and yet the former kingmaker of Israeli politics has already served his prison term and been out of jail long enough to contend yet again. It provides the phrase “political convictions” with an interesting twist.
But to hell with political correctness.
We should brace ourselves for election gimmicks, the tricks of the genie’s trade.
These, of course, carry a price. Now is the time for election economics, kalkalat behirot, when those who are not sure they are going to remain in power use the genie to grant wishes to the general public, even if the country cannot afford it without breaching the framework of the national budget.
Knesset members have begun pushing populist bills, and the smell of something fishy could combine with the smell of burning tires when “spontaneous” social protests make their longawaited return this summer.
Without a true change in the electoral system and raising the threshold for entrance into the Knesset, it seems likely that Netanyahu will once again head the largest political bloc in a new Knesset and hence again have the first shot at establishing a coalition (helped no doubt but the powerful smell of the leather seats around the government’s table).
Even if Likud fails to become the largest list, Netanyahu will probably be the preferred candidate for the premiership.
Lapid might have a certain self-confidence – an arrogance, even – but he is not aiming for the top spot.
He’s following his nose to the education portfolio. Yacimovich, too, might be happy to settle for some ministerial experience as head of a coalition party before setting her sights on the post of prime minister.
No wonder Mofaz is suddenly playing the Sephardi ethnic card and trumpeting his social awareness along with his experience as a former IDF chief of staff and former defense minister. He’s hoping to produce a scent that will attract voters from Shas and the middle- class socioeconomic center, and perhaps set up the possibility of a coalition deal with the largely secular, security-conscious Yisrael Beytenu party.
In the meantime, Netanyahu – known as The Magician for his ability to pull off political tricks that challenge the genie – hopes to put them all off the trail as he heads to the fresh air at the peak of the summit.
Seeing as he is likely to be reelected to the prime minister’s job, Netanyahu has less to fear from the upcoming elections than most of those ostensibly sniffing at his heels. Ironically, however, in terms of controlling blocs and the balance of power between coalition and opposition, the next Knesset is likely to be considerably less stable than the current one, which means it won’t take much for it to fall and bring about another round of early elections.
It stinks, but there’s some consolation in the fact that at least we are holding elections: a democratic ballot; one man, one vote and all that. This is not something to be sneezed at, particularly in this corner of the world, especially in current times. The need to hold our noses now and again during the electioneering is a small price to pay for knowing the sweet smell of freedom.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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