Israel is moving toward elections again without almost any debate about what policies might be good for the country. Despite an ongoing pandemic, a closed airport, children in and out of school, widespread violations of basic guidelines and chaos, there is almost no real discussion about the policies that should guide this country.
Instead, electoral slogans are empty propaganda, often merely arguing that opponents are “leftists” or that politicians need to put their “egos” to the side. Politics is providing meager scraps for the voters, the same meager scraps they have been offered for years in a political system that has become more about personalities than about substance.
This dovetails with the overall hollowing of state institutions and erosion of checks and balances. Over time, the public has come to trust institutions less, from media to the courts, to the police, to the IDF.
This trend is worrisome and goes against the way this state was founded, when Israel and its early pioneers were all about ideas and vision. Israel’s historic political parties were based on ideologies and thought processes. Whether on the Left or the Right, there were guiding principles behind those who created Zionism and shepherded its various strands toward statehood.
This decline of ideas-based politics is part of a wider trend in the West. The rise and fall of Donald Trump in the United States, and the changes in Brazil, India and Eastern Europe, illustrate that there is a more reactionary and populist politics emerging and less attachment to old concepts.
In some ways the removal of old, stagnant ideas, such as those of devotees of Marxism, is welcome. But if you remove something, you need to replace it with something. Where are the debates about Israel’s education system, about Israel’s COVID-19 strategy and other discussions?
Naftali Bennett has discussed a so-called Singapore plan which could increase quality of life in Israel. This would mean slashing taxes, reducing government redundancy and encouraging a more hi-tech approach to government.
Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party has promised to improve schools and minimize educational gaps, while safeguarding human rights and individual rights.
In both cases, they seek to appeal to right-leaning voters, with Bennett claiming to be more right-wing than Netanyahu, and Sa’ar backing West Bank communities. Judicial system reform could also be on Sa’ar’s menu.
For Netanyahu, every election entails basically the same strategy. Don’t talk policies, just make it appear that some bogeyman on the Left will emerge and run the country if people don’t vote for his Likud Party. This time it is the claim that Yair Lapid and the Left will come to power. In past elections, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was portrayed as “weak” and “leftist.” The stand-in for any kind of policy debate is always the same. “They are leftist” – as though the word “left” is filled with policy implications, pregnant with all the things that might go wrong.
Similarly, other parties campaign without any kind of platform but just use religious imagery to guide them to power. Shas is well known for this sloganeering. It uses photos of the late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or other imagery to pull on the heartstrings of the faithful. There is little policy put forward.
Identity politics is No. 1 in Israel. Right. Left. Arabs. God. What about dealing with the creeping chaos in the Negev, where criminals and gangs seem to threaten average citizens, and military bases are easy pickings for thieves? What about the Arab towns that are awash with illegal weapons? What about the Jewish violence against Palestinians in the West Bank? What about the lack of civil marriage in Israel? The failure to build a proper egalitarian prayer plaza at the Kotel? Any policies to change there?
How about the fact that families arriving from abroad forge paperwork to get exemptions to enter the country, while thousands of Israeli citizens are stranded abroad with no answers? Any thoughts on that? How will Israel aid the small businesses and tourism industry destroyed by Covid?
It is time to move beyond this shallow system of politics. It is time we hear from our candidates about their ideas, not just about themselves.