Israel's election campaigns lack the big ideas of the past

The Jewish people are meant to be the people of the big ideas. Monotheism, Shabbat, Communism, Zionism are just some examples.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes  in the September 2019 election. (photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the September 2019 election.
(photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE)
Israel really outdid itself this time. We have a lot to be proud of.
Benny Gantz, former IDF chief of staff turned politician, called Israel’s prime minister “a piece of crap” in a radio interview. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, answered a question about the deaths of 6,000 Israelis from corona with a sexist comment of “paka paka Shasha Shasha,” a derogatory reference to New Hope’s No. 2, Yifat Shasha-Biton.
Avigdor Liberman said that the haredim should be taken on a wheelbarrow together with Netanyahu to a “garbage dump.” The haredim, for their part, issued a video portraying Reform Jews as dogs.
Everywhere we look the rhetoric is divisive, polarizing – and simply disgusting. Which is the better party to vote for? That is for each and every one of us to decide. But one thing should be clear: this garbage talk has got to stop.
At the same time, we shouldn’t be so surprised. Politics in Israel today is a manifestation of some of the worst attributes we have to offer as a society. So when Israel is divided, it is no surprise that our politicians speak the way they do. They thrive on division. It is what gives them power.
Netanyahu speaks more about not being Yair Lapid than he does about what it means to be Bibi. The same is true of the anti-Bibi camp. They have no problem telling the public whom they won’t sit with, but go ask them what they will do in office and it is tough to get a straight answer. We get that they won’t sit with Netanyahu – but what will they do?
Every party defines itself according to what it isn’t, not what it is.
A politicians’ word has also sadly become meaningless. Take Arye Deri as an example, a perfect illustration of the worst of what Israeli politics has become.
As interior minister in the 1990s, Deri was convicted of bribery and sent to prison for almost two years. He returned to politics in 2012, and in a move that showed a complete lack of shame by the entire political system, was reinstalled as interior minister – back to the scene of the original crime!
When Gantz entered a unity government with Netanyahu in May, it was Deri who gave the Blue and White leader his verbal guarantee that he would make sure Netanyahu stuck to his part of the deal, pass a two-year budget, and implement the rotation agreement under which Gantz would become prime minister this November.
When Netanyahu violated the agreement and Gantz came to Deri to collect on his guarantee, the leader of Shas suddenly suffered from memory loss. “I never signed an agreement with Gantz,” Deri said.
The writing was on the wall. Gantz should have known better.
WITH ALL of this going on, it is hard to tell anyone how to vote or for whom to vote. This election campaign lacked debate over policy, instead focusing on personality. Again, we no longer know what people stand for, just whom they stand against.
One way to decide which slip of paper to slide into the ballot box on Tuesday is to consider which party leader is doing the best job upholding the social contract that is supposed to exist between a people and its elected officials.
Let me explain: we, the people, are asked to pay taxes, to serve in the IDF, and to obey Israel’s laws. In exchange, we are supposed to receive benefits. On a municipal level that includes clean streets, paved roads, new parks and renovated schools. On a national level it includes health care, a military, power plants, vaccines, and so much more in a country of nine million people.
Each side is supposed to do her or his part, citizens and politicians together, as one. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but that’s the social contract: you can take my money, and give it back in services as outlined in the budget.
But what happens when there isn’t a national budget? What happens when a government cannot engage in any real forward planning? What happens when national strategic organization means preparing just for tomorrow, or maybe next week, because beyond that – forget about it.
Is that a government holding up its end of the bargain? Is it doing what it is meant to do, what it was elected to do, what its primary responsibility is?
That is what we voters need to decide on Tuesday: who will hold up their end of the bargain in a more trustworthy, honest and responsible way.
We shouldn’t be foolish though. While it is true that Netanyahu serially concedes power to his haredi partners – think of the egalitarian plaza at the Kotel, conversion legislation, the IDF draft, and failure to enforce corona regulations – he is not that different from anyone else whose coalition would depend on haredi partners.
There might be differences in nuance and boundaries – Netanyahu tends to give his haredi partners whatever they want – but the idea of surrendering to coalition partners will always be in play. Had Lapid been prime minister in 2017, he also would have likely needed to cancel construction of the Kotel plaza if he was faced with the threat of losing his premiership.
While this will always be the case in a coalition system, the question is to what extent: how much of the country is mortgaged to someone’s personal political survival? Under Netanyahu, it seems at times like almost everything is up for grabs to ensure that he remains in office. Will it be different under someone else? That is for voters to decide.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, it is hard not to feel that Israel right now is somehow off its axis, as if the country is off balance.
This is partially because of the non-stop election cycle we have endured for the last two years, and the prospect – already being spoken about – that the one on Tuesday will end in a fifth election. But it also has to do with the disproportionate power that has been allocated over the last few years to specific interest groups in Israel while overlooking the majority.
What pains me most about these elections is that they have absolutely nothing to do with ideas, vision or policy. They are all about personalities: who will Netanyahu sit with, how will Lapid form a government, what will Bennett do if he is the kingmaker, and how many seats will Sa’ar get.
The Jewish people are meant to be the people of the big ideas. Monotheism, Shabbat, Communism, Zionism are just some examples of the movements and ideas that emerged from our people and changed the world as we know it.
Not every election can be about a grandiose idea, but it can be about something more than just one person – and whether we like that person or we don’t.
The last time Israelis voted on an idea was in 2006, when Ehud Olmert, as leader of Kadima, ran with a declared plan of carrying out a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank like had been done with the Gaza Strip just a year before.
It was called the “Convergence Plan,” and after winning that election, Olmert flew to Washington, London and Paris to pitch his proposal. The rest is history – the Second Lebanon War broke out and the plan was shelved. Unfortunately, so was the idea that an election can be about something more than the personalities running in it.
Since then, we haven’t had any elections about ideas, a collective loss since big challenges like running a country require big ideas.
Israelis will have another chance to alter the trajectory of their country on Tuesday. By voting, they can decide the potential direction this country takes in the years to come. 
How about that for a big idea?