Israel's forgotten disease

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Israeli politics, once a celebration of councils, secretariats, party centers and ideological conventions, has become a collection of one-man shows.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and MK Yair Lapid (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and MK Yair Lapid
“United,” wrote a euphoric Yair Lapid the day he and Benny Gantz unveiled their joint venture; “that is how national responsibility looks,” read his self-congratulating tweet under a photo of Blue and White’s four parents, before punctuating enthusiastically: “It’s time to change.”
Fourteen months later, united they no longer stand, and change never seemed more distant. Though it is too early to tell where its survivors are headed, it is not too early to draw conclusions from the Gantz-Lapid flight’s early crash.
There are three such conclusions, all reflections of an era of political soloists, an era that Blue and White sadly failed to defy.
The new party’s first mistake was to discuss, in all its three campaigns, nothing but one issue: Bibi. Besides putting off much of the swing vote, this attitude reflected the era’s conventional wisdom that politics is not about ideas, but about politicians.
The second mistake was to avoid planning for the morning after victory. Having included candidates from varied backgrounds, Blue and White’s leaders never crafted a detailed program of action, apparently fearing to expose gaps among its assortment of doves, hawks, unionists, capitalists, environmentalists and industrialists.
The shame is that it would have been relatively easy to create such harmony and produce a master plan that would specify deadlines and allocate resources for purposes like overhauling public transport, doubling the hospital system and launching a constitutional convention.
Such thinking was impossible because, in Blue and White’s personalized thinking, the solution, just like the problem, was not what but who. That is how it arrived at its third and overarching mistake, its failure to dialogue with its voters and thus offer a cure for our era’s underlying political disease: autocracy. 
ISRAELI POLITICS, once a celebration of councils, secretariats, party centers and ideological conventions, has become a collection of one-man shows.
In the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu consulted no party forum in 2015, when he dismantled a working coalition and, with no clear pretext, caused an early election hardly two years since the previous election.
There was a time when such decisions involved group thinking, consultation, debate and also a vote. This is how things worked in Labor, Herut, the Liberal Party, the National Religious Party and the rest of the parties that formed last century’s governments.
Retreat from this era began in 1992, when Israel saw its first primary election, in which Yitzhak Rabin defeated Simon Peres. Labor’s ballot in the subsequent general election read “Labor: Headed by Yitzhak Rabin.” No Israeli leader, not even David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, had done such a thing.
Such personalization was particularly alien to Labor’s collectivist culture, but Rabin’s landslide in that general election only enhanced politicians’ impression that self-celebration is what the people want, and what the politicians need.
Netanyahu’s defeat of Shimon Peres in 1996, especially in their televised debate, further spread the faith that collectivist politics was the face of the past, while the personalized politics of the telegenic, sound-biting braggart was the call of the future.
The evolving trend meshed with the growth in those days of Shas, a party that questioned nothing its leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, decreed. It was a structure that existed nowhere among Israel’s veteran parties, including Agudat Yisrael (forerunner of today’s United Torah Judaism), which was, and still is, a syndicate of hassidic courts and Lithuanian yeshivot whose policy is set by a rabbinical council. 
What happened on the system’s ultra-Orthodox flank was soon emulated on its ultra-secular flank, when Avigdor Liberman created a party where he alone decides everything: who will get a Knesset seat; who will be a cabinet minister; whether the party will veer from Right to Left, and whether to drag the country into two elections within six weeks.
This model apparently inspired Yair Lapid when he set up Yesh Atid, handpicking its lawmakers without even creating an appearance of a consultative body. This is also what Naftali Bennet had in mind when he set up the New Right.
It all adds up to a Rambo culture, an era of political bravado, machismo, humiliation and bluster, a time in which one party leader fires his colleague in a live broadcast (as Labor’s Avi Gabbay did to Tzipi Livni); another vows, like a Roman emperor in the Colosseum, to send people to their deaths (as Liberman said he would do to Hamas’s leaders within 48 hours of becoming defense minister); and a third boasts he has made Israel a world power (as Bibi does habitually), even though he knows full well it isn’t and never will be one.
Blue and White initially seemed ready to offset this trend. 
BENNY GANTZ and his team looked like a fresh antithesis to the Likud’s one-man rule and personality cult. The party’s federated structure demanded the kind of group work Netanyahu feels no need to conduct with his own party colleagues.
Alas, the foursome which referred to itself as “the cockpit” was no substitute for yesteryears’ party forums, which regularly discussed ideology, legislation and political direction with hundreds of party members, and thus helped leaders feel the public before making decisions.
This is what Blue and White lacked the day it fell apart. Had it had a membership forum, that forum would have imposed a course of action. Lacking such a control tower, the cockpit’s pilots quickly proved unable to agree on the flight course, and soon crashed into the ravine where this column found the black box it is now deciphering.
Chances that the party’s estranged halves will now convene conferences, debate ideas, elect councils, and dialogue with the public are low. In their leaders’ eyes, a political party is one man followed by a row of handpicked lawmakers, the way ducklings follow mother goose, and Shas trails Arye Deri.
In this regard, despite their brave defense of our embattled judiciary, Gantz and Lapid bear no solution for the crisis of Israeli democracy. They are part of the problem.