My Word: Elections and a month of Sundays

Having Sundays as a workday takes its toll, particularly on the Jewish religious public, which doesn’t travel, make purchases, or use electronic devices on Shabbat.

PEOPLE ENJOY time off at Zikim Beach in the South on Election Day (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
PEOPLE ENJOY time off at Zikim Beach in the South on Election Day
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
My vote goes to Election Day itself. Democratic elections are a cause for celebration anywhere, let alone in this particular corner of the global village. But the good vibes on April 9 weren’t only about the right to put a ballot in the box.
Election Day in Israel is a public holiday, ostensibly to allow voters to travel to their local polling stations. With the warm weather after a season of unusually heavy (if blessed) rains, Israeli citizens took to the beaches and parks like there was no tomorrow – or at least, not another free day coming up.
Having Sundays as a workday takes its toll, particularly on the Jewish religious public, which doesn’t travel, make purchases, or use electronic devices on Shabbat.
Not for the first time I pondered that if a party leader could finally grant Israel a full two-day weekend, they would be on to a winning ticket. Talk about unity. Religious and secular, Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians on Election Day all voted with their feet – which took them on outings and shopping expeditions and brought them together.
After some pre-Passover cleaning, for instance, on a trip to Jerusalem’s new Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium, I discovered the similarity of the word for “shark” in Hebrew and Arabic (karish and keresh) and refreshingly it had no political connotation.
I am writing these lines before the final votes have been published. I don’t want to make the same mistake that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz did and jump the gun with predictions. It’s troubling that Gantz, a political novice, did not have (or heed) advisers who could persuade him not to give a victory speech when almost every layperson following the exit polls and preliminary results could see that there was little chance of Gantz using the votes for his party to pave a way to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Israeli system relies on forming the largest coalition, not necessarily leading with the largest party, and Gantz should have known better by now. Not only did late Labor leader Shimon Peres make the same mistake with Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, so did then-Kadima head Tzipi Livni in 2009. And in the 2015 election, the tally dramatically changed in Netanyahu’s favor in the early hours of the morning, long after the Zionist Union’s then-head Isaac Herzog had gone to sleep.
Gantz himself has erred away from the side of caution before. As IDF chief of staff in the summer of 2014 he gave what was swiftly dubbed “The Anemones Speech.”
“We have a hot summer. Fall will soon come. The rain will wash away the dust left by the tanks. The fields will turn green, and the South will be awash in red – in the positive sense of the word – in anemones, flowers and stability, which will be here for many years to come,” Gantz prophesied.
Unfortunately for him and the residents of the South, Hamas was not moved by the flowery language. The terrorist organization broke the ceasefire and resumed rocket and (fatal) mortar attacks in Operation Protective Edge. The question of how to deal with Hamas in Gaza will be high on the agenda of whoever is prime minister and defense minister (and the jobs should be separate).
Netanyahu has shown yet again that he has earned his title of “Magician” in political survival but he cannot continue juggling several top positions himself. Israel needs a full-time prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister.
The mark of a true leader is the ability to appoint and cultivate an heir. At the age of 69, even if he didn’t have huge legal woes, Netanyahu should be thinking of who comes next to preserve his undoubted achievements.
IT IS EASIER to sum up some of the noteworthy points of the election than to say what the 21st Knesset will bring. One thing is obvious, Gantz wasn’t the only one to fall for his own hype. For the last few weeks, one name has been bandied around as the future kingmaker: Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Zehut Party, who somehow managed to marry libertarian economics, legalization of cannabis and a messianic religious passion. He was predicted to gain enough seats to afford him the opportunity to decide who will be prime minister, depending on which coalition bloc he would choose. His plans have gone up in smoke. As I write, Zehut didn’t garner enough votes to pass the threshold.
Another surprise was the fall of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who were left biting their nails waiting to see whether the votes from soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and the hospitalized would enable them to pass the threshold in the final count. Some saw it as poetic justice for the way the two of them abandoned their previous home, Bayit Yehudi, to set up the New Right. Their former party regrouped under Rafi Peretz, who created the Union of Right-Wing Parties (whose name says it all), which mustered around five seats.
The same time that Bennett and Shaked broke away from their former partners, Labor leader Avi Gabbay starkly and publicly dismissed Livni, ending the merger between her Hatnua Party and Labor in the Zionist Union. Livni might have become a liability but Labor’s showing where it counts – in this week’s voting booths – was poor, dropping to single digits.
There seems to have been a move, whether consciously or not, back to a system where two parties dominate. In an election in which every vote should count, too many were wasted on small parties that did not pass the threshold. Voters were faced with the ballot slips of some 40 lists. They were not spoiled by choice. In theory, having a large number of parties should be a sign of a healthy democracy, offering possibilities that enable everyone to find a list that represents them. But political theories tend to remain just that: theoretical.
In practice, having too many small parties – mainly driven by egos – is unruly and gives them a disproportionate amount of power. The coalition needs to have a broad base to be functional. The threat of political blackmail by potential coalition partners looms ugly, particularly when the prime minister-elect is trying to create his government.
IT IS HARD to see how the three composite lists that make up Blue and White – Gantz’s Israel’s Resilience, Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon’s Telem and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – are going to get along together in the opposition. The party with three former chiefs of staff – Gantz, Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi – and a former finance minister (Lapid), all eager for a seat around the cabinet’s table, is going to find sitting on the opposition benches uncomfortably hard.
My advice, as a former parliamentary reporter, is that they adopt a system similar to the British shadow government, giving each of them a specific function and a purpose. The opposition should give Gantz and Ashkenazi a chance to gain some political experience. For the opposition to be effective, it needs to be able to unite and provide a credible political threat and in the event of a vote of no-confidence. And with a government in which the pull to the far Right and ultra-religious will be strong, the opposition has a vital role to play.
Not to labor the point, but perhaps they could unite around the subject of shortening the work week, to the benefit of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities, with members of the three religions rotating their days of rest and work days.
As I often say: There are not enough days in the Israeli weekend. Having Saturdays off is divine; having Sundays off would be human. Having Elections Day off is a blessing, but one we should only count on once every four years.
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