"Try to find something positive to write about the elections,” a friend beseeched me this week. It’s a challenge. But not nearly as great a challenge as the party leaders face trying to cobble together a coalition of 61 MKs. Creating a political bloc large enough and stable enough to survive more than a few months might be beyond the realm of Israeli political science and in the realm of science fiction unless a sufficient number of MKs are willing to put their egos aside, and actually walk in unity rather than just talk unity.
Obviously, the first positive thing to note about the elections is that they take place. True, four times in two years – and the threat of a fifth looming large – is not good, but it’s better than having no elections at all, as many less fortunate people around the world know.
Voter turnout this time was slightly lower than in the previous recent polls but at 67.2% of eligible voters, was not to be sneezed at. And talking about not sneezing, progress on the corona front is also impressive. Israel justifiably earned its monikers as the Start-Up Nation and Vaccination Nation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly hoping the success of the inoculation program would translate into votes on Election Day, and to a certain extent it worked. The Likud Party with his name on the ballot slip pulled in around 30 seats according to the preliminary results, far more than the 17 of his nearest rival party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
The Central Election Committee, headed by Orly Ades, was particularly creative this round when it came to adapting to voting in the corona era. Whereas last March the number of infected and quarantined voters was so low, it was considered almost a curiosity, this year the CEC had to come up with more innovative ideas to allow citizens their democratic right to vote without endangering others. Among the solutions were drive-through polling stations, isolated tents and an app for Gett taxis able to safely transport those in quarantine. Specially adapted old buses were also set up as a backup – and were used when the unusually strong winds blew tents away – giving a whole new meaning to the floating vote. As every politician knows, no amount of planning or political power can control the weather on Election Day – that’s up to a higher authority.
These elections passed relatively quietly with no major incidents. Outside my local polling station, campaigners held an animated but civil discussion. Given the highly charged atmosphere, that, too, should not be taken for granted.
At the stage in the early evening when journalists were getting desperate to find another angle to cover, with a few hours to go to the 10 p.m. exit polls and not much happening on the streets, Kan Reshet Bet reported – in what could be seen as a positive trend – that the No. 1 Google search in Israel was for the entry “Elections.” It seems citizens were quiet but not apathetic. The second most frequent search was for Israel’s Big Brother reality show, whose final was held the night before Election Day.
The combination brought to mind KAN 11’s popular new comedy series Motek Bool BaEmtza (Honey Spot-on in the Middle), a satire based on a reality show runner-up who with no political background but a lot of social media savvy, verve and nerve finds herself a Knesset member, fighting corporate lobbies, corruption, the banking system and her all-female faction.
I’ve seen the first few episodes and hope to binge watch the rest during the Passover vacation. The series was created by Shmuel Hasfari, who in 2009 produced Polishuk, Israel’s answer to the British series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister – and almost as good.
So here’s something else to be proud of: There’s a wealth of material for political satirists and they’re free and eager to make the most of it. Interspersed among the political studio discussions on election night, Israeli TV stations ran satire shows. Some were funnier than others and some are more balanced – but it’s better to be able to share a joke than feel that the joke’s on us.
As a parliamentary reporter, I practically lived in The House for the stormy years of the latter half of the 1990s. I understand why Hasfari felt the need to create an updated series – human nature remains the same, but social media has radically changed the world we live in.
Even before the age of 24/7 online media and social media, the phrase “private members’ bills” was a misnomer. There is nothing private about Israel’s members of parliament. Almost everything leaks out sooner or later.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to the constant media monitoring: Greater transparency helps prevent misdeeds; but the instant publication of every move can also be abused by opponents to torpedo bills and measures even if they could benefit the public.
These last few elections have demonstrated why Hebrew doesn’t have its own word for ideology, relying on “idiologia.” Too much is personal – egos on the go. Instead of toeing the party line, too many MKs tow it, dragging it in a completely different direction.
The Knesset goes through the motions, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work gets done. Bills come up for discussion and (often literally) get shouted down. The frequent votes of no-confidence are a point in (dis)order: When will they learn that when it comes to elections, practice doesn’t make perfect?
As every new Knesset convenes – and the country is on its 24th – coalition discussions inevitably include talk of the so-called Norwegian Law, under which ministers would resign their Knesset seats in favor of the next person on the party list. The argument in favor is that this gives the ministers more time to focus on their government portfolios, but in effect it is mainly used as a tactic to free up a greater number of positions – such as chair of a Knesset committee – to disperse among favored MKs.
Incidentally, as the series Motek Bool BaEmtza shows, although the plenum has greater visual impact, most of the real work takes place in the committees. Despite the footage of parliamentarians heckling in the plenum, behind the scenes and in the committees there is frequently cooperation among political rivals for causes that benefit all of society and not just one sector.
For the last few elections, in view of the criminal charges against Netanyahu, there has also been talk of passing a version of the so-called French Law, which would mean that the prime minister would not stand trial while in office and the number of terms he served would be limited. The Knesset in recent years has given a new meaning to the terms parliamentary privilege and political convictions.
Theodor Herzl, who had the vision to help create the Jewish state, also predicted the state of its ruling body. In Altneuland, Herzl referred to the Jewish Assembly, the forerunner of the Knesset, as a “monkey’s cage,” and it is still regularly described as a “circus” or a “zoo.” But, for all its faults, it’s the only parliament in the world that has a Passover recess and has a menorah as its year-round symbol. What’s more, its name and membership of 120 come from the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly), the representative Jewish body convened in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century BCE.
Finally, in my effort to find a positive spin on the political spins, I’ll conclude by noting that in Israel clean-up campaigns of the anti-corruption type are known as biur hametz, which is a truly cultural reference reflecting the practice of burning leavened products before Passover. Let’s hope the House can get itself in order this time.