My Word: The elections - It stinks!

Why are we going to the polls? It’s personal; the politicians get up each other’s noses.

Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni
Well, at least now we know what that bad smell is. In English you can say something’s in the air. In Hebrew, that something has its own name: “Reah behirot” – the smell of elections. And, as I noted ahead of the last polls, not so long ago as it happens, once that putrid stench is on the loose, election fever can’t be far behind.
Now is the time to see how they run. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handed Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni letters of dismissal on Tuesday, you could almost see them wrinkling their noses in disgust. Neither Lapid nor Livni likes the smell of defeat any more than any other mortal or party leader.
Strangely, however, the politicians churning out what will inevitably become a constant refrain of electioneering slogans over the next three months have so far failed to explain why we need to go to the polls again in March, just two years after this government assumed power.
Lapid evidently didn’t realize that he was being set up for failure from the moment he was offered the Treasury. It’s a powerful but unpopular post even for those with an understanding of economics and ministerial experience.
He seemed surprised that he wasn’t being given even longer to try to pass his flagship legislation offering zero VAT on housing for eligible young couples and singles, even if the plan was bashed by most top financial analysts and economic advisers.
Lapid has a lot to lose by early elections; unable to prove himself in the Finance Ministry position, his Yesh Atid party looks likely to tumble in the next elections while the ultra-Orthodox parties he abhors have a good chance of springing back from their short stint in the political wilderness known as the opposition.
Livni, who looks down her nose at Netanyahu despite having been defeated by him – twice – also appeared to find it hard to accept that what she could smell was not the flowers from the Rose Garden next to the Knesset, but akin to the manure used to fertilize them.
Launching on her obvious theme, Livni accused Netanyahu of acting out of fear and leading an “extremist, paranoid government” with Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett. Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat shot back with some justification that if Livni really believed Netanyahu was not fit to lead the government then she should not have been so desperate to sit in his cabinet and remain there even after her No. 2, Amir Peretz, quit as environment minister last month.
Netanyahu, a political animal if ever there was one, sniffed around and figured out the way the wind was blowing, and decided attack is the best form of defense.
The prime minister learned a lot when his first government was toppled over the Oslo Accords. This is the second time he has decided to create an excuse to choose the time to call early elections – early enough for his potential rivals on the center-right to still not have a name for their party. For now, it is listed in the polls as the Kahlon party after leader Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister with a strong socioeconomic record.
Strangely, considering all the country has been through in the last few months, the pretext for new elections is not the intifada-byany- other-name; the security situation posed by Hamas to the South or Hezbollah to the North; or the never-abating Iranian threat. It’s not even the wave of European countries indicating support for a Palestinian state of undetermined borders and decidedly unpeaceful nature – under a leader, by the way, whose four-year term in office expired in 2009.
In 2012, Netanyahu used the “Tal Law” determining the number of exemptions the ultra-Orthodox could receive from compulsory military service and the subsequent impossibility of passing the budget as the catapult for new elections. This time he cited the “Jewish state” bill and described what he called attempts at a putsch.
Throughout this term in office, Netanyahu has been dogged by differences of opinion with the partners he chose for his coalition and even by the ill-fated decision to run on a joint list with Yisrael Beytenu. There are plenty of examples – many of which I’m sure will be dredged up in party election campaigns: I still marvel at the sticking power of Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug, who was turned down over and over again as a candidate by both Netanyahu and Lapid, one of the few things they managed to agree on, until they had no choice but to appoint her.
And, of course, there is the case of President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu didn’t try to hide the fact that he was seeking an alternative candidate. Anyone from anywhere. Anything rather than having “Ruvi” in the job.
Ironically, now it is payback time and Netanyahu should thank his lucky stars that Rivlin is known for his principled stand. It is the president who has to determine which party leader has the best chance of creating a stable coalition after the elections.
Political reporters have started sniffing out election stories. Will the ultra-Orthodox parties do a deal to return to power, and what are the implications of having Arye Deri, a former convict, not only back in the House but perhaps back at the cabinet table? What will be the effect of the raised electoral threshold? Will it force the Arab lists to run together? Will the truly obnoxious Haneen Zoabi be allowed to run on any list, following her massive ongoing show of support for the worst of Israel’s enemies from Hamas to Hezbollah? Can Lapid miraculously do what his late father Yosef “Tommy” Lapid so spectacularly failed to do on a similar anti-settler and anti-haredi ticket: Can he prove that the wonder of one election is not the big-time loser of the next? Are we further than ever from having two parties in two blocs and doomed to suffer the chaos of many medium-sized parties vying for attention? Will the US administration be prepared to sit back and enjoy the show or will it quietly try to intervene? Barack Obama clearly has neither forgotten nor forgiven Netanyahu’s open support of the Republicans during the last presidential race.
Incidentally, I envy the Americans the way that Obama so elegantly fired defense minister Chuck Hagel last week – “Chuck Hagel has been no ordinary secretary of defense,” Obama praised-cum-buried him; “It’s been the greatest privilege of my life,” Hagel replied.
No mention of being under “constant threats and ultimatums”; no countering with the words “paranoia” and “extremist.”
So why are we going to the polls (at a cost of some NIS 2 billion and a paralyzed economy)? It’s all personal. The politicians get up each other’s noses. Not a pretty sight. And it’s going to look and smell even worse.
While this week we saw Netanyahu dump Livni and Lapid marking the official start of the race, now the intra-party politics will come into play. We’re likely to witness more jousting between Gilad Erdan and Israel Katz within the Likud; Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel in Bayit Yehudi; the traditional split into camps within Labor; and what will happen within Hatnua is anyone’s guess: Its members are so driven by ego that the top three on the list have all previously been the piqued leaders of different parties (Livni of Kadima, and Peretz and Amram Mitzna of Labor) and could easily switch again to whichever party will take them.
In politics and in the Middle East anything can happen and often does. Politicians follow their noses, intoxicated by the smell of power represented by those comfortable large leather seats. It stinks! But as I noted last time, the fact that the country holds democratic elections, even if it is with increasingly alarming frequency, is not to be sneezed at in this particular corner of the world. I guess we’ll just have to take a deep breath and be prepared to hold our noses now and again. I just hope we have a chance to come up for some fresh air before the countdown begins to the elections after the next.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.