My Word: Trolls, polls and closure for an MIA’s family

If anything, the 2019 elections have something of an Americanized feel to them.

A JOURNALIST takes a photograph of old ballot slips during a briefing at the Central Election Committee Logistics Center last month (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
A JOURNALIST takes a photograph of old ballot slips during a briefing at the Central Election Committee Logistics Center last month
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
There are two questions on the minds of most Israelis at the moment: “Friend or foe?” and “Friends or family?” The first concerns the elections, which can be summed up as “To Bibi or to Benny?” The second question refers to where people will be spending Seder night at the start of Passover on April 19. (Unlike the Diaspora, Jews in Israel only have one Seder night, not two, making the choice of in whose company to spend it a more serious matter.)
Every election season, commentators pontificate that they have never witnessed such dirty campaigns and this year is no exception. There seems to be a less physical presence of campaigners on the streets. Few vehicles sport party stickers, not many party banners are waving in the wind, and political campaigners are not standing in large numbers at major junctions distributing their brochures. (These fliers usually end up being trampled on the city streets in what is a literally dirty campaign.) On the other hand, animated and fervent battles are being fought on social media.
If anything, the 2019 elections have something of an Americanized feel to them: Certain themes seem to have migrated, including the charges that Benny Gantz’s phone was hacked by Iranians, opening him up to possible blackmail; Russian intervention; sexual misconduct, the psychological state of party leaders (and their wives) and – flavor of the week – the allegations that the massive online presence of Benjamin Netanyahu supporters is actually due to robotized social media bots.
Small wonder that the words “fake news” began to trip off Hebrew-speakers’ tongues, despite the Hebrew Language Academy’s insistence that the term should be “yediat kazav.”
Netanyahu was not alone in thinking that it was an April Fool’s Day prank when he first heard about the story by respected Yediot Aharonot journalist Ronen Bergman, published together with The New York Times, alleging the existence of a paid network of hundreds of fake social media accounts spreading the prime minister’s campaign messages.
Embarrassingly for Bergman, many of the Twitter accounts turned out to be very real Netanyahu supporters, although the journalist stuck by his report even as the tweeting birds flew off into cyberspace.
Despite the derision, I’m pleased Israel has not yet adopted computerized voting. Physical ballot slips placed in envelopes and dropped into locked ballot boxes to be hand counted might seem low tech for the Start-Up Nation, but it avoids many of the hazards of potentially hackable systems.
More than 40 parties are running in the election, but most attention is focused on a far more limited number, which due to the Israeli system will have a disproportionate amount of power in determining who actually gets to live in the Prime Minister’s Residence.
After the election, the task falls to the president to determine which party leader is most likely to be able to create a stable coalition. Since neither Likud nor the Blue and White Party are expected to get anything approaching 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats, Netanyahu and Gantz are both seeking coalition partners to back them. The Arab lists and the ultra-Orthodox parties are not going to be easily persuaded to officially back Blue and White, led by three former chiefs of staff and Yair Lapid, a second-generation politician insisting on an end to mass draft-dodging by haredi yeshiva students.
This has led to much speculation that Moshe Feiglin, whose Zehut Party campaign has included distributing cigarette lighters and a promise to legalize cannabis, could become a kingmaker. Feiglin is this year’s election surprise, garnering support mainly among young voters – some attracted by his new green leaf approach, others by his libertarian, aggressively free-market economic policies. His book setting out his platform contains also information on his religious and nationalist views, which have been somewhat lost on many potential liberal supporters in the smoke of burning weed.
How will Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right fare, compared to the barely recognizable remains of the Bayit Yehudi Party (now part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties) they deserted? Will Avigdor Liberman still have a strong voice in an era when the Russian-speaking electorate votes on the same concerns as Sabra voters? Can Meretz, with a clear ideological platform, increase its numbers? Will Labor, led by Avi Gabbay, be able to maintain a respectable number of seats? Can Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon count his blessings after the election or will his Kulanu list disappear, a one-term wonder?
All this remains to be seen.
WHAT COULD affect the election at this stage? After the unusually heavy rains this winter, it’s possible inclement weather could dampen the enthusiasm of some of the 6,339,279 eligible voters. The “floating vote” could be washed away, with people considering it not worthwhile making the effort for a party to which they aren’t particularly committed.
A serious security incident – more rockets or terror attacks – would be used by all parties to back their claims – ranging from the need for a massive military response (coming from the Right) to calls for easing the economic situation of the Palestinians (from the Left).
Sadly, more corruption charges – of either leader – are no longer likely to have a major effect. The public is so fed up with hearing about new scandals that it has become skeptical. Left and Right both have their own conspiracy theories.
Netanyahu has managed to arrive at Election Day bruised by allegations of corruption, but without (yet) being indicted by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. If he is reelected, but later charged, it’s likely his coalition partners will force Netanyahu to resign, sparking a bitter war for leadership of the Likud and possibly new elections. This is one of the reasons much of the campaigning has focused on the role of the judiciary.
While the security situation remains tense, the general public (at least the majority voting somewhere to the Right of Meretz and the Arab parties) does not see Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace no matter what “deal of the century” is presented by US President Donald Trump.
The country’s diplomatic situation shows signs of gaining strength with just this week an Israeli embassy opening in Rwanda and a visit by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who, while stopping short of relocating the embassy to Jerusalem, did announce the opening of a trade and diplomatic mission in the capital. Trump’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last May and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights last month did not unleash the diplomatic or terrorist tsunami some predicted. Netanyahu on April 4 traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The news on April 3 that the body of St.-Sgt. Zachary Baumel, missing since the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in June 1982, had been finally brought home to Israel for burial, in an operation whose details cannot yet be revealed, but in which Russia played a role, might also boost Prime Minister and Defense Minister Netanyahu. It certainly has a feel-good factor. Zach, as he was nicknamed, was 21 when he became an MIA. Two other soldiers – Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman – are still missing since the terrible battle between the Israeli and Syrian forces in which 22 IDF soldiers were killed.
Exactly 10 years ago, as she took a break from cleaning her apartment for Passover, I interviewed Zachary’s mother, Miriam Baumel, while her husband, Yona, clearly unwell, listened in. “It’s the not knowing that is the worst,” Miriam told me.
When Yona died a few weeks later, it was the only time I was sad that a father hadn’t had a chance to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, for his son.
Eventually, despite their differences, the country’s politicians and the general public will figure out a way to sit down and break the proverbial bread together, or in this case, matzot. Every Seder my family has held at home since 1982, we have left an empty place to remember the missing soldiers. This year I wish the relatives of all the MIAs be speedily granted the blessing of closure and knowing that their sons have not been forgotten and abandoned. Sometimes politics are irrelevant.