Politics as a popularity contest

Never before in Israeli politics has party ideology and policy taken such a back seat to personality.

bibi barak livni trio 224  (photo credit: AP)
bibi barak livni trio 224
(photo credit: AP)
On Monday night's broadcast of Ilana Dayan's investigative journalism show, Fact, we learned during a personal expose interview with Ehud Barak that the chairman of the Labor Party does not find enough time to play the piano, that he wears his wedding ring (which he did not during his first marriage), and that he is willing to sell his luxury apartment in the Akirov Towers if he is made an appropriate offer. The crux of the interview involved Dayan asking Barak pseudo-psychological questions that attempted to grapple with his increasing unpopularity. We learned nothing about the Labor Party's election platform. At the close of the show, we were told by Ilana Dayan that we could look forward to seeing similar personal expose pieces on Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni on her show in the near future. While there is inherently nothing wrong with voters taking an interest in the party leaders' personal qualities at election time, never before in Israeli politics has party ideology and policy taken such a back seat to the personalities of the party leaders in the public discourse during an election campaign. Granted, the outgoing government's defining characteristic was the complete lack of personal integrity displayed by its leadership; thus, the Israeli public, encouraged by the media, is taking an unprecedented interest in the personalities of party leaders. The public asks whether Tzipi Livni can, in fact, be "Mrs. Clean" despite the fact that her party stinks of corruption. We ask whether Benjamin Netanyahu is "a new Bibi" who has "learned from past mistakes," while we are told that Ehud Barak has not "learned from the past" and still has "no idea how to work with people." While these questions dominate the public discourse, we have little idea how the major parties differ on major questions of policy and ideology. Although we know that Likud presents a more right-wing platform both on diplomatic-security issues and on economic-social issues than do Kadima or Labor, we have little idea of how these differences translate into policy. In addition, we have no clue what the policy differences are between Labor and Kadima on almost every major issue. On the Palestinian front, would Netanyahu, as prime minister, halt the Annapolis Process, preventing all negotiations on core issues? How would he deal with international pressure for progress on this front, including a new American administration that wishes to see an end-of-conflict solution? What is the actual meaning of the "economic peace" that Netanyahu has been advertising? Would the Palestinians take an interest in this plan, without a complementary diplomatic horizon? Conversely, are Kadima and Labor interested in reaching an end-of-conflict solution with the Palestinians or in merely continuing with negotiations? How do any of the major parties propose dealing with the two-headed Palestinian Authority, including the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority and increasing calls for a one-state solution? What are the differences in the party's policy vis-à-vis the increasing empowerment of Hamas? The public knows little about the actual platform of each party on these issues, and thus has difficulty forming an informed opinion. On the Syrian track, what are the major differences between each of the party's approaches? How does each party propose dealing with the Iranian issue? While certain details entail sensitive materials that cannot be publicly presented, the public has the right to learn of each party's policies on these issues in broad outlines. ON A more immediate front, the public has little idea of how each party intends on dealing with the current economic crisis, as well as social welfare issues such as a crumbling education system and increasing income gaps between rich and poor. While media consultants advise candidates to avoid sharpening their messages on key issues in their attempt to attract the political "center," choosing a government based on questions like "who is best equipped to answer the emergency phone call at 3 a.m." and "who has the greatest personal integrity" belittles the public debate and prevents the Israeli society from dealing with the complex and often existential issues that it faces. While policy-makers, experts, and journalists abroad analyze the upcoming elections in terms of the effect that a particular government will have on Israel's future in the Middle East, locally we prefer to engage in a popularity contest, akin to a beauty pageant or a reality television show. Israel faces challenges far too serious to allow its public debate at election time to deteriorate to such levels. The writer is Assistant to the Director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College.