The Owl: Old politics, new politics

Few people have anything good to say about ‘old politics.’

Knesset brawl erupts after Arab Israeli MK calls IDF soldiers "murderers," June 29, 2016 (photo credit: SCREENSHOT KNESSET CHANNEL)
Knesset brawl erupts after Arab Israeli MK calls IDF soldiers "murderers," June 29, 2016
Modern democracy is struggling all over the developed world. Voters are railing against establishment politicians, haughty experts and the richest “one percent.” From Occupy Wall Street, Podemos and Syriza on one end of the spectrum to Donald Trump’s admirers and the Brexit supporters on the other, enormous crowds yearn for something new and fresh: authenticity, righteousness, sometimes even roughness.
In Israel, too, the contrast between old and new politics is ever present. In the country’s political parlance, old politics is associated with unsavory images: stiffnecked Labor bureaucrats closing deals in smoke-filled rooms, ultra-Orthodox politicians securing budgets in dark corridors or sweaty Likud activists inviting ministers for weddings and bar mitzvas, all the while securing cushy jobs for unqualified family members. There is hardly anyone who doesn’t understand the drawbacks of old politics. It is a crony system, corrupted and anti-democratic.
The “old politicians” marginalize the great majority of the people in order to divide public goods within their narrow elite circle.
Indeed, few people have anything good to say about “old politics.” In Israel, at least since 1977, there is almost always a powerful party that vows to cleanse the ossified system and establish “new politics” in its stead. Currently, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid fulfills this role, and as a result it is constantly growing. However, “old politics” has one important advantage.
Precisely due to its elitist and anti-democratic nature, it makes it possible for politicians to solve problems before they get out of hand, a very difficult feat in a fully transparent democratic system.
Did you ever notice, for example, the difference between secret and public negotiation meetings? In public sessions, participants tend to confront each other, waste time and give speeches to the camera. They are more reluctant to compromise, because no one wants to appear “soft” before his or her respective community.
In closed meetings, by contrast, it is much easier to compromise and conclude deals, especially when the participants are undisturbed by public opinion.
In Central Asia there was an almost unsolvable border dispute between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The two authoritarian presidents, Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, met over a map and made a deal behind closed doors. A solution to such border entanglements would be far more complex in countries with an active public opinion, where nationalist feelings often reign supreme. Slovenia and Croatia, two democratic countries, had to spend years in solving a far simpler border dispute. Even Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, certainly not a democratic ruler, finds it very difficult to hand two tiny islands to Saudi Arabia (they were originally part of that country), even when Egypt virtually lives on Saudi handouts.
In prewar Japan, “old politics” was represented by the feudal cliques (hanbatsu), groups of former samurai and their cronies, who planted their loyalists in the high bureaucracy, diplomatic service, police, army and navy. The two leading cliques competed for power and influence, and at a certain point even ruled the country in turns. Deeply unpopular, they were paternalistic and suspicious towards mass democracy. Democratization, their representatives argued time and again, will come “in due time,” when the people are ready, and only after a long period of elite tutelage.
These cliques had their achievements – they led the unbelievably quick modernization of Japan – and yet were also responsible for shameless corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Many in Japan, especially the liberals, railed against the cliques and called for their exclusion.
Gradually they disappeared, their leaders pushed to the sidelines by advancing age, the increasing aggressiveness of the press and the surge of democratic public opinion.
Yet the withdrawal of the cliques disturbed the balance in the system. Without their “old boys’ club” network, nobody could mediate between feuding elite groups. Each pushed and shoved, fueled by increasingly aggressive public opinion. Politicians, no longer backed by the cliques, were dependent on donors, journalists and voters, and even army generals could not ignore the “public opinion” of soldiers, officers and reservists.
Gradually, the tension between the different elite groups escalated and compromises become increasingly difficult.
As a result, when the system stepped into the Great Depression of 1929, it was ossified and paralyzed. The army, always the strongest and most effective group, used the opportunity and informally took over the government, leading Japan to the disaster of WWII. Many believe that with the mitigating influence of the cliques, this disaster could have been prevented or at least delayed.
Israel, too, is undergoing a transition from old to new politics. Consider the “train crisis” of a few weeks ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave in to the ultra-Orthodox politicians and canceled railway maintenance works scheduled for the weekend so as not to violate the sanctity of Shabbat. As a result, many trains were suspended. Tens of thousands of Israelis, including soldiers, found themselves stuck in traffic jams.
Netanyahu, as usual, found a scapegoat to blame: Transportation Minister Israel Katz. This was not by chance, as the two were already locked in pitched battles of intra-party rivalry.
It is easy to blame the ultra-Orthodox parties for their shameless political extortion, as well as their insistence to enforce religious norms on the wider public. At the same time, it is entirely possible to take Netanyahu to task for his compliance with the ultra-Orthodox and petty squabbles with Katz, but it is important to pay attention to the roots of the crisis.
Formally, according to the Israeli government’s long-standing agreement with the religious establishment, state organs are allowed to work in Shabbat only for pikuah nefesh (to save lives). In practice, however, Israel Railways has been doing maintenance work on Saturdays for many years. Other state companies, such as the seaports and Ben-Gurion International Airport, also work on Saturdays, even though their role has nothing to with saving lives. The ultra-Orthodox politicians, certainly not fools, knew about it for years and turned a blind eye.
So what happened? It seems that ultra- Orthodox politicians Arye Deri, Moshe Gafni, Ya’acov Litzman and others were carried away by their own public opinion. The ultra-Orthodox community itself has changed greatly over the past two decades; it is far more aware and active than it was. At the same time, its traditional leading cliques are in constant decline. The great ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders, Rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Elazar Menachem Shach and Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, have died, and their successors are not up to the task.
The ultra-Orthodox politicians who could once conclude deals with their secular counterparts behind closed doors, are now pressured by an aggressive ultra- Orthodox press. The community’s journalists are taking their politicians to task for incompetence and corruption, but also for failure to uphold religious ideology – and nothing is more sensitive than the sanctity of Shabbat. It seems that the problem of the railway maintenance on Saturday was first raised not by the politicians, but by ultra-Orthodox journalists who met Netanyahu. The politicians, who were strongly criticized by their own community, were not interested in a crisis, but they had to “play it tough” to save face.
Political scandals inflamed by public opinions are an important characteristic of the much-praised “new politics.”
The old establishment is slowly decaying in Israel and throughout the developed world. The new politics – chaotic, crisis- prone but also open and democratic – is here to stay.
The writer is a military historian and a senior lecturer in history and East Asian studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.