State of Confusion

Jewish Light Editorial

Israeli voters might be forgiven for thinking that their leaders are more interested in power for power’s sake than in the vital, orderly, effective governance of the state of Israel in a region fraught with dangers. Israeli voters would be correct. 

— David Horovitz, Editor, Times of Israel, Dec. 2.

Israeli politics are kind of like St. Louis weather. If you don’t like what the nation’s leaders are talking about, just wait a few hours and it will change.

That’s what happened this past week. A furious debate that had been brewing about proposed legislation regarding the Jewish nature of the country evolved into an all-out political brawl that will dissolve the current parliament.

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After only 22 months, Knesset is disbanding in favor of new elections. An unbridgeable gulf has formed between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party, on the one hand, and other parties in the ruling coalition, most notably Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua.

The “Jewish State” issue, which occupied Israeli headlines over recent weeks, is but the tip of the iceberg. Several legislators on the right side of the political aisle sought legislation that would, according to its critics, elevate Judaism over democracy and Hebrew over Arabic in the hierarchy of Israeli essentials.

Opponents strenuously objected both as to substance and timing. They stressed this would change the essential character of the country, as set forth in its Declaration of Independence, while allowing international leaders to chastise Israel for demoting its democratic principles and asserting religious and cultural favoritism.

But the bill, which was both modified and challenged by substitutes and amendments, was only a precursor of what was to come. A rhetorical war ensued between Bibi and his coalition partners Lapid and Livni, about any number of matters, including Lapid’s management of his Finance Ministry. Netanyahu gave Lapid a set of demands about ministry and parliamentary matters, which apparently did not sit well with the Yesh Atid leader.

Israeli politics are a perfect example of Churchill’s famous description of democracies being the worst form of government except for any other form of government in the world.  The 120-member Knesset is a crazy-quilt of political parties and factions, and even a well-informed observer’s head can spin trying to sort it all out.  Our page one article this week on the collapse of Bib’s coalition provides a succinct summary of the current situation.

In the current crisis, things came to a head on  Tuesday, as Netanyahu fired both ministers, and the other Yesh Atid and Hatnua ministers were expected to resign in solidarity with their party chairs. And it became all but assured that elections would take place early next year.

But what of those elections and how they will impact a fragmented Israeli populace and political landscape? It appears likely that Bibi will scut his right-center coalition and attempt to replace it with a far more rightist one, in which both settlements and ultra-Orthodox concerns will garner more attention and support. At the same time, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog is going to likely make a push to build a center-left coalition to seize control from Netanyahu.

The call for elections at a time when so much is at stake in Israeli society (although has there ever been a time that wasn’t the case?) is a major point of Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz’s article, cited at the outset above. He accuses various political interests as more interested in keeping and acquiring power than in solving either the domestic or existential threats facing Israel today.

His associate at Times of Israel, Haviv Rettig Gur, in a separate Tuesday column described not only the factionalization of Israeli politics but the strident rhetoric that almost all utilize freely – “Russian-speakers label Arabic-speakers ‘traitors.’ Arab MKs prefer confrontation and shouts of ‘fascism’…to the harder legislative work that might help fulfill the wishes of their constituents, according to polls, for greater economic and social integration into Israeli society.”

The Israeli public is torn in so many different directions, as reflected by the focus and priorities of its parties. Ultra-religious. Settlement proponents. Peaceniks. Social justice types. Pro-military. Anti-Palestinian. Domestic policy wonks. Financial hawks. You name it, they’ve got it.

And in the parliamentary system, these folks have to figure out how to form coalitions to actually cause the government to operate. Political parties surge and wane, while the medium-sized party bloc seems the new status quo – there’s a tendency against parties that take very big pieces of the Knesset, and new rules block the very small.

Truthfully, the populace is utterly confused about what it wants (the mocking title on Gur’s piece: “Israel’s unstable, fractious politics: It’s the voters’ fault.”).

If there had not been a war to fight and a unification against Hamas and other outside and violent agitators, it’s not entirely clear that this particular coalition could have even existed, let alone lasted two years.

The Israeli people will have two choices as elections unfold: Figure out which issues are the most critical to its existence and prosperity, and choose governance that can implement those priorities; or select parties that once again can form nothing but a bickering horde of politicians. We’re hopeful of the former, but we’re more likely to see the latter.