At last count there were at least 40 parties participating in this basic exercise in democracy. People unfamiliar with the Israeli scene always express absolute amazement at the multitude of parties which enter the fray, especially as it is well known that only a few of them will actually make it to the finishing line.
The plain truth of course is that Israeli society can be compared to a larger version of Diaspora Synagogue politics. The same problems which plague Shules and communities throughout the Jewish world are reflected in the political shenanigans which occur here. The ancient curse of 10 Jews and 20 opinions still holds true today and in a country with over 7 million citizens this phenomenon is magnified beyond anything I ever experienced or witnessed in my 49 years of living “down under”. Broigus – that most descriptive Yiddish description of Jewish communal life is alive and well here in the Promised Land. At the drop of a kippah, inflated egos of so called leaders who believe they are the Lord’s gift to the electorate lead to splinter parties and then even more fractured groups. When you do not get your way the best line of attack is to start another party even if you know that you do not have a hope of passing the electoral threshold which is set at a ridiculously low bar of only 2%. Likewise if you do not manage to get a realistic or high enough spot on the party list you resign in a huff and either shop around for another party who will embrace you or failing that start a one person band of your own.
Then of course there is the question of who will be number two on the list. This can and does cause rifts and broigus episodes which in turn can destroy parties or more often than not lead to amoeba like mutations. Forget about policies and ideologies. Although they are important the first priority for many of our Knesset members in waiting is to gain a seat with all the perks that go with the job. Once upon a time ideology was clear cut and one knew where various parties stood on economy and security issues. Today the lines are somewhat more blurry and hard to define even when the divide between left and right on certain topics is evident. The big difference now is that where once aspiring politicians held firm convictions and were prepared to stand by them regardless of any personal repercussions, today’s politicians in the main seem more focused on personal gain and glory rather than standing firm on principles. The lack of accountability, post elections, towards those who elected them in the first place is a blot on the system. In recent years the blatant disregard for promises made and the spectacle of individuals deserting the party platform for a more lucrative offer elsewhere has reached unacceptable heights. It is therefore not surprising that many voters have been turned off altogether and now do not even bother to vote.
Voter turnout has been decreasing over the last few elections and although the campaign passion is still as strong as ever the abstention factor amongst those fed up with the ego trippers wanting to become legislators is widespread amongst certain sectors of the population. I do not believe in compulsory voting as is the case in Australia as all that achieves is disaffected voters casting blank or spoiled ballots. A far better alternative is to make sure that those who stand are held to some accountability for their future actions. That means not having to wait until the next elections in order to reward or punish at the ballot box but rather to do that in real time. In other words force those who disregard the wishes of those who voted for them to resign and be replaced by somebody who will fulfill the promises made at the time of the election campaign.
My recent visit to Australia made me realise that the imperfections which beset the political system in Israel are more or less the same in other democracies. While the number of political parties in Australia & NZ is nowhere nearly as numerous as here the same ego trippers and political opportunists abound. Reading the Herald, The Age or The Australian I discovered that name calling, scandals and dirty politics are alive and well in Oz and that Israel is not unique in this regard.
So what can we expect in the weeks ahead of 22 January? The answer is plenty of fireworks and passion and the expenditure of enormous amounts of money which could have been used for far more useful and positive purposes. The choice is wide but basically comes down to these points: who will manage the economy better without making us a basket case on the European model, which party or coalition will safeguard our security best, which vision of peace with our neighbours will prove to be realistically attainable bearing in mind that until they stop teaching hate and delegitimisation any piece of signed paper is worthless, who will speed up the integration of certain sectors into the work place and army service and who will stop throwing money at those who have no loyalty or attachment to the State.
Five minutes is a long time in Israeli politics and anything can happen which is why I will make no predictions. The only certain and in my opinion most important factor to emphasize is that in the whole of the Middle East and certainly in the Arab world, Israel remains the only place where genuine, regular democratic elections occur, where opposition politicians are not arrested and incarcerated for their views, where Governments are changed in a peaceful manner and where the will of the people prevails. At the end of the day our representatives are accountable and the existing system, imperfect as it may be, still ensures that fanatics cannot prevail.
A final thought which is very relevant. Our so called “peace” partner and misnamed moderate, Mr. Abbas and his Authority have long passed their use by date. Elections which were scheduled about 4 or 5 years ago have never taken place and in total contradiction to their constitution they continue in office. The fact that the rest of the world finds nothing wrong with this and that they expect Israel to make binding peace with people whose notion of democracy and keeping agreements is light years away from the accepted norm, is merely indicative of the prevailing double standards in the international community.
Michael Kuttner is a Jewish New Zealander who for many years was actively involved with various communal organisations connected to Judaism and Israel. He now lives in Israel and works for The Israel Resource News Agency in Jerusalem.