Thirty-four parties are running in Israel's election, but there are fewer real contenders. Prominent are Likud a bit to the right of center, and Labor a bit to the left of center. There are parties further to the right and the left, each for their true believers, plus two ultra-Orthodox parties, one for the Ashkenzim and one for the Sephardim, another religious party (Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox), which since 1967 has appealed to settlers and others who want to maintain or expand Israel's control over the West Bank, and three parties for the Arabs or for Jews of the far left. Those are the more or less fixed parameters that have been with us for a long while.
Also with us for a long while, at least since the late 1970s, is a search for something new. Something ideally in the middle, pragmatic and current, without being commited to or against the Palestinians, settlers, socialism, or a fairer deal for Israelis in need of economic help. New parties have risen and declined. Individuals who came to prominence via the military or the media have created most of them, and ridden them to a position of moderate strength for one or two parliamentary terms. Kadima was the most successful, created by Ariel Sharon who left Likud as Prime Minister after his party rebeled against his withdrawal from Gaza. Kadima was the only new party that elected a prime minister (Ehud Olmert in 2006 after Sharon's disabling stroke), repeated as the largest party in the 2009 election, but then withered to the point where it may not win enough votes to enter the Knesset as a result of next month's election.
Inherent in the new parties is a lack of infrastructure and political experience. Politics is not a game for amateurs. It is a profession crucial to good government. Great thinkers from Aristotle to James Madison and lots of others have worried about the politics that appeals to current passions, but lacks the balance and skills necessary for getting through the heat of what the people want now.
Parties are also important for political longevity. They not only get out the vote on election day but provide a framework that recruits and rewards workers, provides them with something to do between elections, has mechanisms to test and weed out people as their try to ascend within the organization. A belief, ideology, or tendency with respect to government policy helps tomaintain a party, even if the belief is flexible and the leaders do not adhere to all that the believers want.
It is popular to attack political parties as being concerned more for themselves than for the quality of government. "Machines" and "bosses" have been prominent in the histories of several countries, and came to be viewed as standing in the way of what the people need and want. From time to time, those arguments carry the day, and fresh looking candidates manage to "throw the bums out." Occasionally an established party disappears. More usual, however, is for parties to ride out some bad years and come back. Israel's Labor Party looks again to be one of the two largest parties. Polls are showing it winning as many as 18 seats in the next Knesset, after falling to only 8 out of 120 seats in the present Knesset.
There is less than a month to go in this campaign, but it already looks like two new faces are demonstrating the value of political experience. Yair Lapid came from a career in the media, with prom-king good looks and a media stars' capacity to think and speak quickly and clearly, promising a new centrist approach free from the tired routines of the major parties. Early polling indicated that his new party, There is a Future, would win as many as 15 seats. However, the gloss dimned as Lapid's sound bite pronoucements made it unclear just how he differed from competitors. Currently he is stuck somewhere around seven seats.
Naftali Benet is another rising star who may be in free fall. He took over the Orthodox and settler party Jewish Home (formerly the National Religious Party) in a primary contest with its older leadership, and has led a campaign that attracted an impressive number of younger supporters, secular as well as religious. Some of the support resulted from a linkage with another right wing party that had represented secular Israelis wanting to maintain control of the West Bank, and some came from Likud voters unhappy with what was happening within that party, including its alliance with Avigdor Lieberman and his indictment for a violation of public trust.
Then Benet answered one question too many on a prominent interview program. As an officer in the reserves, he would refuse an order to remove Jewish settlers from a place where the government ordered the IDF to remove them.
The leaders of the three parties closest to Jewish Home are piling on. Bennet violated the most sacred symbol of modern Israel. For secular Israelis and many of the Orthodox (perhaps not the ultra-Orthodox) the IDF is above politics and synagogue, no matter what one thinks about the Almighty and His Promise of the Land.
The secular equivalent of Shema Israel is the assertion that country's survival as a Jewish democracy depends on a military that accepts the decisions of the elected government, and carries out the orders down through the military hierarchy, whether or not the officers or soldiers like those orders.
Benet is trying to backpedal and deny what is recorded on tape and being played time and again. He claims that he is not preaching a violation of orders. He is standing by the dictates of his conscience and would prefer time in a military prison to carrying out an order to remove Jews from a settlement.
The nuance is delicate and difficult. Israelis may recognize the value of conscience even while accepting the sentencing of a conscience-holder to prison, but not its promotion in a campaign that can spread to others. Early polls are showing a loss of 2 seats from the 11 Jewish Home reached in previous polls, after climbing from the 3 seats in the present Knesset.
Likud is the party closest to Jewish Home on the political spectrum, and the two had been expected to sit together in the next government. Likud was also the party most threatened by an ascendant Benet, and Benyamin Netanyahu has been his most forceful critic. "Someone who adheres to a posture of refusing military orders will not be a minister in my government."
"Adheres to" sounds like the key element in this sentence, which may have enough wiggle room for Netanyahu to accept Benet as minister of something if Benet succeeds in getting enough votes and is clear enough in his efforts to retract what he said.
Also unclear is how a head to head conflict over settlement will eat into Likud's support. Ha'aretz is not enthusiastic about either candidate. As the issue was peaking, the paper's cartoonist depicted Netanyahu putting the roof on a settler's new home, while Benet is carrying in some of the furniture.
Established parties and experienced politicians usually come out on top, but the rules of political science do not hold like those of physics. The variables are many and fluid. Tongues are slippery, and can talk their owner's way out of problems as well as into problems.
Also pending is whether Netanyahu will extend his "Someone who adheres . . . " to the Haredi parties. Due to a split among rabbis claiming leadership of Torah Judaism (the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party), contenders are digging in their heels on the issue of service in the IDF. If "Haredim should not respond to orders to report to the recruitment office" is equivalent to Benet's refusal to remove settlers, then Netanyahu will have a problem joining again with one of his traditional allies.
Then there is the high ranking member of Labor's list, who urged parents to thnik twice about sending their children to be soldiers--later modified to urging the government to do all possible to make peace before sending their children into battle.
Could it be that Israel's most experienced and polished politician has joined one of its newest and least experienced in letting his tongue commit him to one step too many? So far we have not head Netanyahu starting to wiggle his way out of what he said about Benet in order to allow Torah Judaism, and maybe Labor, into his next government.
And note the subtext in all of the above. None of Israel's polls or commentators is suggesting that anyone other than Benyamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. What will Barack Obama do if he ever finishes with the fiscal cliff and gun control?
So many questions. So few answers.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at December 22, 2012 11:50 PM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem