Editor’s Notes: Spoilt for choice

By David Horovitz November 28, 2008

Use the two months ahead to scrutinize the parties’ claims and track records, and prepare to vote for one that at least purports to want to represent the entire nation

Rudely evicted from his longtime ‘safe’ slot at Number 10 on the Labor Party’s Knesset list, Rabbi Michael Melchior last week secured his Meimad Party’s approval to ally with the disgruntled former would-be Labor leader Ami Ayalon and run in the February elections on a separate ticket.

The new grouping, which will definitely retain its dovish Orthodox approach to issues of territorial compromise, may or may not still be called Meimad. It may or may not join up with various environmental and educational organizations to broaden its appeal. And it may or (more likely) may not vindicate Melchior’s prediction and prove to be ‘the buzz’ of the general election campaign – 2009′s version of the Gil Pensioners Party, coming from below the radar to grab first-time votes, protest votes, the votes of Israelis who hadn’t otherwise been planning to cast a ballot at all, the votes of those who otherwise would have no one to vote for.

Given that 300 million Americans somehow manage to find adequate political representation when handed a choice of precisely two fundamental outlooks, while seven million Israelis have the ‘luxury’ of making their pick among dozens of potential parliamentary parties, it seems inconceivable that any Israeli voter could ever seriously assert that he or she has no one to vote for.

Yet the more closely you examine the plethora of options, using the two-and-a-half months until election day to try to make an informed choice, the more that complaint legitimately resonates. There are (considerably) more parties competing for our attentions and loyalties than, say, supermarket chains. But why on earth do we need so many of them? What exactly are they selling? And with what confidence can we buy it?

AMONG THE relative heavyweights, the current party of government, Kadima, bids to retain office undermined by an outgoing prime minister who is both an immense personal liability and is publicly taking positions that discomfit, if not plain contradict, his colleague/rival/successor.

Ehud Olmert, determined not to leave his post despite the attorney-general’s announcement that a corruption indictment is imminent, is dashing full tilt toward an agreement he improbably believes he can yet attain with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while upbraiding his countryfolk for ostensibly dragging their feet over the necessary compromises. Tzipi Livni, however, is emphatically one of those countryfolk – publicly cautious about the negotiations, wary about the very concessions in Jerusalem that Olmert is demanding.

The consequent uncertainty over how, exactly, another Kadima government would steward relations with the Palestinians is one deterrent for potential Kadima voters. Another is the fact that its founding ambition to bring Tide-white cleanliness to Israeli politics, always a long- shot given the rather murky circumstances of its own inception, has been rendered risible by the corruption quagmire in which Olmert is stuck and the grave financial wrongdoings alleged against his former finance minister Avraham Hirchson.

And don’t even mention the war.

Israel’s former traditional party of government, meanwhile, has achieved the redoubtable feat over recent years of alienating both those voters who looked to it as a socialist champion of the disadvantaged and those who saw it as a reliable guarantor of security.

It has become fashionable of late to blame ‘arrogant,’ ‘zigzagging’ chairman Ehud Barak for the woes that today see Labor remarkably close to disappearing from the political map altogether – at below 10 seats, and fading, in the polls. But the seeds of its dire predicament were sown by his predecessor, Amir Peretz, who campaigned in the 2006 elections with such tenacity among the working class voters he had previously represented as Histadrut labor federation chief.

Creditably, he managed to maintain Labor’s 19 Knesset seats, but he promptly abandoned those voters by taking the post of defense minister rather than a socioeconomic portfolio, and then let us all down – inevitably, given that he lacked the necessary experience – with his ineptitude at defense during the Hizbullah war.

Some of the disillusioned Labor and Kadima voters are gravitating toward the Likud, apparently set to return to power under the tried and not-quite-trusted Binyamin Netanyahu. Given the pollsters’ traditional practice of underestimating the political Right, current surveys make for pleasant reading at Likud headquarters – so pleasant that all manner of fair-weather friends are gathering anew under the party banner… and rather blurring it.

Is the Likud in its 2009 incarnation insistently opposed to territorial compromise, its hawkish mindset exemplified in the very different personages of, say, Bennie Begin and Moshe Feiglin? Or is it occupying the new consensual middle ground, as the return of ex-Center Party leader Dan Meridor, the early co-option of failed Tafnit leader Uzi Dayan and the more recent recruitment of ex-Labor member and former police chief Assaf Hefetz, would suggest?

The results of the December 8 party primary will provide something of an answer, indicate how hard a task Netanyahu will face in seeking to hold such disparate players together, and give the public a better sense of what they might get if they vote Likud. The lead, though, should come from Netanyahu himself: Is he prepared to relinquish the Golan, and if so under what circumstances? Where would he draw his West Bank red lines? What’s his vision for Israel, and why?

The same need for specifics, of course, applies to all our would-be prime ministers. Too often in recent years, we have elected leaders who have managed to conceal or finesse their outlook; the ability to obfuscate, indeed, has been crucial to their success in not alienating supporters. But the day after, when the true policies emerge, this inevitably spells disappointment, if not cries of betrayal. We desperately need to elect a leader who has told us what he or she stands for, and persuaded us that his or her vision is right for this country.

AS FOR the more minor parties – though the distinction is all but meaningless given Labor’s fall and the rise of the likes of Shas and Israel Beiteinu – their credibility, or lack thereof, constitutes the best possible argument for a significantly raised Knesset threshold that would doom most of them.

The new right-wing political alliance has barely coined its own name – Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home – and already it’s dysfunctional, consumed by an argument over how it intends to draw up its Knesset list.

The much-touted enlarged Meretz-leftist grouping seems unable to decide how it might differ from plain Meretz, and more substantively seems incapable of doing anything more than cannibalizing Labor.

Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu seeks to appeal to the purported desire for a hawkish strongman – but this appeal, from a party that long sat in Olmert’s center-left government, is incoherent.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s recent collective denunciation of Israel’s teaching fraternity as misguided asses is hardly the best reinforcement for Shas’s demand for control of the Education Ministry. And the misnamed United Torah Judaism’s Ashkenazi haredim demonstrated their unity and commitment to Torah values by falling out spectacularly, and even violently, over Menachem Porush’s failed bid for the Jerusalem mayoralty.

Then we have a familiar mix of competing green groups, protest movements and the lunatic fringe of the downright bizarre, their anti-establishment cause weakened by the dismal performance of that anti-establishment success, Gil, in the outgoing Knesset – a single-interest party that degenerated into a bickering, ineffectual embarrassment.

VOTER TURNOUT statistics – from the sky-high 86.9 percent participation in the 1949 elections for the First Knesset, to 68.9% in 2003 and 63.5% in 2006 – show a discouraging trend on the part of the electorate to vote with their feet. More and more Israelis have been adopting the adage: Don’t vote, it only encourages them.

Ours is indeed a lamentable electoral system. The complaints are familiar. Pure proportional representation means no constituency accountability on the part of our elected leaders. Abetted by the low Knesset threshold (2% again in 2009, with attempts to raise it to even a pitiful 2.5% defeated), our small-minded, sectoral voting habits have produced parliaments with a dozen or more factions, and a relentless weakening of the ‘big’ parties; even the days of awkward two-party coalitions look rosy when compared to the many-headed, internally riven governments our hapless prime ministers must now somehow weld. The impossibility of doing so without conceding national to narrow interests, indeed, is the reason that Livni is not prime minister today and that we are again embarked on the well-trodden path to early elections.

But if our politicians have refused to internalize the national imperative for fundamental electoral reform, the answer must not be voter alienation. The answer is to follow the American lead on February 10 and vote for a party that at least purports to want to represent the entire nation and to address all its needs – from defense to education to welfare and beyond. The answer, in the period between now and election day, is to scrutinize such parties’ respective claims and track records, and then to vote accordingly.

Minor, sectoral parties have been understandably disinclined to vote themselves into oblivion by supporting even the simplest of reforms – the raising of the threshold – that would eliminate much of the multi-party problem. But we voters can do the job for them, and in so doing can give the next national leadership at least a shot at more efficient and effective government. Worthy smaller parties like Meimad might be missed, but they belong – sorry, Rabbi Melchior – where Meimad was sitting until now, within the embrace of a like-minded larger grouping.

The excess of choice, the over-abundance of democracy, and the consequent paralysis would be farcical were the fate of our nation, and our loved ones in it, not directly related to what happens on polling day. But if, on all other days, the electorate finds itself frustratedly impotent in the hands of its feuding representatives, February 10 will be our brief moment of empowerment. Prepare to use it wisely.

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