Israel’s Election Campaign

We’re into a new Israeli election season. All the politicians are out telling anyone who will listen about all the wonderful things they have done and what they will do…if elected.


But, as I have been cautioning for years, be careful. All this hoopla can be, and already is, a descent to that most common Israeli political activity—what Harvard lecturer Ronald Heifetz calls “work avoidance.”


It’s a subject I bring up often because it is the only explanation I have been able to find for some of the extraordinary and otherwise totally unreasonable behaviour of Israel’s politicians. As anyone can tell from watching the televised so-called “debates” in the Knesset, Knesset members rarely address issues using classic rhetorical devices, wit or carefully prepared and well-researched arguments. Instead, these sessions are too often characterized by cutting others off, contesting who can speak louder and longer without saying anything of substance, sloganeering, and personal attacks on others…precisely because the members choose to avoid learning how to use those techniques that are normal in other democratic legislatures.


Heifetz defines “work avoidance” as a technique by which people deliberately make themselves appear to be so busy that they are then able to claim that they have no time to deal with the real work that they have actually been mandated to do. In Israel, elections can, and usually are, perfect venues for work avoidance.


For example, election campaigns should be an opportunity for the politicians and the public alike to undertake a thorough assessment of what the country has gone through in recent years and where it is going. It’s called “admitting past mistakes,” “setting goals,” enunciating a vision” and “taking responsibility.”


But that rarely happens.


And when people do not take responsibility for their actions or inactions, as usually happens here, what you are left with is accountability.


But, significantly, there is no Hebrew equivalent for this English term—so there are not even any linguistic tools in Israel for holding politicians accountable.


Even independent, judicial commissions of inquiry have failed to make Israeli politicians take responsibility for their actions or inactions. As a result, if work avoidance has become a national political pandemic, then amnesia has become its most notable side effect…in the same way that the most common side-effect of flu epidemics is deadly pneumonia.


The behaviour of the current Israeli cabinet is a particularly good example of work avoidance. The ministers’ mandate is to make tough decisions that will affect the welfare of the country’s citizens. But this early election campaign that we are now embroiled in has been called for no other reason than that the cabinet members have refused to make tough decisions…not on the budget, not on Iran, and not on the peace process.


Netanyahu, as a prime minister, has been a master at work avoidance—as the reports from the State Comptroller have shown repeatedly. The latest of these reports lambasted Netanyahu for having failed to provide that most elementary and important of government services—food security for all, and reasonably-priced water. Another good example is Netanyahu’s failure to obey a Supreme Court decision and find a reasonable replacement for the Tal Law that permitted wholesale exemptions from compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox.


Work avoidance, though, is not confined to individuals. Early elections are one of the best examples of group work avoidance.


For example, the reason being given for holding early elections is that the cabinet has been unable to pass a new, austerity budget. We have been lectured for more than a year that, because of the world economic crisis, Israel will have to do some severe economic belt-tightening. The problem that has now arisen, we are now being told, is that the cabinet ministers can’t decide whose belt should be tightened. Everyone blames—and the Haredi parties boast about—the fact that the stalemate has come about because the Haredi politicians have refused to allow cuts in those budgets that most affect their voters…such as a reduction in child welfare payments for those who refuse to seek gainful employment.


But we are also being told by all the pundits and pollsters that Bibi is very likely to be reelected. And these same folks say that if he is re-elected prime minister, he will continue what Likud politicians have been calling “the historic relationship” with the Haredi parties. If that is so, what will change after the elections are over?


In other words, this country is about to spend about a billion and a half shekels to enable the country’s politicians to avoid having to make decisions for at least another six months—and possibly longer.


So let’s first look at the political timetable as it now seems likely, and then take a gander at the decisions that will be delayed.


The elections will be held on January 22. Once the final electoral results are known about a week later, the president will have two weeks to interview all the leaders of the political parties before choosing someone to try and form a coalition government. That individual will then have six weeks to try to negotiate a coalition agreement.


If you look closely at the political timetable, you will then notice that, if the coalition negotiations drag on to mid-March, they will end just in time for the Knesset’s Pesah to Shavuot break.


Since the Knesset debate on the budget usually takes two months, that means that we won’t have this urgent budget passed until mid-July—just in time for the summer Knesset break.


But that’s not all. Bibi has now set his “red line” for attacking Iran. That red line will appear the moment that Iran has produced 260 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity—which, at present rates of production, will probably occur sometime around mid-June. So, the budget debate could, of course, be cut short if Israel attacks Iran.


And if Bibi does choose to attack Iran in the early summer, as is not inconceivable, that budget will have to be changed, and a supplementary budget will have to be introduced immediately because wars cost money.


The thing is, though, the Knesset goes on vacation in mid-July until late October, when the first item on its agenda is supposed to be the budget for 2014. In other words, the first, full, meaningful, debate on the country’s economic, social and military priorities may not now take place for more than a year.


But, let’s step back a bit. What are the issues that are likely to be discussed during those coalition negotiations? First and foremost, of course, is the budget. What changes in the budget proposal can be made then that cannot be made today? And if passing an austerity budget is such an urgent matter, why wait?


I haven’t heard or seen a single politician in this country make even a passing referral to this potential timetable. In effect, all that they have been saying is that passing a budget now isn’t such an urgent matter because, by law, if a new budget isn’t passed before December 31, then the current budget remains in effect; and the money is doled out by the Treasury to the ministries at the rate of 1/12th of the 2012 budget each month.


If everything is so simple, then why the urgency?


Well, for one thing, the budget for 2012 was passed in 2010, because Bibi wanted a two year budget. A lot has happened since then. And the data on which the budget was based, came from 2009…and even before that. In other words, the government will be operating in 2013 on the basis of data assembled at least 4 years earlier.  If nothing else, adjustments have to be made because the population has grown by about 5 percent in that time.


But, I guess, that is what the politicians mean by the word “urgency”—otherwise translated into political Hebrew as “smoch alai,” or “yiyeh bseder” (“trust me” or “everything will be fine”)—instead of using the word “responsibility.”


Not only that, as I noted at the beginning, the politicians will be using their time over the next few months to boast about the things that they have done. The trouble is that everything they will be boasting about costs money; and most of that money can only be appropriated if a new budget is passed. Among the things for which there won’t be any money are the wage rises that have been promised to the doctors, the social workers and the teachers on January 1, following their recent lengthy strikes.


That would put the government in breach of contract, but it would suit the finance ministry just fine because it would be an effective way of lowering the budget deficit in the short term.


Even if a new budget is not passed, the finance ministry is permitted to transfer funds between ministries in order to pay bills. But who will then take responsibility and decide which ministry and which government projects will lose their funding if the ministers can’t do so? In other words, one of the founding principles of democratic rule, that it is the duty of the public’s representatives to decide how involuntarily-paid taxes should be assessed and spent, will be undermined.


Of course, the country can also borrow money. That is what Barak has been suggesting. But the more Israel goes into debt, the more money it has to pay in interest. That means that, in the long term, there is even less money available for spending on important projects. But worse still, at a certain point, if the country goes into too much debt, the interest rate goes up too—as has recently happened in Spain and Greece. In other words, procrastination costs money, lots of money.


But that’s not all. The delay in the submission of the budget also means a delay in the implementation of several critical economic laws. Among the most important is the law that is supposed to restrict the centralization of the Israeli economy by oligarchs and their pyramid holding companies. This has led, among other things, to horrendous inefficiencies in the economy and some outrageous price rises. Then there is the law, based on the so-called Kedmi report, that is supposed to cut food prices by increasing competition. It was just passed by the cabinet, but, while its passage is intended to make it useful for campaign fodder by the Likud, it was so watered down that its real impact on prices will be minimal.


A survey conducted by the Haaretz business supplement, The Marker, conducted the day after Simchat Torah was over, showed that, overnight, food prices had risen by 24 percent in local supermarkets. Worse still, he major food manufacturers have announced that more price rises are expected, beginning November 1.


As I mentioned earlier, according to economists, the election campaign will cost the economy 1.2-1.5 billion shekels. But that’s without the costs that will be incurred by the public by the ongoing delay in passing all the major economic reform bills that are awaiting approval.


Another no less important cost to the public is the one that will arise immediately after the elections are over. The Haredi parties forced the country into early elections because they opposed spending cuts. But does anyone in his or her right mind think that when the coalition negotiations get underway that these same parties won’t try to use the leverage they are given by these time-limited negotiations not only to try to prevent the necessary spending cuts, but, in fact to raise spending for their favourite projects?


So, why did Bibi call for elections now? There are plenty of reasons, especially if you have a penchant for conspiracy theories. But the main ones appear to be:


  • The centre and centre-left parties are in disarray, even though they have had months to prepare for this moment. They have no common agenda, no common platform, no announced common budget priorities, and no leader who can unite them.


Among other things, Labour, even though it has recently gained substantially in the polls, still cannot present itself to the public as an alternative to the Likud because no one among its current leaders has a background in the critical fields of defence and foreign relations. Labour has attracted a couple of successful soldiers, Maj. General Uri Saguy and Col. Omer Bar Lev to its ranks. But a couple of soldiers is not enough to make up a defence and foreign policy team. As Ariel Sharon and Yitzchak Rabin showed, it can take years for successful generals, who have been socialized into a rigid hierarchical system, to make the transition to messy politics where everybody has a say and can even hire experts in the form of lobbyists to apply pressure to have their will implemented.


Moreover, Labour leader Shelly Yacimovich has not even served a single term a minister, so we have no idea what she would be like as an administrator.


Kadima is in an even greater mess. Its functionaries and vote contractors managed to get Shaul Mofaz elected as the party leader. But that’s not who Kadima’s voters wanted, and so they have been deserting the party in droves.


In desperation, the party’s hacks put in an almost frantic effort to get Ehud Olmert to lead it again—even though he is a felon, who has been convicted of four counts of breach of the public’s trust and faces a trial about the Holyland affair that could take years to move through the courts. His need to appear frequently in court would mean that he would be a part-time prime minister at best.


For a party that has long promised to reform the political system, the very idea that Olmert should be brought back to lead the country is one of the best examples I have ever seen of political cynicism.


And, of course, this year’s new political pop star, Yair Lapid, has no experience at all in government.


In other words, while the three previous elections he participated in as a candidate for prime minister degenerated into two camps—Bibi or anyone but Bibi—this election can be framed as Bibi…or, well, um, there is no one but Bibi.


Netanyahu’s Haredi allies have also been having their share of problems. Shas is still divided on what to do about Arieh Deri after the elections are over; and the Degel Hatorah faction of Agudat Yisrael is in the midst of a bitter succession battle in the wake of the recent death of it previous undisputed leader, Rabbi Shalom Eliashiv.


  • The opposition parties have claimed that they can and should replace Netanyahu. But they are offering no alternative to Bibi. Since ideologically-based parties died in the late 1970s, politics in this country have degenerated into personality contests. One result of this phenomenon has been that all the parties that try to portray themselves as alternatives to the Likud, have been rent by personality squabbles. Those disputes almost destroyed Labour, and are the reason why every so-called “centrist party,” beginning with DASH in the 1970s, has collapsed. It is a historic fact that when the charismatic or erstwhile charismatic leaders fail to do what they claim they will do, and there are no ideas and visions to rally around, the party collapses.


To her credit, Yacimovich has managed to breathe new life into Labour by giving it at least a few social dogmas to act as her party’s political glue.


  • The Iranians have gifted Netanyahu with an out that even he could not have dreamed of. Bibi had been keeping everyone on tenterhooks on whether Israel would attack Iran soon. It had become clear by September that a possible attack on Iran, with or without American backing, with or without the support of most of the country’s past and present security officials, with or without a majority in the cabinet, and before or after the US election campaign, would become a central election issue.


But then, just days before he was scheduled to appear before the UN General Assembly, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been charged with monitoring the progress of Iran’s nuclear  programme, came out with it quarterly report.


One small section of that report, which was barely mentioned in the press at the time, was a godsend to Netanyahu. It noted that while the Iranians had been progressing quickly with their efforts to produce uranium with 20 percent purification, 60 kilograms of that uranium had been crushed to a powder that could only be used in Iran’s small nuclear medicine reactor.


That then meant that, after demanding that the US and Europe set red lines past which yhey would not allow Iran to go in creating nuclear weapons, but deliberately avoiding drawing a red line for Israel, Netanyahu could announce that he had decided to draw that line at the point where Iran would have enough uranium processed to 20 percent purification to make one bomb—sometime in June or July. The Iranians are unlikely to keep crushing more purified uranium into a powder because they have already produced enough to feed their medical reactor for 6 years. But the delay in reaching Netanyahu’s red line means that Netanyahu should be able to get through both the elections and the coalition negotiations without having to make good on the threats he has been issuing. In other words, like so many other issues, Iran too could wait.


But all this does not mean that Bibi is going to have easy sailing. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that for political junkies, geeks and nerds like myself this could turn out to be one of the most deliciously complex and even historic election campaigns in the country’s history.


Let’s begin with the Likud itself. The settlers and their supporters have been signing up for membership in the Likud in droves, and these new members are determined to shift the party to the right. Moreover, the leader of the party’s ultra-nationalist faction, Moshe Feiglin, has now announced that he will run in the primaries for a realistic place on the party slate. One of the main reasons why Bibi decided to delay calling elections in May was that he feared that he would lose control not only of the primaries, but also of the party platform when the party’s convention was held. If that does happen now, he might lose the support of at least some of the party’s moderate voters to one of the centrist parties. Political insiders believe that Likud moderates are worth about 5 Knesset seats.


Although the campaign has just begun, one thing has already become apparent—at least to me. The politicians want to fight this campaign the same way that they always have. It is already obvious that Bibi will try to fight the campaign, as is usual for the party in power, on security issues, because this diverts attention away from pressing domestic issues. On the other hand, Labour has announced that it will do battle by focusing on social issues. As is their wont, the centrist parties seem to want to be all things to all secular people.


A major factor that will determine who will gain from such an asymmetric race is whether those who have abstained from voting recently will choose to make their way to the ballot box this time. In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots fell from 75.5 percent to 62.5 percent. Those abstainers now have it within their power to elect as many as 20 Knesset members. Most of the abstainers are believed to be centrist or left of centre voters. Nobody, though, seems to have clue whether they will be influenced by last summer’s consumer revolt to turn out to vote this time.


Not only that, only 52 percent of Israeli Arabs voted last time. If for some reason, they do vote in greater numbers this time, that could enable the anti-Bibi camp to create what is called in Israeli political parlance, a “blocking coalition.” A blocking coalition is one which, while it cannot agree among its own members who should lead the country or what its agenda should be, is large enough to prevent the other bloc from forming a coalition too. By the way, the Likud-led bloc also has it within its power to create a blocking coalition in opposition to the centrists and the left.


And that means that Shas may end up with unprecedented power because it is the only party that will have the ability to break the impasse if the balloting produces a political deadlock.


Another no less important “unknown” is how the public will respond to the challenge laid down in September by the Israeli courts. When the Jerusalem District Court chose not to decide whether to add the punishment of declaring that Ehud Olmert was guilty of moral turpitude after he had been found guilty of breach of trust, it threw the entire issue of national political norms into the public domain. The court was effectively telling all the civil rights and good government types “you keep appealing to us, the courts, about the government’s behaviour. Now it’s your turn, the turn of the public, to decide what those norms should be because you are the sovereign and you too have been guilty of work avoidance.”


And while many berated the court for its decision, it did highlight one of the most noteworthy things about the Israeli political system: There are too few publicly-accepted rules on how politicians here should behave. One of the reasons for this is that the Knesset has resolutely refused to pass a new code of ethics for its members.


This situation is not unique to Israel, of course.


But in most other democratic countries where politicians are inherently distrusted, a constitution is imposed. And in countries where there is no constitution, such as Britain, well-established norms nonetheless do guide politicians’ behaviour. For example, in Britain, if you’re even under suspicion that you have done something that isn’t right, you are expected to resign, if only because “it’s (whatever the “it” may be) is just not done.” But Israel has neither a constitution nor such norms. In Israel, even if a Knesset member has been served with a criminal indictment, he or she can continue to draw a salary and perks until the trial is over and he or she is found guilty.


For decades, proponents of good government in Israel have been appealing to the Supreme Court when the country’s politicians have refused to deal with issues of political malfeasance. But since the courts can only rule on those cases brought to them for adjudication, this has led to a crazy-quilt of precedents that have left gaping holes in how politicians are expected to behave.


That is why, for example, Ehud Olmert, if he were elected to the Knesset, would be allowed, at present, to serve as a Knesset member, and even as the prime minister. But he would not be allowed to be a minister in the cabinet, because there is a Supreme Court ruling forbidding those who have been indicted for a crime from serving as a minister. Even stranger, if Olmert were chosen to be prime minister, then, because the prosecution has decided to appeal the lower court decision, it is entirely possible that he could take office, only to be ordered out of office the next day by the next Supreme Court decision.


You should remember that this time round, not only did the court rule that it was the task of the public to decide whether two convicted felons, Olmert and Shas’s Arieh Deri should once again be entrusted with the public’s welfare, neither man has ever even expressed remorse for his actions.


Because of this order Deri is even more of a special case than Olmert. He was convicted of fraud, bribery and breach of trust…and moral turpitude. He served his time in prison. And he has waited the required 7 years after being released from prison before reentering politics. In other words, he has done everything that is legally required of him. But is he therefore worthy, in the public’s eyes, of being given a position of trust again?


The fact that Shas leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, chose to include Deri in the Shas Knesset slate is yet another example of the fact that while all the religious parties want to impose Halacha on this country, they do not seem to believe that morality and ethics should be a fundamental influence on their religious legal rulings, or on the behaviour of their political representatives. Another example, by the way, has been the refusal of most of the National Religious Zionist rabbis to condemn the plague of attacks by the so-called “hilltop youth” on innocent Palestinians.




I have been living in this country now for 45 years, but I can’t remember an election campaign before this one that has, in effect, forced Israelis to confront questions of public values such as these. In effect, Israeli voters this time are being asked not only to elect their representatives, but to sculpt their own self-image. Put another way, Israelis are being charged with deciding what values they have in common, what their priorities are, and how the country should cope with what is obviously a broken political system.


In this sense, this Israeli election is not dissimilar from the recent elections in Egypt. This time, the balloting here, as in Egypt, may not just be about policies and personalities. It may very well be a historic moment in the development of Israeli democracy, when the public will be given a choice whether to vote tribally, as they have in the past, or to put the long-term needs of the country ahead of sectoral demands.


For that reason, another thing to watch is the so-called Mizrahi vote. About 40 percent of the Likud’s total vote comes from Mizrahim, te Jews of Asian and African origin. But in the last cabinet, in line with past Likud-led cabinets, only 2 of the 15 Likud ministers were Mizrahim. It is possible that those Mizrahim living in the development towns, which get less government funding than the settlements, and in those urban areas in dire need of public housing, may revolt. A not unlikely scenario is that they may, as they did I the 1990s, choose to vote for Arieh Deri and Shas instead of the Likud. The latest polls we have seen show that with Deri running, Shas is likely to pick up 2-4 seats—all of them from the Likud, and almost all of them from development towns and slum areas in the major cities.


Now, if you total up all these numbers, it is not implausible that, just as in the previous election, the so-called “nationalist bloc,” made up of Lieberman, the Likud and the religious parties, may get a majority of the votes, but the Likud may not gain a plurality.


According to the current polls, the Likud will get fewer than 30 Knesset seats. But if Shas takes 2 seats from the Likud, and Lieberman takes 2 more seats, and Lapid takes 2 more seats from the Likud, it is not implausible that Labour could end in a dead heat with the Likud.


As I said earlier, the run-up to this round of balloting is deliciously complex.


And to top it all off, there is another, external factor that may complicate things further. During the American election campaign, Bibi made no secret of his preference for Romney. That show of support could now backfire on him.


Obama was obviously displeased with Netanyahu’s open show of partisanship. If Obama is reelected, he could very well decide to extract his own revenge. Among other things, he could raise the issue of the peace process while the Israeli election campaign is still underway.


And even if he is defeated, he nonetheless has until two days day before the elections here (when the new US president will be sworn in) to make his opinion of Netanyahu known.


Obama certainly has plenty of fertile ground for such an exercise.


There are a number of political activists here, especially on the left, who do want to make the question of whether Israel will become an apartheid state a central issue in the campaign. This could give Obama a particularly good opening, especially since the finance ministry here has recently released updated data that shows that the Palestinians are now in a majority in the area between the sea and the Jordan River. The data indicates that, officially, there are now 12 million people living between the sea and the river, and only 5.9 million of those people are Jews.


These figures have been rejected by a group of extreme neo-nationalists led by Yoram Ettinger. But I have checked the numbers, and the situation is even worse than that described by the finance ministry. Ettinger claims that, because of the resistance of the Haredi parties to the mass conversion of Russian immigrants, 300,000 official Israeli citizens are not registered as Jews.


But when doing a full calculation, you also have to add in the 250,000 foreign workers who live here legally and illegally, the 100,000 people who came here as tourists but never left, and the more than 60,000 infiltrators who have arrived from Africa via the Sinai—none of whom are included in the statistical tallies. They may not have the right to vote, but they certainly do have the ability to influence government policies—and the ability of the country to provide vital services, such as caring for the elderly during wartime.


If he wished to do so, Obama could influence Israeli voting patterns, not by actually coming out in support of centrist or leftist candidates, but by frightening the far-right that the settlement issue could once again come to the forefront in the election campaign.


If this does happen, these voters have the option of voting for the reunited National Religious Party or, as I said, for Lieberman. Lieberman is actively courting the secular far-right voters because he realizes that he has effectively reached the limit in the number of voters of eastern European origin whom he can attract. And, if as now appears likely, Naftali Bennet, the young darling of the settlers, wins the leadership race for the NRP, he will definitely be an extremely attractive choice for the religious members of the Likud. Both could thus cut into Bibi’s pool of voters.


Within the next few days, Bibi is going to have to choose whether to court his far-right voters or the more moderate factions within the party. At the moment, it appears as though he will make his decision based, based not so much on ideology as on which group will provide him with the most floating votes.


On the one hand, if he appeals to the extreme neo-nationalists, he may lose more moderate voters. But if he appeals to the centre, he could lose voters to other parties within his own bloc.


If that were to happen, it is very probable that a coalition between Shas and Lieberman could give those two parties effective control over cabinet decision-making, and Netanyahu, even if he becomes prime minister may end up as little more than a figurehead.


It is clear which way the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to tilt—and the Americans do have leverage. We have already been witness to the leak to Yediot Aharonot about the American-mediated attempt to begin peace talks with Syria two years ago—and the claim that Netanyahu was willing to withdraw from the Golan, in return for peace. In other words, the revelation implied that Bibi is more flexible on  settlement policy than he lets on; and so he might actually be willing to withdraw from more of the West Bank than he has admitted to in the past.


Netanyahu has vigorously denied the claim, but further revelations of this sort could, nonetheless influence Bibi’s ultra-nationalist voters to find another home.


But that’s not all. Obama could take another tack as well. He could offer Bibi a deal he can’t refuse. According to a very senior figure in the Democratic Party, Obama is contemplating a trade—a guarantee from the United States that it will attack Iran if the Iranians do not agree to a halt in atomic weapons development, in return for a guarantee from Netanyahu that he will renew of the talks with the Palestinians. Again, even if this is merely a trial balloon and there is no actual basis for such a deal, a leak to the Israeli press that such an agreement is even being contemplated, could have a significant impact on the elections in Israel.


If you look closely, you can see that the Obama administration has already set the stage for such a trade. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s speech earlier this month firmly emplaced the Iranians as a security threat to the United States—a justification for going to war—because of the Iranians’ attempts at cyberwarfare against American banks and the Saudi national oil company, Aramco.


As well, we have also seen the leak to the New York Times that a White House official has said that the US is contemplating secret one-on-one talks with the Iranians. Both the US administration and the Iranians have denied that they have agreed to such talks. But, whatever you may think of the Times, it is very careful about issues like attribution. So if it says that a White House official said those things, the Times report is likely to be true.


If, then, what we have been witness to in the month of October, it is very possible that for the rest of the Israeli election campaign, Israelis may be bombarded by trial balloons of unknown origin.


And if that happens, it is very possible that instead of clarifying issues of great importance to this country, the election campaign may be decided not even by negative campaigning, as is too often the case, but by something even worse: Who is most successful, through the use of selective leaks, and the hysterical responses they induce, in spooking voters to cast their ballots based on emotions. In other words, this campaign may be most affected by who can foster work avoidance at its worst.






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