TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Across Israel on the eve of the
recent primary election likely to decide the next prime minister, most Israelis
shared the same feeling: apathy.
In stark contrast to the political theater playing out in
the U.S., the common refrain in the Jewish state was: “It doesn’t matter.” Perhaps spoiled by enjoying in decades past
many larger-than-life leaders, Israeli voters believe their options for the
foreseeable future are limited to a series of deeply flawed candidates.
Exacerbating widespread disenchantment, winner Tzipi
Livni—who could become the next prime minister without facing another
election—captured her primary victory with less than 20,000 votes. Roughly 99% of voting-age adults went
anywhere else other than a polling place on election day.
Though mild graft and borderline bribery have long been
accepted as par for the course, the Jewish state has been rocked by a seemingly
endless string of corruption scandals—the biggest of which triggered the latest
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, battling allegations that he
pocketed envelopes stuffed with cash from a U.S. businessman, stepped down from
his post as leader of the Kadima political party, which spearheaded the current
majority coalition. In Israel’s chaotic
parliamentary system, the party with the largest number of seats typically
forms the majority coalition, and Olmert’s centrist but left-leaning Kadima has
enjoyed a surprisingly resilient government.
But unlike in the United States, new elections can be called suddenly,
as soon as a majority of legislators decide to do so.
In the coming weeks, Olmert’s newly elected replacement
Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has the tricky task of forming a
new government, which likely will require her to keep on board either the
left-wing Labor Party or the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction—or both. Though certainly doable, it’s by no means a
forgone conclusion that she'll be able to craft a majority coalition. Should she fail, new general Parliamentary
elections will be held—and she’d be an underdog.
If a general election were held today, former Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party probably would take the largest
number of seats—which means that many sitting legislators have a strong
incentive to keep the current government in power and thus avoid personal
That backroom deals and crass political considerations will
largely determine the fate of the ruling regime only adds to the palpable sense
of powerlessness felt by so many Israelis.
Yet even if voters get the chance to vote for a new Knesset, they won’t
be able to punish or reward individual elected officials.
Israeli legislators avoid any personal accountability, as
there are no districts and voters nationwide only pull the lever for one
party. Thus no one in the Knesset
specifically represents the interests of, say, wineries in the Golan Heights or
the beleaguered residents of Sderot, the development town near the Gaza border
that has been the target of thousands of rockets in recent years.
Much like a child left unsupervised, politicians who risk
minimal consequences for their actions cannot be trusted to behave
responsibly. This is probably as much to
blame as any other factor for the disconnect between the Israeli electorate and
the people they’ve put into power.
One of Israel’s savviest pollsters, Keevoon CEO Mitchell
Barak, believes that Israeli voters will be in a funk for a while. Pointing to extensive polling and focus
groups he’s conducted, Barak says, “Israelis feel that this is a leadership
crisis. They see no real leaders. What compounds their frustration is that they
see no light at the end of the tunnel.
There is no next generation of leadership in the wings being groomed to
take over in 5 or 10 years.”
Here’s the way many Israelis view their two main options for
the next prime minister: either a former head of state whom voters simply don’t
like very much or an untested woman who promises to defend the nation, but
without stating how. As for the head of
the Labor Party, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (no relation to the
pollster), is remembered for offering Yasser Arafat the world—and getting
nothing in response but the campaign of suicide bombings called the
intifada. Barak has no chance at
becoming the next prime minister.
Despite a relatively secure and economically fruitful
three-year tenure as prime minister from 1996-1999, Netanyahu suffers from
reminiscence in reverse. Life under past
leaders often ends up being remembered more favorably than it was seen at the
time—think of President George H.W. Bush.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the opposite has happened to him.
Netanyahu actually has two factors working in his favor: 1)
he correctly predicted the dire consequences of the Gaza withdrawal, and 2)
he’s broadly seen as having rescued the national economy. Tainting most of his political capital is the
fact that most Israelis just don’t like him as a person—and that includes even
many of his supporters.
But at least Israelis know what to expect from
Netanyahu. Not so with Livni. Not only has does she have no track record
running the government, but she’s pointedly refused to give specifics on how
she would protect the Jewish state from terrorism or the looming threat of a
nuclear Iran. Channeling Frank Sinatra,
she has said repeatedly, “I’ll do it my own way.” Absent is any mention of what, exactly, that
Then again, security is almost a non-issue in Israel these
days—rather odd considering the daily threat of suicide bombings in cafés and
buses is barely in the rearview mirror.
In light of the military failings against Hezbollah and the constant
futility of “peace talks,” many Israelis feel that Livni could do no worse
defending Israel than someone with a security background or a former prime
Of course, such sentiments could be right. But if they’re not, who becomes the next
prime minister would very much matter.