Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Elections? What Elections?

Last autumn, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned, sort of. Olmert agreed to leave office as soon as a successor could take office. Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister who won the Kadima election for a new leader, tried and failed to form a new government. And so new elections were called and scheduled for February 9, 2009. The various parties have since held primaries (another American import which has all the cultural attraction of McDonald's) and started campaigning. The response of the public has been underwhelming. Other than a hard core of true believers, most people seem to be ignoring the elections. One Israeli friend intends to vote for Livni because he really doesn't like Bibi, won't consider Barack. Livni will get his vote because, as far as he knows, she hasn't yet stolen his money or lied to him. Others are leaning toward Meretz but don't seem to think that Meretz will wind up in the government. I think a big reason that there's no enthusiasm for any candidate or party is a general belief that new elections will not change anything. There's that word again, "change."

Israeli politicians have adopted the form of American politics without the substance. I know. Its hard to imagine American politics with less substance. What's a negative value for next-to-nothing? Without any indication that they would actually listen to adversaries, think about alternatives and try to craft creative ways to deal with major problems, a la Obama, Israeli politicians have simply been adopting Obama's style. The one exception is Ehud Barack who is trying to emulate the John McCain who used to go on The Daily Show and be funny.

Israel is getting away from emphasizing party ideology (and loyalty) to focusing on individual candidates. And yet the country still elects governments based on votes for party lists and not for individual representatives. As they say in the Talmud, you might think that an election here would be an opportunity for a serious debate on critical matters like education, the environment, economic recovery and, oh yes, how to deal with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. But you would be wrong.

Bibi Netanyahu has a web sight that looks exactly like the Obama campaign site, right down to the requests for donors and volunteers (except its in Hebrew and uses a different slogan - "Together We Can Succeed"). Bibi, and the hard line rightists who make up a significant portion of the Likud list, are among the last people you would expect to get into the sort of dialogues with adversaries advocated by Obama. But hey, its an election, not a search for truth.

Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni is "ready for change." From what to what remains a mystery but if it comes, she's ready. The third major player, Ehud Barack, has been fighting an image problem. His stinks. Barack is tying to improve his image by using reverse psychology. The country is plastered with ads listing all his shortcomings but proclaiming that he's a Leader. He's not kind, sympathetic, funny, etc, he's a Leader. If you want a heartless automaton to be your Leader, he's your guy. To try to make himself appear more human, Barack went on Israel's leading comedy show (think of John McCain on Saturday Night Live). The next morning he started bombing the Gaza Strip back into the pre-Canaanite age.

But the prize for the most cynical ripoff of Obama's style without adopting any of the substance has to go to Shas. Shas is a right wing Haredi (ultraorthodox) party that cares nothing for anyone outside its narrow community. Shas cares about funding its own Yeshivas and increasing welfare payments to nonworking Haredi families having more children than they can possibly afford to support, period. A Shas government would have nothing to say to the general public (other than that any divorce or conversion done by a non-Shas Rabbi would be invalid). The rest of Israel can drift out to sea for all they care. So, of course, they're the ones shouting "Yes, We Can!"

As usual, the outcome of the elections will depend upon the security situation. If Livni and Barack produce something that looks like a "victory" in Operation Cast Lead, the center-right coalition might stay in power. Otherwise the perceived size of Israel's loss to Hamas will be directly proportional to the right wing majority that will take over the Knesset, making Bibi the next Prime Minister. Yes, Hamas is probably in a better position to pick the next Prime Minister than Joe Israeli Voter. So much for change.

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