Politics as (Un)Usual

Israel’s political season is in full, pungent bloom, and as new immigrants eligible to vote, my wife and I are a bit overwhelmed by the “fragrance.” Accustomed to participating in the American political process, we have only observed Israeli politics from safe seats in the States. Make no mistake about it, politics in Israel is a completely different experience than what we are accustomed to; it is a free-for-all and not for the faint of heart. It is a jungle.

Comparing the process here to the recently concluded election process in the United States will prove helpful. Let us use the game of chess as a metaphor for politics. In the game of chess there are two confronting sides on the board, and in the game of politics as played in the United States there are two sides of the proverbial aisle.

Here in Israel there is also a division between two sides, the proverbial Right and Left and, like the hemispheres of the brain, they are generally in some kind of disconnect, rarely working in coordination. Unfortunately, the only time it seems that Israel can get its Right and Left in synch is when we are at war.

While in the States there is a clear demarcation between the opposing sides of the board/aisle, here in Israel opposing sides are far more fluid; from one moment to the next allies and enemies shift in a high-stakes game of musical chairs.

Imagine if Brutus came both to bury and praise Caesar, and then bury him yet again, perhaps to later revive him again. You get the idea, and if you don’t, don’t bother; it is chaos. In the chess analogy, ALL the pieces on the board can at times work in coordination and at other times attack each other, even within (ostensibly) the same party, and certainly within a coalition of disparate parties with different agendas.

There is a spectrum of political parties here, some representing a very narrow platform and electorate like the Old Age Party, which actually passed the electoral threshold and won seats in the Knesset a couple of elections back. This contrasts with politics back in the States where you choose between two parties, Republican and Democrat.

Also, in the States, due to the binary nature of politics, you win or you lose. Here in Israel there are no direct elections for individuals; political parties and their lists are elected, not politicians. To be elected to the Knesset a party must pass a minimal electoral threshold of 2% of the votes cast, which is among the lowest thresholds in the world to gain representation.

This minimal threshold has made the Knesset’s ability to legislate effectively a nightmare, leading to disproportionate power for small parties across the political spectrum, often in contrast to the desires of the Israeli population at large. The Oslo I Accords are an excellent example of how a narrow element of the electorate like the ultra-left Meretz party can disproportionately — disastrously — influence Israeli politics.

This political season has already provided surprising developments and an active narrative. As with reading Hebrew, we will start on the right and go left.

The Right has seen a merging of the preeminent party of Israeli politics, the Likud, with the secular-nationalist party, Israel Beiteinu, whose electoral support comes primarily from immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

Israel Beiteinu’s controversial leader, the former (and future?) Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has recently been indicted and is facing charges of fraud and breach of trust. It is unclear whether he will assume a role on the Likud Israel Beiteinu team prior to the charges being resolved. As of now, still an innocent man, he has returned his portfolio as Foreign Minister to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

We will return to the court docket several times before this review is over to meet a convicted former minister and then to an Arab Member of Knesset who meets with Hamas terrorists and conspired with the terrorists on the Gaza flotilla ship, Mavi Marmara. As things look, they both will win seats handily.

An impressive and charismatic young leader, Naftali Bennett, has brought a new religious-Zionist party — HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) — to prominence and an anticipated strong electoral showing and seats at the table in the future governing coalition.

Shifting to the Left, the Labor Party, left for dead (no pun), has experienced a renaissance of sorts under its new leader, Shelley Yacimovich, who staged a coup, unseating her former mentor and patron, long-time Labor leader Amir Peretz. Deposed, he fled to the eponymous Livni Movement (Tnua) Party.

The party, a splinter of Kadima, which was a splinter of Likud, is as irritating as a splinter and is not regarded favorably by either the Right or Left, and therefore has no natural coalition partner, and has no purpose other than to frustrate everyone and return Tzipi Livni to the national discussion. It is said that if she receives fewer than ten seats in the Knesset she will not bother to show up to the Knesset and return to the sidelines, where she will hopefully remain. Those on her ticket will then have a party whose hostess has departed the ball early, leaving others to clean up the mess.

Shas, the Sephardi religious party, is harder to place within the spectrum. (It is under the religious guidance of Harav Ovadia Yosef, shlita.) Its former political leader Aryeh Deri has returned from court-ordered political exile after being convicted while serving in the cabinet as Interior Minister.

Another party without a fixed place in the continuum is the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) Party headed by famed journalist Yair Lapid. The party, based on Lapid’s immense popularity, peaked in the polls early and is now fading. It is to be noted that his father was noted Israeli politician Tomy Lapid, famous both for strong Zionist and hawkish positions coupled with a strong dose of anti-chareidism. He was the anti-religious Zionist. Go figure.

There are several pro-Arab parties in the Knesset populated primarily by Palestinians seeking the destruction of the State of Israel. Remarkably, there are some Jews on their tickets. These are not Neturei Karta Jews. These are Jews who are of the self-hating stripe seeking not only the end of Israel as a Jewish state but of any presence of Torah in the Holy Land.

Members of Knesset from these parties have in the past been charged with treason (Bishara of the Balad Party) in absentia after fleeing to Syria; been advisors to the terrorist Arafat (Dr. Tibi of the Ra’am-Ta’al Party); and advocated for the end of Israel (Ibrahim Sarsur of the United Arab List).

Most notable and infamous of this list is Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi, the first Arab woman elected to the Knesset on an Arab party’s list. In addition to screaming about the injustice of Israel at every opportunity and advocating for Iranian nuclear armament, she has had a busy year legally. Video evidence surfaced that she not only sailed with the Gaza flotilla in 2010 but was in contact with the Turkish terrorists prior to the violation of Israel’s sovereign territory when the flotilla entered Israeli water.

Additionally, she has admitted to meeting with enemies of the state, representatives of Hamas. She was initially barred from running in the upcoming elections; the Supreme Court ruled last week overturning the order and she is now allowed to run on the Balad Party ticket.

Imagine, my taxes pay their salaries.

In quick review: Lieberman, a staunch Zionist, not convicted of anything, will not run; Deri, convicted while holding a cabinet portfolio, will run and win a seat; Zoabi, advocate for Iranian Ayatollahs owning nukes, defying numerous Israeli laws concerning consorting with the enemy by visiting Hamas leaders and supporting an attack on Israel while accompanying the Mavi Marmara, will run for the Knesset with the blessing of the Israeli Supreme Court, and presumably retain the seat she has held for the last four years.

Politics was so much easier back in the States. No enemies of the state on the ballot. Just two choices, and if you didn’t know if you were a Republican or a Democrat you could always choose from your preference for their symbols: Elephant or Donkey.

Seems fitting; politics is a zoo.

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.