It’s difficult to remember an Israeli election campaign that stooped so low in the level of public discourse, that involved ad hominem attacks on politicians’ family members, and that saw the police announcing criminal investigations into politicians every Monday and Thursday. And the worst of it is that there is no end in sight: Israelis must endure another seven weeks of the puerile, mean-spirited discussion that masquerades as democracy in action.
What possible benefit could there be from allowing this to drag on for another seven weeks? The voters already know the candidates — most of them were in the government until two months ago. It’s an insult to their intelligence when Yair Lapid promises to lower the cost of living, improve the lot of the middle class, make housing more affordable, and so on. Does he really believe that Israelis suffer from collective amnesia, that they forgot that he was finance minister for the past two years and did nothing to advance those goals?
It is the epitome of hypocrisy for Tzipi Livni, co-chairwoman of the Labor-Hatnuah party, to blame Netanyahu for last week’s terror attack in Tel Aviv — because he didn’t make peace with the Palestinians. For the past two years, she was a minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. She knows better than anyone that there is no peace with the Palestinians because PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas isn’t willing to sign an agreement putting an end to the conflict.
True, there are some new faces — there is always at least one new party that casts itself as the hope of the future — but how much time do they need to say that they’ll end poverty, close social gaps, bring peace, and all the rest? (This year, the answer man is Moshe Kachlon, a former Likudnik whose claim to fame is bringing down the prices of cellphone use. He is a big improvement over last election’s “new face,” Yair Lapid, a newscaster who gained support by slamming chareidim at every opportunity.)
Let’s face it. No amount of campaign time is going to gain Zehava Gal-On, chairwoman of the far-left Meretz party, the votes of residents of Yehudah and Shomron. And no amount of time is going to gain Netanyahu the vote of the leftists or Arabs. Right-wingers may be uncertain about whether to vote for Habayit HaYehudi, the Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu, but in the end those parties will likely be in the same coalition, so it doesn’t make that much difference.
Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternatives. He less-famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
The problems with a long election campaign in Israel — which unfortunately holds elections every two to three years — are many. They lead to paralysis, as the budget isn’t passed, key appointments aren’t made and reforms are frozen. They lead to incumbents making decisions that undermine the country’s vital interests for the sake of their own political gain — as in the case of Netanyahu addressing Congress against the wishes of the U.S. president. They lead to disunity, with pithy campaign slogans that disenfranchise huge segments of the population. They waste money on expensive campaign consultants and pollsters (including imports from the United States).
But worst of all, they lead to the dumbing down of the Israeli voter at the hands of a media that fills air time with nonsense and politicians who resort to gimmicks to win votes. The latest example is this week’s decision by Naftali Bennett to put a secular former soccer player high up on the list of Habayit HaYehudi, the former National Religious Party. The choice of this soccer player, who supported the 2005 Gaza disengagement, is a typical and cynical political exploitation.
A huge country like the United States may need a long election campaign season, with caucuses and primaries and conventions and so on. There are a lot of candidates, including many unknowns, who need time to present their platforms and prove their mettle as vote-getters. And in the end, one person will win the presidential contest and be charged with running the country.
But Israel is small, the candidates and their views are known, the electorate is opinionated and unlikely to change its mind, and a coalition will be formed to run the country. For these reasons, elections campaigns should be kept as short as possible.