The Art of Electing Nonentities

Last week I wrote that governments in Israel are all about arithmetic, which they are. But it’s the arithmetic of dice, rather than the rigorous logic and deduction of mathematics. Israeli politics are a game of chance.

In last week’s election, close to a third of the voters chose a party that didn’t have a platform (Likud-Beiteinu) and over a quarter voted for people whose names – let alone  political positions – they didn’t know. Both Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) ran lists of unknowns, with the exception of the party leader. About 40% of the members of the next Knesset will be political neophytes, most of whom have never been called on to state their political views in public.

For all we know, we could have elected a Hitler – or, for that matter, an Einstein. Either way, we don’t know.

There’s something profoundly wrong – something undemocratic – with a system in which people vote blindly. Democracy is not only about casting a vote; it’s about casting a considered vote. About electing representatives who we believe will represent our interests. On what basis can we believe when we don’t even know the names of the people we’re electing, nor what they stand for?

There’s no doubt that the Israeli political system needs to be changed. There have been countless initiatives over the years to do that, but all have foundered on the rocks of entrenched interests. Once politicians are safely ensconced in their seats, they seem to lose the urge to change things.

But it’s not only the system that’s faulty. In a country facing the number and complexity of challenges that Israel faces, the fact that voters seem to be satisfied with entrusting their future to people they know nothing about – people they did not hear debating the issues during the entire election campaign – reveals an astounding degree of disinterest.

We wouldn’t put up with a chief of staff who wasn’t a professional and experienced soldier – in fact, the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister in the Olmert government was widely opposed on the grounds that the post should be reserved for an ex-general – but we seem to have no problem entrusting the government to people who are not only inexperienced but entirely unknown.

And then we have the gall to complain about our politicians – that they’re untrustworthy, self-serving, incompetent and so on. Which they may well be. But we’re the fools for voting for people we’ve never seen and never heard. If we can’t shake off our apathy for long enough to demand a decent political system, we deserve the unknowns and unworthies that we get.

With the elections over, it’s now a question of waiting to see which unknowns will be running which government departments. One thing that we can be certain of is that there will be a lot of them. In Israel, cabinet portfolios are handed out like candies. Israel’s immortal president, Shimon Peres, met with the party heads over the past few days. Next week, he’ll give Bibi Netanyahu the mandate to form a new coalition government. In other words, the dice have been thrown and now it’s a question of seeing what can be done with the numbers that came up. It’s a bit like being blindfolded and trying to pin a tail on the donkey, though not as much fun.

With 19 seats, Lapid’s slate of unknowns is the second largest faction in the Knesset and therefore the likeliest coalition partner for Netanyahu. There are permutations in which a government could be formed without him, but I can’t see that happening. It follows, therefore, that Lapid’s positions – and the degree to which he’s prepared to fight for them – will largely determine the composition of the next government. (Unless he, like many before him, turns out to be a lot more interested in cabinet portfolios than ideology.)

So far, Lapid’s most prominent contribution to the political debate has been “sharing the burden,” which is Israeli code for getting the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and Arabs to serve in the army. Leaving aside the questions of whether the army actually needs them and whether having tens of thousands of unsuited and unwilling recruits will actually serve any purpose (many in the military believe that it won’t,) the fact that such a peripheral issue is the key platform of the second largest party says a lot about Lapid himself, the constituency that he represents and the country as a whole.

Militarism runs deep in Israel – not in the overt sense of huge, North Korea-type parades and bombastic monuments, but in the embedded sense of DNA. The Israeli military complex is as much a value as an institution. Israel doesn’t have an army; to a large extent it is the army. We make a big deal of the military being under civilian control, but when every politician has spent considerable time in the army and the party lists are studded with former generals and other senior officers, that control is not the same as civilian control over the French army, say, or the Dutch army.

Civilian control in Israel means security-dominated groupthink by people who used to wear uniforms and today wear suits. That explains why Lapid and many others are so exercised by the haredim and Arabs not serving in the army. It’s not that they’re not serving; they’re not subscribing to the core national value. It’s that they are choosing to live outside the fold. And in neo-Zionist Israel, being outside the fold is tantamount to being an enemy. Lapid said as much when he publicly and derisively dismissed the idea of working with Arabs to create a coalition.

Many pundits see Lapid as a force for progress in reaching peace with the Palestinians. I very much doubt it. An essential facet of militarism is the propensity to find a military solution for every problem. That is as much part of Lapid’s psychological makeup as it is of Netanyahu’s; Lapid just wants everyone to be part of the solution. But there is no military solution to the dispute with the Palestinians; we’ve spent decades proving that. The more we wield the military, the more intransigent they get; the more we bomb them, the cheekier they become.

Establishing peace is the key, existential issue facing Israel. Lapid’s obsession with enlisting the haredim is not only trivial; it also illustrates his cognitive framework. He is not capable of making the intellectual and emotional leap necessary for peace. I would happy to be wrong on this one ­– he may have more Rabin in him that I realize – but I doubt that I am.