Last month we saw something historic in Israeli politics – the largest unity government ever formed. Unlike most unity governments, this one was born neither from a sense of national emergency nor from an era of national euphoria, where political differences fade. Instead, this coalition was induced by the threat of the ballot box and is a result of Israeli politicians’ strategic dedication to either keeping their seats or scoring the slot above them in the next coalition jig.
For many observers, the “surprise” that greeted Israelis on May 8 was yet another political dance where the citizen stands on the sidelines, half-bewildered, half-relieved, but ultimately a spectator meant to watch, wonder, and wait for another year and half to be heard from again.
When it comes to Israel’s representative governance, is the tail wagging the dog? Put another way, is Israel’s citizenry merely an accessory to the political decision-making of the day?
There is no debating the many benefits that may derive from a unity government for Israel. With a nuclear Iran fast approaching, Syria imploding, Turkey menacing, and Hizbullah-Hamas gaining strength rapidly, stability is a good thing, which explains why most Israelis don’t want early elections. Indeed, there are other benefits that could derive from a Likud-Kadima union, such as the ability to fast-track emergency legislation like the Tal Law, budgetary issues, and critical electoral reforms. But as in all things, there is a subtext to this story that cannot be expediently swept under the rug. In this case, it has become clear that the unity government’s main ambition is consolidating its own power, as Israelis are once again forced to endure ad hoc-style governance in which day-to-day politicking is more about the maintenance of power then exercising it.
Sadly, the numerous scandals and convictions of former prime ministers, presidents and MKs are constant reminders of unscrupulous public servants blatantly neglecting their national duties. This is not to say there are not good, well-intentioned men and women in the Knesset who seek to improve the lives of Israelis. There are many. But the overall climate inside Israel’s governing class is one that applauds – even pursues – stability at the cost of clarity in policy.
Israelis are an audaciously capable people in times of crises. The concern is that political stability could lead to policy inertia, which leads to a fatal sense of apathy.
To most honest observers, the Netanyahu/Mofaz marriage is one of convenience, a mutual desire for power consolidation and political momentum. And how can we blame either of them for mimicking the political strategies of the day? Netanyahu has managed to successfully navigate – even dominate – a political system, while Mofaz – newly installed as Kadima’s head – effectively read the writing on the wall regarding Kadima’s chances in an early election. What is indisputable is the complete lack of effort by either leader to court the general public in the formation of this unprecedented coalition.
This disinterest in the grassroots constituency has become standard. Take, for example, the Netanyahu government’s response to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who took to the streets last summer to protest Israel’s centralization of wealth and power. The Israeli grassroots finally made their voice heard, but lacked the clarity of purpose and the sacred national symbols to unite and speak truth to power. We should have seen a more serious response than the appointment of the Trachtenberg commission.
Since then, Israelis citizen have been led – by delays and other obfuscations – back into the grip of societal apathy, where they congratulate the government for forming a coalition but fail to hold it accountable for demands which swept the nation less than 10 months ago. And so, demands from a broad consensus of Israel’s population have so far yielded only minor legislative changes and a unity government that can more easily diffuse accountability for inaction.
In looking at the current coalition, we must ask ourselves: Does Israel get the leaders it deserves? For an ancient people founded on the republican principles of individualism, community, and ethical responsibility, leadership from the Jewish perspective has always flowed upward, from the people. While the people are supposed to be the power behind the throne, Israel’s democracy has become filled with willing subjects. In the end, the blame lies with a public that has abdicated its duty – to be comprised of active citizens and advocates for a better nation that doggedly participate in their community and politic. Until such an innervated citizenry arises, Israel will continue to produce the leaders that reflect their own abdication and take advantage of the power vacuum, governing ad hoc on the basis of petty politics.
As 94 Knesset members sit on one side of an aisle, middle Israel sits in opposition, not because they hate this unity coalition but because they have come to hate all coalitions. No matter the size or shape, coalitions in the mind of the Israeli voter are another tool for the incessant plotting and scheming of the same recycled power-hording party apparatchiks. Israelis want responsible governing; the rub is that this can only occur once the people first govern themselves.
Rav Yosef Horwitz said of this all-too-human contradiction, “Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.” Israelis want their politicians to unite and exert themselves for the greater good, but this will first require that Israeli citizens practice what they preach.
This means demanding reform in the face of inaction. It means taking up the mantle of personal responsibility and civic pride, and engaging in grassroots contributive activism. Only then will Israel’s politicians follow suit and embrace higher political virtues that can mold unity governments formed out of convenience into grand coalitions guided by the duty to serve the public interest.
Ariel Harkham is co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative (www.jni.co.il).
About the Author: The author is co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative (www.jni.co.il).
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