Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Four Elections in Israel

25 days till departure

I have been party to four national election campaigns in Israel, which comes to an average of one election cycle every two years. This doesn’t include the municipal campaign that occurred in 2004. In each instance, I voted for a different party.

In 1999, after three years in office, Bibi Netanyahu attempted to fend off a challenge from the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak. Bibi had put a previously promising peace process into the deep freeze. Major cajoling from the Clinton Administration produced some progress from his government, but there was a general feeling that a historic opportunity for peace was being lost on his watch.

Enter Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier in its modern history. He walked the walk. He talked the talk. He promised negotiations with the Syrians and Palestinians. And the people went for it. I went for it, voting for both him and the Labor Party ticket for the Knesset (there were two ballots in that election).

Barak took seven months to form a government after winning the election. This should have been a warning sign. He led abortive talks with the Syrians, backing out at the last minute when he realized that a putative deal would never pass his promised referendum. In truth, he lost his greatest opportunity to demonstrate true leadership. Only then did he turn to the Palestinians, and very cynically at that. He led us all to believe that if there was a deal to make, he would make it. He knew there was no deal. But I fault him for leading me on. And for the total anarchy that ensued when his government crumbled.

Elections for prime minister only were held at the beginning of 2001. By that time, Arik Sharon the war criminal was leader of the Likud and the Al Aqsa Intifada was being gleefully ramped up by Arafat, for reasons that I will never fully understand. By the time the elections were actually held, in last-ditch negotiations in Taba, Israel had agreed to hand over 100% of Gaza and 98% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state. While the devil was certainly in the details, war was waged against us for essentially 2% of the West Bank. It boggles the mind.

Moreover, Barak had shown himself to be totally incapable governing in a coalition. Sharon promised to form a national unity government. And the public wanted to punish the Palestinians. They and I picked the right man to do just that.

I had never previously voted for or supported a candidate on the right. But through suicide bombings, the combat was brought onto the streets where I walked. The stated objective was to kill and maim as many civilians as possible. While never losing sight of the ultimate objective of burying the proverbial hatchet and sitting down to cut a deal, there was an immediate need to protect the physical integrity of Israel’s citizenry.

The fabric of life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories was systematically destroyed. The security barrier began to be built. Defensive Shield laid waste to most government infrastructure. And eventually the suicide bombings petered out.

Sharon then went to the electorate in 2003 promising pretty much more of the same. But in his first two years in office, he showed himself to be a charismatic grandfather figure that a shocked populace found it easy to rally round. At this point, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the old man. But I couldn’t stomach the Likud and its endemic graft and sleaze.

Knowing that he would win, I decided to cast my lot for a minor party that truly represented the ideas that I believe in: The Green Leaf. I got a lot of flak for this. Indeed, the central tenet of the party’s platform is the legalization of cannabis, which is a good idea in itself. Alcohol is legal, and does far more damage. Truly the ultimate gateway drug is nicotine, not weed. And when it comes right down to it, responsible adults should be free to make their own decisions on such matters, without state interference. On this note, the whole subject of legalization speaks to a much larger issue in Israel of freedom of privacy in a near-police state. And it was actually on that principle that I made my choice.

In the event, they didn’t cross the electoral threshold anyway.

Sharon was reelected with a much increased share of the vote and proceeded to announce his plans for disengagement (i.e. withdrawal) from Gaza. If he was popular before, he then soared. Of course the political right did everything to place obstacles in his path. But true to his nickname, the Bulldozer, good old Arik was unstoppable, and indeed, Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

Sharon then struck out on his own to form a new party, Kadima, which, it was inferred, would lead Israel to disengage from the West Bank as well. Had he not suffered from a massive stroke, he would have led his party to a resounding victory.

He left the country in shock. I considered voting for Kadima, but couldn’t quite bring myself to trust Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s deputy and eventual successor. I had high hopes for Amir Peretz in the Labor Party, being from a union background and putting the social fracture at the forefront of the nation’s political discourse. But in the end, I voted for the left-wing Meretz party, in hopes that they would be included in the coalition, thereby pulling the government leftwards.

Once a major party, under the lackluster leadership of Yossi Beilin, Meretz got a humiliating five seats and was excluded from the government.

Olmert had a huge amount of credit extended to him upon his formal election. He was carrying the disengagement’s mantle. He addressed a joint session of the US Congress, a rare honor given to a foreign leader. But he was not up to the task of governing. With Amir Peretz as defense minister, he launched the disastrous war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. He has cold-shouldered Abu Mazen, the one man in the Palestinian Authority who could bring about some kind of meaningful progress in jump starting anything that might remotely resemble a peace process. Like all other Israeli politicians, he is blinded by his ego, arrogance and greed; he now clings to power by a thread. The question now is whether he will jump or be pushed.

Sadly, there is an appalling leadership deficit in Israel. There truly is no one who can do what needs to be done in this country. Politics has become nauseatingly corrupt. To my great chagrin, Bibi Netanyahu looks likely to make a political comeback. He may even be standing against Ehud Barak, in a rerun of the 1999 elections. In sum, there is nothing on the horizon to hope for.

Israelis: stand up and be counted! Demand more of your leaders! You will never get rid of the Palestinians; just making their lives ever more miserable will not make your situation any better. There are huge challenges: income distribution, crumbling public health and education, transport gridlock. And if that isn’t enough for you, there’s Iran. So wake up and smell the hummus.

No comments: