Popularity should be no scale for the election of politicians. If it would depend on popularity, Donald Duck and The Muppets would take seats in [the legislature] – Orson Welles
Elections are won... chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody – Franklin Pierce Adams
This Wednesday, the inevitable happened. The improbable coalition, cobbled together out of irreconcilably disparate components, finally disintegrated.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
The disintegration of the coalition was virtually inevitable from the moment it was formed. From the get-go, it was the product of the puerile petulance of its principal participants and the perverse partnerships that this produced.
But even more fundamentally, the fatal friability of the coalition can be traced back to the pathetically poor electoral campaign run by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud, in which almost every conceivable mistake was made: from purposefully refraining from presenting a policy platform to voters, essentially asking for support without stipulating what the support was for; through the predictably ill-fated union with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu faction that, inevitably, reduced support for the combined electoral entity, to the needless attacks on Naftali Bennett, driving undecided voters to support neophyte Yair Lapid.
Thus, while at the start of the campaign for the last elections, most pundits widely predicted a decisive win for Netanyahu and the Right, the gross ineptitude with which the campaign was subsequently conducted led to severe erosion of voter support for the joint Likud-Beytenu list, which almost resulted in it snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory.
Consequently, a dramatically weakened Netanyahu, faced by a recalcitrant alliance of Bennett-Lapid, found his options drastically reduced. To begin the process of building his government, he was virtually coerced into including the ideologically antagonistic Tzipi Livni to be the first to join the coalition, appointing her to the critical position of justice minister and giving her responsibility for the negotiations with the Palestinians.
This ensured the implausibility of the coalition and virtually guaranteed its rapid demise.
Imploding political system
There is little prospect that the coming elections will break the ideological deadlock that has hog-tied the Israeli political system for almost two decades.
The ineffectual performance of successive governments and their evident inability to overcome the growing sense of strategic impasse has led to a grave loss of public faith in the political process.
This is perhaps best gauged by the steep decline in voter turnout over the years – from almost 80 percent throughout the 1980s up until the late ’90s, to barely 60% in the last three elections.
There seems to be a burgeoning disconnect between the gravity of the problems facing the nation, and the lack of gravitas of politicians, seeking office to deal with them; a widening chasm between the profound complexity of the issues to be dealt with, and the shallow simplicity of the proposals advanced to deal with them.
This has resulted in deepening feelings of alienation, cynicism and despair as to the future, and on the futility of trying to effect change by means of the ballot box. One of the most worrying manifestations of these sentiments is the increasing numbers of Israelis seeking to acquire foreign passports, signaling a lack of confidence in the elected leaders’ ability to secure their future – both as individuals and as part of the national collective.
In an attempt to convey the frustration with the dysfunctional operation and diminishing legitimacy of the political system, Prof. Oz Almog penned a widely publicized article this week, with an impassioned call for voters to rebel, and boycott the coming elections. Although it is clearly possible to dispute the prudence and practicality of such a plea, it serves to underscore the sense of foreboding of an impending implosion of the political system.
The pivotal issue
As a rule I disagree – vehemently – with almost everything Gershon Baskin writes in his column “Encountering Peace.” However, in his latest effort, “Our future is in our hands” (December 3), he does manage to get one thing right. The pivotal issue on the agenda in the elections will – or at least, should – be the Palestinian issue, and particularly whether large-scale territorial withdrawal will be conducted to facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea-Samaria.
The Palestinian issue impacts nearly every area of life in Israel and until there is a rational and sustainable blueprint of how to deal with it, it will not be possible to arrive at a rational and sustainable blueprint for how to manage the overall affairs of the nation.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this matter.
The ramifications of the manner in which one envisions the outcome of the Palestinian issue extend far beyond the sphere of security and foreign policy. As I pointed out at the last Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, they affect almost every socioeconomic matter on the national agenda.
It will affect the distribution and cost of housing, which will be dramatically influenced by whether residential construction is permitted across the pre-1967 lines.
It will affect Israel’s air traffic and land (road and rail) transport system, depending on who controls the slopes overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport and the land abutting major highways and rail links.
It will affect environmental management within the pre-1967 lines, and the ability to contend with vital issues such as sewage flows, carcinogenic emissions from charcoal production, industrial effluents and agricultural runoffs, depending on who has the authority/ability to regulate them.
It will affect the capacity to combat and contain transmissible diseases such as rabies and water-borne afflictions, depending on who has the authority/ability to mandate inoculations, effect quarantines, administer treatment and so on.
Pivotal issue (cont.)
This is a decidedly abbreviated list of seldom-raised topics that would be crucially – and detrimentally – impacted by withdrawing Israeli administration from areas across the Green Line.
To these we must add the economic consequences such a move would have – including the cost of removing and resettling hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, who would have to be evacuated from their communities to facilitate the judenrein state the Palestinians demand. We would have to add the staggering additions to the defense budget that would be required to cope with the new realties such measures would necessarily entail.
The fighting this summer in Gaza, particularly the threat of short-range mortars and attack tunnels, vividly brought home the significance of a 50-km. border abutting our remote, thinly populated, rural South – even when there was no topographical superiority involved.
It takes little imagination to grasp the significance of a 500-km. border abutting our heavily populated urban central region, dominated topographically from the east, with Israel’s only international airport within easy mortar range and the Trans-Israel Highway within easy tunnel reach.
Given the fact that every time Israel has relinquished territory to Arab control, it has, without exception – albeit with varying rates of rapidity – become a source of attacks against Israel, one would expect that advocating withdrawal of additional territory – especially territory as vital as Judea-Samaria – would be electoral suicide.
Delusional Left; incompetent Right
However, bizarre as it may appear, this is not the case.
Numerous parties on the so-called Left will try and convince voters that what has failed disastrously in the past will somehow mysteriously succeed today, even though current conditions are far less benign.
Even more bizarrely, none of these wildly optimistic parties offers – or even feel any obligation to offer – any plausible Plan B should what happened in past repeat itself. After all, the prospect of such a dire contingency can no longer be haughtily dismissed as “Right-wing scaremongering” – for it is no more than the empirical precedent.
One of the most infuriating and enduring enigmas of Israeli politics is that although the Left’s dangerously delusional doctrine – or rather, dogma – of Palestinian statehood and its corollary of land-for-peace has been decisively disproved, it is somehow never discredited, and certainly never discarded.
There can be no more abiding testimony to the hopeless incompetence of the political Right, which despite all its caveats and its criticism being indisputably vindicated, has been unable to vanquish its political adversaries, and consign their preposterous political prescription to the trash pile of history, with all the scorn it so richly deserves.
There are at least two – arguably interrelated – reasons for this.
The first is that the political Right has refrained from formulating and promoting a cogent, comprehensive and convincing alternative to the two-states-for-two-peoples principle (or the default option of a one-state-for-all-its-citizens).
The other is the dismaying dereliction of duty in the conduct of its public diplomacy – both domestically and abroad – a debacle which can presumably be linked to the above-mentioned lack of an adequate alternative.
No cogent alternative
As disastrous as the delusions of Left are, the alternatives proffered by the Right are, if anything, even more dangerous and detrimental. Not everything that is not “twostates” is necessarily preferable to it. I have dealt with the detrimental defects of most of the more common “alternatives” proposed by the Right in some detail elsewhere (see for example “What’s wrong with the Right,” Parts 1 & 2, August 16 & 23, 2012).
In the coming elections, two of these are likely to be of relevance: (a) The idea of managing, rather than resolving, the conflict, which seems to be what the Likud is likely to adopt; and (b) the partial annexation of Judea-Samaria (i.e.
of the dominantly Jewish-populated Area C) advanced by Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett.
To these we may have to add Avigdor Liberman’s newly touted proposal of land swaps and economic incentives for Israeli Arabs to move to the envisioned Palestinian state.
All of these proposals are poorly conceived and have little chance of becoming a serious alternative to the two-state paradigm, and I will engage in a more detailed analysis of their glaring defects in subsequent columns as the elections approach.
Suffice to say at this stage, “managing the conflict” is little more than a euphemism for “copping out,” in the vain hope that if we do nothing, things will somehow work themselves out.
Managing the conflict means preserving it.
Regrettably this is demonstrably incorrect. The status quo is not sustainable and is continuously deteriorating for Israel – as the recent votes in ever-increasing numbers of European parliaments in favor of unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood starkly underscore.
It is almost self-evident that if you don’t have a destination, you can’t reach it. Similarly, if the Right does not specify a preferred mode of resolving (rather than “managing” – read “preserving”) the conflict, it cannot garner support – foreign or domestic – for its position over that of the Left.
The Bennett proposal for annexation of Area C alone, for all its superficial appeal, is, as I have pointed out previously, a measure that solves none of the existing problems and exacerbates many. It will entail a border of well over 1,000 km. for Israel sovereign territory, which will have to be demarcated and secured for that sovereignty to have any significance. It will leave Israel to explain to the world what the plan is for 90% of the Arab inhabitants in the residual Areas A & B, encapsulated, in stateless political suspension, in 40% of the territory, in disconnected enclaves and corridors.
Now there’s a diplomatic challenge.
Right idea, wrong direction
Liberman’s proposal as recently published is hardly a right-wing alternative, and has little merit in its own right.
For not only does it entail the establishment of a Palestinian state, it involves land swaps, which are likely to make the border between it and sovereign Israel even longer and more tortuous than the pre-1967 lines.
Moreover, Liberman adopts the idea of using economic incentives to induce Arab migration. But he does so precisely in the wrong direction.
Instead of offering financial inducements to the Arabs of Judea-Samaria to seek a better life elsewhere, he suggests offering Israeli Arabs financial inducements to seek a presumably much worse life in Judea-Samaria under some future Arab regime.
In effect, Liberman is proposing that Israeli Arabs leave a prosperous democratic state, where GDP per capita is approaching $40,000, and move to an impoverished tyranny, where the GDP per capita is under $2,000.
Gee, that should work.
The futility of elections
One of the most remarkable and recurring phenomena in Israeli politics is that right-wing parties running on hawkish platforms have regularly won elections, but, on winning, adopt the failed policies of their dovish left-wing rivals who were rejected at the polls.
Thus, the electorate ends up with precisely what it voted to reject. This, in effect, empties the democratic process of any significance, which in itself should be a matter of grave concern.
In this column I have hinted at some of the reasons for this. In coming columns, I will elaborate on why the Right keeps winning elections but never really gets into power; and why the Left does not need electoral success to impose its worldview on political realities.
These issues have profound importance for the future of Israeli democracy.
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Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.