Israelis don’t directly vote for PM candidates. In a parliamentary system like ours, one votes for a party – namely, an ideology. But, alas, Israel’s parties, except for very few, have little to offer as far as ideology is concerned.
Some don’t have a distinct ideology at all – Avigdor Lieberman’s party Israel Beitenu comes to mind as a prime example of a party that can be one thing today and quite another tomorrow. What do they stand for? No one really knows. Or the new party headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon. This party gets 10-12 seats according to the polls. This is for a party with no list of candidates except for the man at the helm, and with no clear ideology other than “lower the cost of living and house prices” – the Israeli equivalent of having world peace.
Or take Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah – another example. In Livni, we have a politician that within a fairly short amount of time made the remarkable journey from Likud (supposedly the right), to Kadima (supposedly the centre-right) to Hatnua (supposedy the centre-left) and now she is headed to an alliance with the Labor Party. The Labor Party! She – a Likud princess, daughter of Eitan Livni, a revisionist activist who asked to be buried with the emblem of Irgun engraved on his gravestone – is going to be associated with the successors of her father’s tormentors.
If you choose to be naïve, you’d assume that Livni has gone through a political transformation. If you choose to be more sober, you’d say she was transformed by the force of political necessity. She moved to Kadima to be with the powerful Ariel Sharon – because he was going to win. She stayed with Kadima until her rival Shaul Mofaz was able to beat her in a primary vote and become the leader of the party. Then she formed Hatnua, to stay in the game. And now, when Hatnua no longer seems to have staying power, she is moving to Labor.
Is she a hawk? Is she a dove? Livni can take her seat in a government headed by Yitzhak Herzog and in one headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. The same is true for Lapid, Kahlon, Lieberman, Shas and United Torah Judaism. The same is true for Herzog himself and for Netanyahu. They can have a joint government. Even for Bennett, under certain conditions, it would not be impossible to sit in a government in which Herzog is a senior member (he just sat in a government with Livni and Lapid). Most Israeli politicians have views and constituencies, but they are also very pragmatic and much prefer to be in a coalition. The voters grumble about it, but they also understand: how could they be really angry when they also have the habit of changing their vote and their party affiliation so easily?
This is not to say that Livni (or Kahlon, or Lieberman) are not worthy candidates. It is to say that in Israel’s election the parties are not much more than pedestals on which their leaders stand, and are mostly a vehicle for the leaders to get elected. On most issues, the ideological gaps between Labor and Likud, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, Kahlon and Bennett, are small to non-existent.
Yes, the parties can argue about the best arrangement for a final status agreement with the Palestinians: Labor’s Herzog and Livni would say “negotiate” and agree to “painful compromises” while Bennett would say “there is no partner” and “don’t give away our land”. These are theoretical differences. In practice, Livni can’t really advance negotiations even if she becomes Prime Minister (as was proved during the Olmert Government), nor can Bennett annex the territories and impose his solution on the conflict (as was proved in two consecutive Netanyahu governments).
And yes, they can all pretend to have great differences over legislation such as the Jewish State law. But this legislation has little practical meaning, and little chance of passing in its more draconian forms. So, again, it is a debate for the sake of having a debate for the sake of pretending that the parties have different ideologies when in fact they differ mostly in manners. Netanyahu can pose as the great defender of Jewish nationalism. Livni can pose as the great defender of democratic values.
What, then, is the election about? It is first and foremost about Prime Minister Netanyahu: there is a camp – a significant camp – of people tired of Netanyahu and tired of Netanyahu’s way in the government. They’d rather have someone else at the helm, and not necessarily because they want different policies. Someone else because they want someone else. A fresh face, a new style, possibly some fresh thinking as well. But expecting a revolution in the policies of the Israeli Government would be a mistake: there can’t be a revolution when most parties agree on so many things, and when the preponderance of parliamentary power limits a government’s ability to make great changes even when it wants them.
Shmuel Rosner is a columnist and editor based in Tel Aviv, a contributing opinion columnist for the International New York Times and senior political editor for The Jewish Journal. He is also a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. © Shmuel Rosner, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.