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Israeli Elections Elicit Little Hope for Change

Elections in Israel are two weeks away, but the electorate shows little sign of interest in substantive issues, writes Yossi Melman.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is seen during the launch of his Likud Beiteinu party campaign ahead of the upcoming January 22 national elections, in Jerusalem December 25, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

The hottest news of the forthcoming Israeli election campaign is a secret love affair, reminiscent of what Oswald Mosley, the talented member of the British Parliament, said in the early '30s of the last century, when he was still a member of the Labor Party and just before founding his "Union of British Fascists." Asked about his political and sexual preferences, Mosley said: "Vote Labor, Sleep Tory." This is, though in the opposite direction, what the right-wing, hard-liner Education Minister Gideon Saar (age 46) from the ruling Likud party is doing. He is dating TV Channel One's pretty face and intelligent mind, Geula Even (age 40), who is known for her left of center political views. Both are happily divorced with children.

Their flirtatious relationship, widely reported not only in gossip columns, is a powerful illustration and evidence that two weeks before more than 5 million eligible Israeli voters go to the polling stations, the campaign has already reached its garbage time. It seems that not one of the 7.9 million Israeli citizens, including the media and the politicians themselves, is seriously interested in hard-core political issues and seem instead to prefer to focus on marginal, sometimes saucy and sexy issues.

This complacent attitude happens at a time when most local and international observers note that Israel is approaching one of its most crucial historic junctures, which will determine not only its immediate future but also will shape its long-term existence.

At stake are important issues. Is Israel heading for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, or for another war? Will the gap between the rich and the poor widen further? Will the rift between secular and religious Israelis be healed?

The answers to these questions are troubling to say the least, if we believe the various political, economic, social and cultural indicators, as well as the official statistical data.

After the last round of violence between Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement and Israel Gaza is quiet and the cease-fire is holding. But the war strengthened Hamas and weakened the national-secular Palestinian Authority (PA) led by president Mahmoud Abbas, who is commonly known as Abu Mazen. The chances of a renewed peace negotiation between Israel and the PA are slimmer than ever.

It is clear to most Israeli political commentators, that despite the lip service (i.e., "We are ready to negotiate without preconditions"), the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no interest, does not believe and does not wish to negotiate with Abu Mazen. As a result, the PA searched for a face-saving gain by going to the UN General Assembly to be acceded as a state member on an "observer" status. The PA won the vote with an overwhelming majority (the US voted against the resolution and sided with Israel, while the EU supported the PA). In return, the Netanyahu-Liberman cabinet decided as a "punitive measure" to build an additional 3,000 apartments in the occupied West Bank. The hopes for peace were further shattered and the possibility of a new — third — Palestinian Uprising (intifada) is growing. The Israeli General Security Service (Shabak, in its Hebrew acronym) has already measured in recent weeks a worrying increase in the number of violent incidents — stone throwing at soldiers, confrontation with Jewish settlers — in the West Bank.

With or without another intifada, Israel is slowly but surely sliding to a demographic and democratic junction. The number of Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs (who enjoy full citizenry rights but prefer to define themselves as Palestinians and not Israelis) will soon surpass the number of Israeli Jews in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. When Israel reaches this juncture, it will face a choice between bad and worse. It will have to make a tough decision: either to grant equal rights to the Palestinians and lose the "Jewish" character of the state that was historically founded as a homeland for the Jewish people, or continue depriving them of their citizenry rights and turn into a new version of South Africa, in which the privileged minority rule over the rights of a deprived majority.

On the social and economic fronts, Israel is deteriorating into a classical Third World country.

The number of Israelis living under the poverty line has grown by nearly 40% in the last decade. One quarter — 1.9 million, including nearly one million children, or one out of four Israelis, is considered to be poor. Netanyahu is a true believer — he shares almost a religious belief — in the notion of a free market economy. He is more Thatcherite than Margaret Thatcher and more Ronald Reagan than Reagonomics. He ordered a cut in public services, reduced food subsidies, decreased social security allowances, and he rejected calls to raise taxes for corporations and rich individuals. While house prices in major cities are skyrocketing, the number of affordable public houses constructed on his watch reached its lowest record. In terms of government investment in education and health, Israel is ranked 29 out of 36 in the OECD index, and in the quality of life measurement, it is ranked 25 out of 36.

At the same time and despite its efforts to create a sense of economic urgency, even a need for austerity and personal sacrifice, the right-wing government found the financial resources to secure its political survival. The government did not hesitate to spend more money on the sectarian issues of its coalition partners. The budget to the Jewish settlers increased, as well as to the orthodox communities.

In such an environment, one would have thought the fire of change and a desire for improvement would have burnt in the Israeli electorate's bones. But the exact opposite seems to have emerged. The Israeli electorate prefers the status quo and rejects any profound changes. Public opinion polls show that the right-wing government of Netanyahu — basically the same coalition — will form the next cabinet, probably with a bigger parliamentary majority and support.

Israeli political structure, as reflected in electoral patterns, is pretty rigid. There are four blocs: The right is expected to win 40% of the vote; the center, 33%; the religious and orthodox parties,15%; and parties representing the minority Israeli Arabs,10%. The Israeli left has almost evaporated and is expected to win between 2% and 4%. And if these results are not surprising enough, here is another fact. The right-wing and orthodox parties are mainly supported by the poor and the less educated — the exact constituencies that are neglected and victims of the government policies.

There are several explanations for such a surprising and conservative, almost "tribal loyalty," voting patterns. One reason is the feeling that the election results are already "determined," not because of deception and fraudulent behavior but simply by the "zeitgeist." In other words, nothing will ever change, so why bother?

This sentiment is strengthened by the public aversion and contempt of politics. In some polls, politicians came out as the most hated profession after lawyers and journalists. In the last decade, the public witnessed the deterioration of political ethics, morality and the skyrocketing of political corruption and abuse of power. The previous state president, Moshe Katsav, was charged with rape and eventually sent to jail for a term he is still serving on "minor" charges such as sexual abuse. Former Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson is serving a prison term for receiving kickbacks. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been indicted on four cases of corruption — was cleared on two — and is awaiting court verdicts on two. In the last decade, six members of Parliament (4%) and belonging to the orthodox Shas party were sentenced to prison terms on various corruption charges. The latest case of futile police investigations to eradicate public corruption in politics is Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. He is indicted and has resigned from his post but not from politics. He is a candidate on the Likud list.

No wonder that the frustration, desperation and loss of hope are so profound that 37% of young, middle class, secular Israelis expressed in a recent poll their readiness to emigrate and abandon the Zionist "dream."

Yossi Melman is an Israeli commentator on security and intelligence affairs for the Israeli news website "Walla" and the co-author with CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at

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