Israel Pulse

Israel's Zig Zag Politics

Article Summary
What Western political ethics would deem a no-confidence crisis may be hailed in Israeli politics as a model of honesty and integrity, writes Nadav Eyal in an analysis of the recent coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former opposition leader Shaul Mofaz. 

The political drama which unfolded in Israel last week [following the surprise announcement of the new national unity government on May 8 met with indifference or, at the most, wry amusement in the international arena. The alliance forged between [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and [former opposition leader and newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister in the unity government] Shaul Mofaz has been dismissed in France as "that surprise move." British and American journalists called their colleagues in Israel to inquire about the goings-on. However, contrary to the apparent astonishment in Israel, they could not really understand what the drama was all about. "I don't expect anything of Israeli politics anymore," a colleague calling from overseas noted. "How many times can you be disillusioned?" We, too, are asking ourselves the same question, his Israeli interlocutor responded.

The only issue – the single issue – of any interest to Washington, London and Paris in this context is the likelihood that behind the newly formed coalition there lurks a hidden Israeli intention to launch a preemptive strike on Iran before long, perhaps even in the coming months. "At best, it is a case of political cynicism. We have no problem with that," one of the [foreign] sources said. "What we are really worried about is the other possibility – that, rather than political cynicism, it is a preparatory move in anticipation of a military operation. And this is no doubt cause for concern."

However, possibly no less important than discussing the potential preemptive strike against Iran and its relation to the crawling of [the main Israeli opposition party, the centrist] Kadima to the [rightist Netanyahu] government – there is something to be said about the gap separating Israeli politics from political norms and ethics in other countries, as aptly illustrated just a few days ago, in the second week of May. Let's have a look at some pertinent cases. In Britain, for instance, the press is hounding [Prime Minister] David Cameron for his failure to live up to his commitment during the election campaign to lead a conservative policy, on which he was subsequently forced to compromise when forming a coalition (with the Liberals). That same week, The Daily Mail, a conservative British daily, ran a front-page banner headline reading: "'There's so much I want to do, but can't,' says Cameron as he reveals to the Mail how Lib Dems are holding him back." It was the revenge of the conservative "Daily Mail" on the Prime Minister, whose sole fault was his slight shift to the political center. In fact, Cameron has realized most of his [election campaign] promises. It is certainly not his responsibility that the British voters did not grant the Conservatives an absolute majority, leaving him no choice but to join forces with the Liberals in a unity government, and he should not be held accountable for it. Nonetheless, the media does not let go and keeps pounding him even now, a year after the elections. Any why? For no other reason than the compromise he was forced to make; because he has not fulfilled each and every pledge he gave his voters. In Britain, the failure to keep one's word is not something to be taken lightly.

In 2007, then-[British] Prime Minister Gordon Brown planned to call snap elections. At the last minute, he changed his mind. Brown said nothing about it to the media. However, his intentions leaked out. When, talking on-the-record, Brown divulged that no early elections would be held after all, the entire Kingdom sneered at him over what then-opposition leader David Cameron described as "a shameful about face; an attempt to evade general elections using spin tactics." The media was in an uproar and Brown's public image was severely tarnished. He was presented as an indecisive politician fearing the voters' verdict. And all this, even though the then-prime minister at no stage had publicly said anything about going to early elections.

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In Israel, the Prime Minister ceremoniously announces early elections while addressing a party convention broadcast live on TV. Two days later he makes a u-turn on his decision. And it does not really matter why, although, assuming that we are not heading to war, it is hard to explain the move. Even in Israeli politics, nothing like this has ever before occurred. Never before have imminent snap elections been called only to be called off soon afterwards, just because coalition negotiations got underway a mere couple of hours following the election announcement. In recent days Shaul Mofaz has been harshly slammed, and justly so, for his lack of political spine. In any other country in the Western world, a move such as his would have been indignantly denounced within his party, in the media and by the public, to his utter disgrace, so that he would have been ashamed to show his face in public for two years afterwards. However, the Prime Minister is no novice, unpopular opposition leader. He is the head of state. He announced early elections. After two or three days he all of a sudden had second thoughts. And it is neither economic recession nor war that caused his sudden change of opinion. It is simply because Mofaz [retracting on his own words] was now willing to join his government.

In France, President Sarkozy has taken a painful beating when a certain credit rating agency [Standard & Poor’s] – only one out of a range of prominent credit rating agencies – lowered France's credit rating. The French economy is in no danger of collapsing. Unemployment is not skyrocketing, and the significance of that rating is in doubt. However, all this did not really make a difference. Sarkozy built his political image on the basis of his pledge to maintain the stability and prosperity of the French economy, and once France was stripped of its top credit rating, the French voter was not ready to accept any excuses. As far as he was concerned, it was a breach of promise. And Sarkozy had to pay the price and give up his presidential seat.

The above is not meant to corroborate what we all already know – that our elected representatives could not care less about us or that politicians, as a rule, are not necessarily inclined to tell the truth, to put it mildly. Of this we are well aware. But what is to become of politics where no guarantee given is worth the paper it's written on, where no pledge made is ever honored? How can the voter decide who deserves his trust when there is nobody to trust, when he knows beforehand that whoever is elected is bound to betray his confidence and forever lie to him?

These questions are relevant to recent events [in the Israeli political arena] no less so than to other equally scandalous occurrences in the history of Israeli politics – including that affair with Goldfarb's Mitsubishi [in 1995, then-Knesset members Gonen Segev and Alex Goldfarb deserted their Tzomet party, joined Labor, and cast the two votes that enabled parliamentary approval of the Oslo II Accords. Goldfarb received in return a cabinet post along with an official Mitsubishi car.] Not to mention all those premiers who promised to adopt a certain policy while in practice implementing the very opposite, reversing by 180 degrees the line they vowed to follow. The outcome is far more destructive than can be captured by the rather childish term "zig zag". The heap of lies of all political zig zags accumulates into a critical mass which undermines the very foundation of democracy – namely, trust.

We may find consolation, perhaps, in the fact that it is a universal phenomenon. It seems that we are experiencing a general crisis of political ethics in democracies the world over, closely related to all those pledges for prosperity that faded into thin air in the global economic crisis. According to the "trust index" recently published by the The Economist, in all the categories examined (government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media), the public's trust in the leaders in each of these spheres has significantly declined. Out of the 50 countries included in the survey, at least 11 are now characterized as "highly skeptic" [about their leaders], with less than 50 percent of the public in each of these countries voicing confidence in their own institutions. In Japan, the public's trust in the government dropped to 34 percent and in Brazil, the trust index plunged by 40 percent in one single year. No more than 43 percent of the public voiced support for their governments in any of the 50 countries canvassed. The higher the respondents' education level, the lower their trust in their politicians. It thus emerges from the survey conducted by The Economist.

Yet, what would be deemed a no-confidence crisis judging by British or even American political ethics would be hailed in Israeli politics as an exemplary model of honesty and integrity. In other words, what would be considered political zig zag in the United Kingdom would be seen by the average Israeli as an absolutely straight line. As said, we may perhaps find some consolation in the realization that the loss of trust in politics and politicians is a global malady. As the saying goes, misery loves company or, to put it more simply, a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.

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Found in: the west, brown, sarkozy, political ethics, netanyahu, mofaz, israel, cameron, benjamin netanyahu

Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Channel 10's foreign news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv daily. Eyal was named one of the hundred most influential people in the media for 2011 by the Israeli business magazine Globes. He holds an LLB degree from the Law Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a masters degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.

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