Thursday, February 07, 2019

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

Israel has dived head on into pre-election madness, with commercials on social media (TV and radio commercials are not allowed until 26 March, thank goodness), text messages, wild and not-so-wild accusations and allegations, and – until the deadline for presenting party lists in two weeks – rumors of shifting alliances between parties and factions. It is hard to believe that on 9 April this will be over.

The actual contest is between the blocs of parties representing the Left and the Right. The Left continues to chant its mantra of democracy in danger, while the Right warns of a left-wing government that will repeat the errors of Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza. While the poll numbers of the individual parties go up and down, the totals for the competing blocs change very little.

The fact is, there is a right-wing majority in Israel, for the very good reason that the twin traumas of Oslo and Gaza taught most of us a serious lesson. The Left pretends that its ideas today are more sophisticated than they were in 1993, but nobody is fooled. Even if the Left should propose to take the Arabs into the coalition – something that has never occurred before – barring the very unexpected, we will have another right-wing coalition.

Incidentally, the indictment of PM Binyamin Netanyahu for alleged corruption is not “unexpected.” It will happen, because the legal establishment, which leans leftward, wants it, and the similarly-biased media have been clamoring for it. Netanyahu and the Right have tried to weaken the power of the unelected establishment in media and the legal system, and the elites are fighting back with everything they have. But most voters who prefer Bibi believe that the things he is accused of are either small enough to be ignored, or constitute politics as usual. The probable indictment is already “priced into” the polls.

The major threat to the Right is the new Hosen l’Yisrael party (Resilience for Israel) party led by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and including Moshe Ya’alon, a former Defense Minister and COS himself, probably along with yet another former COS, Gabi Ashkenazi. One would think that all this brass in one place would produce a right-wing party, but in Israel, ex-generals are often lefties (this is for historical reasons, and probably won’t be true in the future as more religious and Mizrachi officers are promoted). Gantz seems like a pleasant, honest, and dignified person, and some claim that he has the charisma that previous opposition figures lacked.

The party defines itself as “centrist” – Gantz claimed to be “neither Left nor Right,” but even in his initial speech, which was heavy on platitudes and vague promises, there were hints of a willingness to surrender parts of Judea and Samaria to the Arabs. He referred to the Jordan Valley as the “security border” of the state, something which leaves the door open to arrangements in which it would not be under full Israeli sovereignty. Apparently lacking political sense, he even praised the “disengagement” from Gaza in an interview published Wednesday. His party did well in initial polls after its launch, and may gain strength if Ashkenazi joins; it may even absorb Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. But I don’t think it will ultimately take any right-of-center votes. The blocs are solid.

The Left argues somewhat shrilly that Netanyahu is destroying Israeli democracy and introducing fascism, citing his attacks on the media, and the legal establishment; his support for the Nation-State Law, and what they consider his populist style. None of this really hits the mark, except with those who are already opposed to him. The media and the legal establishment are biased against him, and shouldn’t be surprised when he hits back.

The accusations that Netanyahu is destroying democracy are not convincing, either. Polls consistently show that Netanyahu is the person that more people consider suitable to be Prime Minister than anyone else, which is prima facie evidence that democracy is functional. What his opponents mean, of course, is that Bibi opposes the unelected “gatekeepers” of liberalism in the form of the media and the legal and academic-cultural elites, who wish to turn the clock back to before 1977, when they controlled the political system. The public intuitively understands this, and likes the clock where it is today, thank you.

The Right has its problems, too. It has been unable to form a coalition without the Haredi parties, a real irritant for Israel’s secular majority, particularly the nearly 1 million from the former USSR, many of whom can’t satisfy the Haredi Chief Rabbinate that they are Jewish enough to get married in Israel. They would prefer to let localities make up their own minds about whether or not to allow stores and public transportation to operate on Shabbat.

Both sides promise to reduce the cost of living and especially the cost of housing, which has skyrocketed in recent years. I am not sure of the explanation, but here in Rehovot, there are new buildings under construction everywhere, and they are filling up. Enough people seem to be able to afford the expensive new apartments to keep the developers busy. Food and clothing are also expensive. The health-care system is stretched very thin: emergency rooms in some parts of the country are overflowing, there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, there are long waits for some procedures, and other problems. It’s not clear that anyone has a serious program to improve these things.

But nothing is more important than security. Israel will not forget Oslo and the consequences of it. The country was dragged by the delusional Left, into a situation in which we introduced our deadliest enemies into our midst, provided them with weapons and money, and watched them kill us. More than a thousand of our relatives, neighbors and friends, were murdered while riding buses, eating pizza, or attending Passover seders, as a direct result of the Oslo accords; and today, sixteen years after, we are still paying a price in terrorism. Instead of being honored, Shimon Peres and the others who let this happen – who made this happen – should have been prosecuted, or at least permanently banished from public life. 

There is a good reason that the majority of Jewish Israelis simply don’t trust anyone to the left of the Likud, and this is it. Many Israelis would sooner have a picnic on the grass inside the lion exhibit at the Ramat Gan Safari park than put their lives in the hands of the ideological heirs of these criminally incompetent egotists.

I don’t think there is a harder job in the world than being Prime Minister of Israel. There’s no room for mistakes, and the consequences of making one follow quickly. If he screws up, he – and the nation – pay the price right away. At the same time, the constraints placed on the PM by the exigencies of the coalition system, the too-powerful Supreme Court and Attorney General, and the intrusive and hostile media, limit what he can do. He bears all the responsibility, but has insufficient authority to do his job.

Although military experience is a necessity for a Prime Minister or a Defense Minister, in order to understand the soldiers, and to be able to respond in their language. I think, though, that a professional soldier with no civilian political experience is rarely a good candidate for PM. Military politics are not the same as civilian politics, and international politics are another world entirely. Armies have interests, and they are not always identical to the nation’s interests. This is why civilian control of the military is necessary, and why someone who has recently stepped down from the role of Chief of Staff may not have the broad perspective necessary for a Prime Minister. The three former chiefs who became PMs (Rabin, Barak, and Sharon) were, in my estimation, poor Prime Ministers.

As I write, there are 63 days remaining until I exercise my right and responsibility again, to place a small piece of paper in a box to help choose the next Knesset and Prime Minister.

I can hardly wait!

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