Joel Mowbray

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Across Israel on the eve of the recent primary election likely to decide the next prime minister, most Israelis shared the same feeling: apathy.

In stark contrast to the political theater playing out in the U.S., the common refrain in the Jewish state was: “It doesn’t matter.” Perhaps spoiled by enjoying in decades past many larger-than-life leaders, Israeli voters believe their options for the foreseeable future are limited to a series of deeply flawed candidates.

Exacerbating widespread disenchantment, winner Tzipi Livni—who could become the next prime minister without facing another election—captured her primary victory with less than 20,000 votes. Roughly 99% of voting-age adults went anywhere else other than a polling place on election day.

Though mild graft and borderline bribery have long been accepted as par for the course, the Jewish state has been rocked by a seemingly endless string of corruption scandals—the biggest of which triggered the latest election.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, battling allegations that he pocketed envelopes stuffed with cash from a U.S. businessman, stepped down from his post as leader of the Kadima political party, which spearheaded the current majority coalition. In Israel’s chaotic parliamentary system, the party with the largest number of seats typically forms the majority coalition, and Olmert’s centrist but left-leaning Kadima has enjoyed a surprisingly resilient government. But unlike in the United States, new elections can be called suddenly, as soon as a majority of legislators decide to do so.

In the coming weeks, Olmert’s newly elected replacement Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has the tricky task of forming a new government, which likely will require her to keep on board either the left-wing Labor Party or the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction—or both. Though certainly doable, it’s by no means a forgone conclusion that she'll be able to craft a majority coalition. Should she fail, new general Parliamentary elections will be held—and she’d be an underdog.

If a general election were held today, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party probably would take the largest number of seats—which means that many sitting legislators have a strong incentive to keep the current government in power and thus avoid personal unemployment.

That backroom deals and crass political considerations will largely determine the fate of the ruling regime only adds to the palpable sense of powerlessness felt by so many Israelis. Yet even if voters get the chance to vote for a new Knesset, they won’t be able to punish or reward individual elected officials.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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