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.
Israeli legislators avoid any personal accountability, as there are no districts and voters nationwide only pull the lever for one party. Thus no one in the Knesset specifically represents the interests of, say, wineries in the Golan Heights or the beleaguered residents of Sderot, the development town near the Gaza border that has been the target of thousands of rockets in recent years.
Much like a child left unsupervised, politicians who risk minimal consequences for their actions cannot be trusted to behave responsibly. This is probably as much to blame as any other factor for the disconnect between the Israeli electorate and the people they’ve put into power.
One of Israel’s savviest pollsters, Keevoon CEO Mitchell Barak, believes that Israeli voters will be in a funk for a while. Pointing to extensive polling and focus groups he’s conducted, Barak says, “Israelis feel that this is a leadership crisis. They see no real leaders. What compounds their frustration is that they see no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no next generation of leadership in the wings being groomed to take over in 5 or 10 years.”
Here’s the way many Israelis view their two main options for the next prime minister: either a former head of state whom voters simply don’t like very much or an untested woman who promises to defend the nation, but without stating how. As for the head of the Labor Party, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (no relation to the pollster), is remembered for offering Yasser Arafat the world—and getting nothing in response but the campaign of suicide bombings called the intifada. Barak has no chance at becoming the next prime minister.
Despite a relatively secure and economically fruitful three-year tenure as prime minister from 1996-1999, Netanyahu suffers from reminiscence in reverse. Life under past leaders often ends up being remembered more favorably than it was seen at the time—think of President George H.W. Bush. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the opposite has happened to him.
Netanyahu actually has two factors working in his favor: 1) he correctly predicted the dire consequences of the Gaza withdrawal, and 2) he’s broadly seen as having rescued the national economy. Tainting most of his political capital is the fact that most Israelis just don’t like him as a person—and that includes even many of his supporters.
But at least Israelis know what to expect from Netanyahu. Not so with Livni. Not only has does she have no track record running the government, but she’s pointedly refused to give specifics on how she would protect the Jewish state from terrorism or the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. Channeling Frank Sinatra, she has said repeatedly, “I’ll do it my own way.” Absent is any mention of what, exactly, that means.
Then again, security is almost a non-issue in Israel these days—rather odd considering the daily threat of suicide bombings in cafés and buses is barely in the rearview mirror. In light of the military failings against Hezbollah and the constant futility of “peace talks,” many Israelis feel that Livni could do no worse defending Israel than someone with a security background or a former prime minister.
Of course, such sentiments could be right. But if they’re not, who becomes the next prime minister would very much matter.