JERUSALEM – Israel is an island of success in a sea of failure, what the Arabs call “fauda” – anarchy or chaos. The Arabs have a saying about this kind of chaos: Alf sana istibdaad, wa la sana fauda, which means “Give us a thousand years of dictatorship, but not a year of chaos.”
Well, the year of fauda has arrived for Israel.
The sad truth is that the chaos in the Arab-Islamic world is deepening because of deep social, cultural and educational problems. From North Africa to Iraq, almost every Arab state faces decline and chaos, but the sadder truth is that Israel, with all its advantages, has decided to inflict chaos on itself in the form of two and maybe three elections in less than a year.
So, without further ado, here’s the news from Israel, offered realistically, not dogmatically. First the bad news, then worse news, and then the worst news yet, all followed by explanations.
The bad news is that Israel’s political stalemate will likely lead to new elections, costing Israel a lot of money and maybe a considerable amount of blood. The left does not have a chance to form a stable government, despite rumors or “in-depth reports” from various sources. Meanwhile, both the Likud and Blue and White, a centrist political alliance, are placing obstacles in the way of setting up a prime ministerial rotation agreement.
Worse, the right and the left face serious internal crises – of policy and personality – that could make even a third round of elections inconclusive.
Avigdor Lieberman, once a close aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, comes from the right. Today, he detests Netanyahu to such a degree that he would prefer new elections (a third time and maybe even a fourth) to giving him even a short period as prime minister in a shared government.
Worse yet, a third or even fourth election could leave Israel less than prepared for serious war threats and mounting internal social problems, all of which have been neglected in the last 18 months of electioneering.
“On both the northern and southern fronts, the situation is tense and fragile, and it could deteriorate into a confrontation,” observed Israel Defense Forces Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Kochavi is no shrinking violet, nor a politician. So when the decorated paratrooper, widely held in high regard, says Israel faces ominous threats, he is not pushing merely for a bigger budget.
If Israel’s politicians could put strategic policy on the front burner and partisan politics in back, they could form a national unity government. The problem is, almost all the country’s parties face personal and political instabilities that make anything beyond short-term survival decision-making unlikely.
The Zionist left holds only 11 of the 120 seats in Knesset. A new “center-left” prefers to emphasize “center” because “left” is so unpopular. With the hybrid Blue and White of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, it has 44.
Gantz is a likable ex-army chief without any charisma or clear ideology. Lapid is an attractive and well-spoken journalist who made a name for himself as a secularist politician. They are an unstable mixture, but they give a “centrist” heft to the left. Such combinations have collapsed before, and Gantz & Co. may split if they cannot form a government.
Blue and White is really a big protest vote against Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, who currently faces corruption charges. If Netanyahu is the Coca-Cola of Israeli politics, Gantz et al. are Seven-Up: the un-cola. Yet their un-cola appeal may not overcome the left’s electability problems.
One of the most popular insults in Israel today is to describe someone as smolani, a leftist. It’s almost a curse. Therefore we must ask: Why is “left” so unpopular in Israel?
First: The left’s demographic base (left-leaning Ashkenazi Jews) has been gradually replaced by more Israeli-born and Sephardi Jews with a rightist cast.
Second and third: The Zionist left in Israel has always stood on two legs – the economic leg of socialism or social democracy, and the political leg of political accommodation with Israel’s neighbors. Both those legs are broken.
Israel’s left has been contracting for years. Labor ran the country for 29 years. Now it is a party with five measly seats – and it might disappear entirely in a new election. The right and the religious parties have 55 seats (without Lieberman’s eight), but the right’s real electoral clout is probably between 63 and 70 seats.
The right’s big problem is Netanyahu. He has been its main vote-getter, but is now its main embarrassment. As he seeks a fifth term, he is under a lingering cloud of alleged corruption.
Even if two of the three criminal cases against him are on shaky factual and legal grounds, there is no denying that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have engaged in questionable behavior by accepting and actually demanding expensive gifts from friends.
The prime minister’s situation is like the joke about the Jewish housewife in Poland.
After her Sabbath chicken falls into a vat of kerosene, she rinses it off and rushes to the rabbi for counseling. “Is it kosher?” she asks the rabbi plaintively. “Yes, it’s kosher,” says the rabbi. “But it stinks.”
Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of “Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.” He has also worked as a reporter at The New York Times and Cox Newspapers, and as a war correspondent for Israel’s Army Radio and diplomatic correspondent for Israel Television in English.