“America,” Mark Twain famously quipped, “has no native criminal class—except for the Congress.” We could apply Twain’s words to Israel as well, as more and more members of the Knesset and other top officials have gone from serving the public to serving time. One important issue in Israel’s upcoming elections, in March 2015, is the popular demand for better and cleaner governance, along with a number of other socio-economic issues, making these only the second elections in Israel’s history, along with those two years ago, to be largely about domestic affairs.To foreign observers, understandably focused on the foreign policy issues of the peace process, Iran, and the dramatic changes taking place in the Middle East, this might seem a surprising, almost ostrich-like approach on the part of the Israeli electorate. Not really. The good news is that Israel has become sufficiently secure to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that preoccupy voters in elections in all “normal” countries. The peace process and Iran will still figure prominently in the campaign. They couldn’t be avoided even if Israeli voters and parties wished to do so; they just don’t dominate discourse. The bad news is that the public has simply despaired of any possibility of peace with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future and concluded that there is little Israel can do about the other foreign policy issues. In these circumstances, voters feel that they might as well focus on quality of life issues and that they can worry about the really big problems if and when they become potentially solvable.A Full Domestic PlateThe Israeli political and governmental system is still fundamentally “clean”, the seemingly endless stream of scandals notwithstanding. Americans, having experienced Tammany Hall, Watergate, and Monica’s blue dress, might take similar revelations in greater stride; these things happen in democracies, after all. But the cumulative shock effect in Israel is palpable. For all of their faults—including, at times, dubious political probity—Israel’s leaders used to be squeaky-clean financially. Numerous cases of public malfeasance in recent years clearly indicate that times have changed and that many elected officials today seek to do well by doing good. Public confidence in the political system has been shaken, leading to the feeling that “they are all corrupt”, a corrosive perception in a democracy.Many voters have thus been looking for an elusive “Mr. Clean” to give a new look to politics generally and for a fresh new face to save the day. The electoral collapse of the new darling of the most recent elections, Yair Lapid, has not prevented the appearance of another new star this time around, Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon, with a warm, easygoing public persona, unfortunately has a CV that grows somewhat thin once one gets beyond his successful reform of Israel’s telecoms industry. To be sure, it took political skill, as Minister of Communications, to navigate the conflicting interests, but lowering Israelis’ cellphone bills hardly constitutes a test of national leadership abilities. Kahlon’s new list of candidates for his “Koolanu” party, which includes one “superstar”, a renowned former general, also includes a number of interesting fresh faces, but no one of true prominence who is likely to stir any excitement.The Israeli electoral system is one of the most democratic in the world, providing representation for virtually every shade of public opinion. Unlike American- or British-style winner-takes-all systems, in which nearly half the electorate is essentially unrepresented at any given time, virtually everyone in Israel is represented (under a new law the electoral threshold has been raised to 3.25 percent, or four seats in the Knesset, still low when compared with other parliamentary democracies). The price, however, has been a growing problem of governability. With endless pressure from various public groups and a national decision-making machinery that has long suffered from a variety of pathologies, ministers and ministries simply cannot make certain vital decisions, make others under pressure or far too late, and at times reverse themselves to the detriment of all concerned. The need for major reforms in the areas of health, education, housing, and even national security strategy are common to many countries, but the ability of Israel’s governmental system to deliver these public goods is increasingly in question.The governability issue is not new. Indeed it has plagued Israel for some decades, but it has begun to reach untenable proportions and is further exacerbated by electoral cycles repeatedly held at two- to three-year intervals. The previous Netanyahu-led coalition, which collapsed two years ago, was actually the only government since the 1950s to just about live out its full four-year term. What might be generously considered an over-fondness on the part of Israel’s citizens for exercising their democratic right to vote actually reflects a breakdown in the national consensus and prevents any significant capacity for long-term policy planning, while undermining ongoing governance.The governability issue is also driving the public clamor to end the untenable rise in the cost of living expenses almost everywhere in Israel. To its credit, in less than conducive geopolitical circumstances, Israel has succeeded in achieving a mid-European per-capita GDP, already higher than that of France’s and rapidly closing in on Britain’s.1 Yet given high taxation, the cost of cars is double that of the U.S., while housing has become beyond the reach of young couples and various add-ons to “free” public education make raising children an ever-greater burden. The media are full of examples of products, including domestically made ones, that cost far more in Israel than they do abroad. The Israeli middle class simply feels swamped by endlessly rising costs with which it cannot keep up. Issues of synagogue-state, including the exemption from military service for the ultra-orthodox as well as the ruinous government subsidies they receive, further enervate the middle class. The middle class in Israel has long been the backbone of the national defense effort; its economic pain isn’t just a social issue but a threat to national security. It was the primary focus of the elections two years ago, and will be this time as well.The vital need for electoral reform has emerged as a primary issue in the upcoming elections, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons; Prime Minister Netanyahu seized on it in his search for a catchy gimmick that would enable him to present himself as a reformer and sway enough voters to secure another term. Under the reform he is championing, which is designed to address the governability issue, the head of the largest party would automatically be named premier for a full four-year term, barring extreme circumstances.With the identity of the new premier known immediately, and his position ensured and strengthened, it is hoped that the unseemly political machinations that have characterized the formation of coalitions in all previous elections will be greatly curtailed and that parties will have a far greater incentive to continue to play along with a premier whose four-year term is guaranteed. The new system is also designed to provide parties with an incentive to coalesce and form larger ones, in order to be the largest party and gain the premiership, thereby reducing the political fragmentation in the Knesset and further improving governability. The proposal, which has slowly gained support over the last three decades, was probably misguided to begin with, at a time when there were a few large parties. It is surely so today, when there are no longer any big parties and the difference in size between some small to medium-sized ones may amount to one or two seats. For Netanyahu, however, bent as he is on political survival in what will be a very narrow race, the proposal makes sense, assuming his Likud party ekes out a tiny plurality. Hopefully the Knesset will consider alternate reforms as well, if the issue actually gains traction.Daunting Foreign Policy Challenges Most Israelis today see no prospect of an accord with the Palestinians. Part of this reflects frustration with a lack of initiative on the part of Israel’s leadership in recent years, along with the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of every offer ever made to them, no matter how far-reaching. Many in the international community have boiled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to two words, occupation and settlements, not understanding that its sources are far deeper, and that the contours of an agreement on the settlements issue are known and actually far more easy to resolve than the two primary sticking issues, Jerusalem and the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for all refugees. The real question that voters ask themselves today is whether the conflict is over the 1967 borders, or really a continuation of the conflict in 1948, when Israel was established. In other words, they wonder whether the Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution that requires them to live in peace, alongside a Jewish and democratic Israel, under any circumstances.Moreover, Hamas’ mini-state in Gaza, a violent and corrupt theocracy explicitly dedicated to Israel’s destruction, is the embodiment of every Israeli nightmare of what a future Palestinian state will look like in the West Bank. Just five months after the last major round with Hamas in Gaza, the media are rife with speculation as to how soon major rocket fire will be renewed (there have already been a number of incidents) and the next operation conducted, in what appears to be an insoluble cycle of hostilities. Until Gaza reunites with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, however, and this does not appear to be in the offing for the foreseeable future, no final peace agreement is possible in any event, regardless of the government in office in Israel. To make matters worse, it is not just political and religious strife that drives the conflict with Gaza, but its burgeoning population; a whopping 43 percent are under the age of 14, while unemployment is endemic. In the absence of any political, economic, and personal hope, Gaza will continue to explode, regardless of a potential political settlement with Israel. In the meantime, most Israeli voters are merely hoping for a more prolonged period of calm before the next round with Hamas, rather than a breakthrough to peace.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is moderate in demeanor and seemingly open to a peace deal, but his actual positions in the negotiations have been hardline and at times surprising. Increasingly lacking in public legitimacy, Abbas may still be the best Palestinian partner Israel has ever had, or is likely to have for the foreseeable future—the non-Arafat, the first Palestinian leader ostensibly truly willing to reach a deal. That just makes it even more perplexing that Abbas could have walked away from the dramatic proposal Prime Minister Olmert put on the table in 2008 (a withdrawal from the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, with a 6.5 percent land swap, and a division of Jerusalem).2 That he did so lends credence to a truly disturbing possibility: that Abbas rejected the deal because Olmert was unwilling to make a major concession on one issue–the Palestinian demand for an unlimited return of refugees to Israel—and further that the Israeli Prime Minister demanded that the proposed deal constitute an end to the conflict and all future Palestinian claims.If after nearly 70 years the Palestinians still adhere to their claim of a “right of return”, i.e. a full return of all refugees (700,000 to 750,000 in 1948 and now some five million, including all descendants, according to UNRWA), and are unwilling to accept that a final agreement will, indeed, constitute an end to the conflict, the prospects for peace are not encouraging. There is a broad national consensus in Israel, from left to right, against compromising on these issues, and the Palestinian refusal to give up these goals raises doubts among Israeli voters regarding their fundamental willingness to reach a deal. The settlements act as a lightning rod that distracts international attention from this important problem and from the broad international support Israel actually enjoys on these issues. A new government, willing to halt the settlements and make other major concessions, as were premiers Rabin, Peres, Barak, and Olmert, will be elected at some point once again and will have the opportunity to renew the public’s faith in the peace process. It will be an uphill battle. Most voters believe that Israel will still face Palestinian rejectionism.A majority of the Israeli public, which does not support unlimited settlements (at least outside the three settlement blocs that most actors recognize will remain part of Israel in a final agreement, in exchange for a land swap), is simply tired of dealing with the issue and with the pro-settlement constituency, a sizable and motivated minority, but a minority nonetheless. At a time when a final peace agreement is thought to be unreachable due to Palestinian positions and internal divisions, and after decades of failure by Israel’s electoral system to produce a clear mandate on the issue, most Israeli voters have concluded that they might as well focus on day-to-day issues such as the cost of housing, leaving the settlements for the future.Understandable though this may be, it is a dangerous illusion, and one of the primary reasons these elections are so critical. Some argue that it is already too late for a “two-state solution”, that the two populations are already too intertwined, and there is no doubt that the passage of time has made a separation between the two peoples that much harder. This, however, is a defeatist approach; a line can still be drawn, though time is certainly a factor.The settlement issue has been with us for decades, and as long as the vast majority of ongoing settlement activity continues to be within the three settlement blocs, a few years’ delay in decision-making about them will not make a fundamental difference. The hard truth at the core of the problem, however, cannot be avoided. Already today, Israel’s Arab citizens and the Palestinians of the West Bank—approximately 1.7 million and 2.7 million respectively—constitute nearly 40 percent of the total population under Israeli control (compared to a Jewish population of approximately 6 million). By 2030 these figures are expected to rise to 46 percent of the total population, and the 50 percent mark is not far off, raising grave questions about Israel’s ability to maintain its identity as a Jewish state. Even a country that is 40 percent non-Jewish would scarcely resemble the Zionist dream of a stable and vibrantly Jewish homeland.Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of diplomatic progress, tensions and the prospects for violence will grow worse. Following the bloody horrors of the second Intifada, Israel has now enjoyed nearly a decade of little to no terrorism, although there has been an alarming uptick in recent months. A third Intifada may not be in the offing, but the next confrontation in the West Bank will probably take on a new character and may be even more violent than the previous ones. As time passes, and in the absence of significant terror attacks, more and more Israelis become inured to the current situation. Ask the average citizen today where the “Green Line” (the 1967 border) runs and the answers may be surprising; for most it has blurred and areas that were once destined to be transferred to the Palestinians in future agreements are now viewed in the popular imagination as being part of Israel proper.In the absence of diplomatic progress, and as despair grows on both sides, various plans for a “one-state solution” have gained increasing currency, still mostly on the Palestinian side, but increasingly also among such demographically-blind Israelis as religious party leader Naftali Bennett and the new (ceremonial but still influential) President, Reuven Rivlin. In fact, the concept of a “one-state solution” is not new at all; it is what the Arab side has pushed for from the earliest days of the conflict, since such a country is sure either to start out as an Arab-majority state, or rapidly become one. It thus has no prospects of being accepted by Israel, which will not forgo its raison d’être as a Jewish and democratic state. Most Palestinians do not really want a solution of this sort either. Despair, however, breeds a search for alternatives, illusory though they may be. In this case we have the advantage of knowing what a “one-state solution” would look like; it is called Syria, or Iraq, where Shi’a and Sunnis were artificially forced to live together. It requires a leap of faith to imagine that Jews and Muslims would do significantly better. The record so far, at least, is less than encouraging.This long-brewing problem is reaching a tipping point, nonetheless, and will have to be resolved in the not-distant future. At the least, Israel will have to change the international perception that it is the intransigent side, or pay a price in international isolation and sanctions that a majority of Israelis are unwilling to suffer. Israel simply cannot afford international isolation of the kind it now faces, certainly not the prospects of even a somewhat less intimate relationship with the U.S., on which its national security is largely founded.The decisions that Israel faces in the coming years will stretch its society to the breaking point. Indeed, they may entail some limited internecine bloodshed; certainly brother will turn against brother on an ideological and political level, over what are truly wrenching issues. Israel’s friends should be supportive, and its detractors at least understanding. In the great tradition of democracies, Israel will make these decisions far too late and in more difficult circumstances than otherwise necessary, but as a fundamentally healthy democracy committed to its future as a Jewish and democratic state, it will make them. A number of Prime Ministers were willing to do so in recent years (Rabin, Barak, Olmert). When that happens again, we will see whether the Palestinians are willing to reach a deal, or whether fundamental Palestinian rejectionism, as most Israelis believe, is the real reason for the absence of progress in the peace process.The Iranian nuclear issue may soon reach a head; it will certainly reach a turning point shortly after Israel’s elections, with the end of the current extension of the interim deal between Iran and the P6, set for July 1. A further extension is more than possible. Kicking the problem down the field to the next Administration may be an acceptable outcome for President Obama, and so the new Israeli government may be spared the need for historic decisions. The other two possibilities, of either a breakthrough and long-term agreement, or a collapse of talks, will pose far more difficult dilemmas. Israel will have to decide whether the compromise reached truly neutralizes the Iranian threat, at least for the duration of the agreement, and thus meets its minimum-security requirements, or whether military action will constitute the least bad of the bad options it faces. Unless a new and moderate government is elected, and rapidly achieves international legitimacy through an early diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian issue, Israel will be hard-pressed to launch a military attack in the current international environment, especially in the absence of American backing.There are two broad schools of thought on the Iranian nuclear issue in Israel. One holds that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel in the narrowest, most mortal, sense of the word. The exigencies of realpolitik may mandate some tactical flexibility along the way, but the logical conclusion from this approach is that Israel must ultimately do everything in its power to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, because all of the alternatives, bad as they may be, are worse. The second school of thought believes that a nuclear Iran probably does not pose a direct existential threat, though it does not discount the possibility, and that Iran, extremist though it is, is a “rational actor” and thus can be deterred. For this school of thought, Iran is “merely” a dire threat, one that will likely be manifested only at the sub-nuclear level in a variety of possible future confrontations. This is bad enough in itself and warrants a decision to do everything reasonable within Israel’s power to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, but not everything possible. The difference in approaches may be fine, but is highly significant; it is the difference between viewing military action as ultimately unavoidable, unless a highly unlikely airtight agreement is reached, and expecting to respond flexibly to the threat with a variety of strategies short of direct military action. These two schools of thought are embodied today in the persons of Netanyahu on the one side, and his Labor competitors on the other, the two-headed team of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.The Middle East is changing all around Israel today. The dramatic events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region are parts of a far broader tectonic battle for supremacy between the Sunni world and the Iranian-led Shi’a camp. It is a historic struggle that will shape the contours of the Middle East for decades to come, but one which Israel can effect, at most, on the margins and which the majority of the Israeli electorate seeks to have no part in, even though Israel has major strategic interests at stake. For the most part, Israel has managed to stay out of the fray to date, but the outbreak of violence with Hamas last summer was a partial exception. The ISIS-affiliated forces deployed along what was once Israel’s border with Syria and the growing signs of ISIS activity in the Palestinian territories and Jordan are also worrisome. Whoever is elected will likely continue Netanyahu’s policy of trying to keep Israel out of these developments to the extent possible, though it is hard to imagine that Israel can long remain largely immune to such dramatic regional events.A final foreign policy issue that will be of concern to voters is the dramatic downturn in Israel’s international standing; it is increasingly isolated, and the risk of sanctions being imposed over its West Bank policies, even by otherwise friendly countries, is growing. Initial hints of such sanctions have already sufficed to produce heated responses from all parts of Israel’s political spectrum, and concern that international pressure during the electoral campaign may throw the elections to the opposing camp. The downturn in relations with the Obama Administration is of greatest concern. Though part of it is immanent in the Administration’s approach to Israel and the Middle East generally, the public recognizes that much is due to the policies adopted by Netanyahu. The common wisdom in Israel has long held that no one who has mismanaged the all-important relationship with the U.S. can be elected. This remains to be seen. One way or another, however, the next premier will have to devote considerable efforts to repairing relations with the Obama Administration during its remaining period in office, or at a minimum, pave the way for a resumption of good relations with the next Administration. Nothing is more important for Israel; indeed, it is questionable whether Israel could survive today without American support.The “Big Bang Theory” of Israeli PoliticsThe old division between hawk and dove, left and right, has lost much of its meaning in Israel, both on socio-economic and foreign policy issues. Much of the right, including Netanyahu and even Foreign Minister Lieberman, head of a hard-right party, speak today in terms that would have been considered dovish and leftist in the past, supporting a two-state solution which would entail territorial compromise and the dismantling of some settlements. The left has come to share much of the right’s skepticism regarding the Palestinians’ willingness to reach an agreement, while the Intifada and endless rocket fire have led to far greater appreciation of the right’s emphasis on security needs. On most socio-economic issues the differences between the Israeli left and right have not been great for decades and voters are tired of the old party system and the government’s ongoing inability to provide answers to their needs. A realignment of Israeli politics has been brewing for years, and indeed began with the previous elections.Labor had an uninterrupted run of 29 years in power, Likud has enjoyed a longer run, but one which has been repeatedly interrupted with center-left governments. Today, Likud is a spent force, with polls predicting seats in the low twenties, just one of a few mid-sized parties. Labor’s Herzog united with Livni to form a new and fresh-looking party, which is expected to vie with Likud for a similar number of seats and possibly the premiership. Netanyahu will likely still be the premier, because of coalition mechanics, but the gloss is off and he is nearing the end of his tenure. His decision to call new elections after just two years speaks volumes. The next government is unlikely to demonstrate much greater longevity, further feeding the demands for electoral reform.Shas, formerly the seemingly unstoppable electoral juggernaut of the ultra-orthodox Sephardic community, has split and polls indicate that one half will face difficulty crossing the electoral threshold, while the other will be weakened at best. Avigdor Lieberman, formerly the enfant terrible of the far right, now seeking a more moderate image necessary to contest the premiership, has begun speaking in highly centrist, if not outright dovish terms, but his party is deeply embroiled in scandal and is expected to lose much of its strength. Under Naftali Bennett’s dynamic leadership, his religious party is gaining ground, including among secular right-wing voters, and will likely be the third largest. The “new darling” of the upcoming elections, and his now faded predecessor from the last elections, Kahlon and Lapid respectively, will probably both achieve respectable outcomes, though less than they hoped, as they vie for the some 20 percent of Israel’s truly swing voters. All together the picture is of a political system in search of a new direction.Analysts like to dub all elections “historic,” and I have certainly considered all of Israel’s elections during the last couple of decades as such. To be sure, there is no “strategic stopwatch” and it is not a matter of “this election or else”. Israel can—and in the absence of a clear popular candidate in March—may have to continue muddling through for a few more years. However, the issues of the peace process and future of the West Bank, Iranian nuclear program, and the myriad array of domestic challenges Israel faces, are reaching a climax and will have to be resolved, one way or the other, in the coming years. The turning point may or may not come in the upcoming elections, but it will have to happen in the not distant future.
1According to the CIA World Factbook, Israel’s per capita GDP in 2013 was $36,200, France $35,700 and Britain $37,300 (all in Purchasing Power Parity terms).2See Condoleezza Rice’s account of Olmert’s proposal and Abbas’ response, in “No Higher Honor”, (Crown , 2011), pp. 615, 723.