Vote for me because I’m not the other guy

Joel Cohen reports from Israel on an election in which debate about policy came a poor second to pre-pubescent bickering.

Joel Cohen

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When you get to the polling station and there are 33 small slips of paper, each containing the abbreviation of a different party’s name, a last-minute personal crisis about whether to vote for the party you thought you were going to vote for is understandable. And that was a dilemma that faced many of Israel’s 5.2 million voters on Tuesday.

The big-name traditional parties – the right-wing Likud party led by charismatic Bibi Netanyahu, the governing party Kadima (meaning ‘forward’) headed by inexperienced but eager Tzipi Livni, and Ehud Barak’s long-standing, tough-talking Labour Party – have been badmouthing each other through the nation’s media outlets from the moment that Operation Cast Lead in Gaza came to an end. Meanwhile, a plethora of ‘Google parties’ (parties so small that in order to find out who they are you have to Google them) and ‘poodle parties’ (those old favourites that everyone knows and that will probably join the government coalition irrespective of who wins), have been praying they will benefit from the fallout of inter-party temper tantrums. Such is the nature of Israel’s peculiar proportional representation electoral system, the real test of how the country voted does not come from the election itself but from the 42-day period of negotiation afterwards in which a governing coalition of parties is formed.

Electoral flier for Kadima leader
Tzipi Livni

In ‘the briefest and most nonchalant electoral season Israel has ever experienced’ (1), interrupted by a war and slap-bang in the middle of the most promising talks to date for the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, this election has been characterised by bouts of pre-pubescent bickering. Each of the major candidates has tried to sell him or herself as ‘not the other guy’ in their inescapable advertising campaigns. Kadima’s stickers read, ‘Bibi? I don’t believe him’, while Likud’s reply is a dig at Livni: ‘It’s out of her league’ (2). Labour’s campaign slogan, ‘At the right moment, Barak’, pictured all three of the major candidates in order to play on voters’ insecurities about Livni’s and Netanyahu’s credentials.

The end result was an election campaign devoid of policy, but filled with personality. ‘When it comes to the Israel agenda, war and peace conquers all’, Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post told me. And in this field, reputation, a leader’s clear-headed and stalwart attitude, is the only hallmark a candidate can offer; the ‘security and defence’ card has been played a great deal in the battle between Labour and Likud candidates in particular. Add to this the fact Israel has not had a cross-candidate public debate in over a decade, and you can see why deciphering the ideological positions of those asking for one’s vote is tough work.

Electoral poster for Yisrael
Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman

‘I tried to find out what all the parties stood for, but I still don’t know. None of them really speaks to me so I am not voting’, said a 20-year-old Tel Avivian. She wasn’t the only one who was confused. Just four days before the election, polls revealed that 29 per cent of respondents were undecided on how to vote – and over half of these were under 25 (3). Having already factored this indecisiveness into their campaigns, Kadima used the rhetoric of Obama’s US victory to try to snatch young votes, pushing a ‘Believni’ campaign and upping the presence of its activists on the streets right until polls closed at 10pm on Tuesday night.

The influence of American politics was also clear in the rhetoric of the ‘kingmaker’ of this election, Avigdor Lieberman, founder of the right-wing, anti-Arab party Yisrael Bietaynu (Israel Our Home). Under the slogan ‘No Loyalty, No Citizenship’, and waging a diplomatic civil war against non-Zionist Arab members of the Knesset, he claimed: ‘What we are suggesting is no different to the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.’ (4) Fanning mistrust amongst Jewish Israelis against their Arab neighbours, Lieberman has proved controversial. He has also won many hearts and minds, however, especially in school mock elections around the country. Perhaps, for new and future voters, 15 years of stalled ‘peace talks’ have made a martyr of any hope that there will be a satisfying settlement with the Palestinians or good relations with Israel’s own Arab population (5).

Tzipi Livni giving a public speech

To those on the left, the idea of a ‘Biberman’ right-wing coalition – between ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu and Lieberman – is a fate worse than death. ‘Lieberman is a fascist’, said Noam Lekath, a 20-year-old working with Amnesty International. The same sentiment has been articulated by many others I’ve spoken to, including political commentators and volunteer activists for the Israeli Communist Party, Hadash, and the Israeli left-wing platform, Meretz.

So, what now? Livni, having gained the highest number of seats according to both exit polls released last night and provisional results released at 7am on Wednesday morning, will be given the chance to form a governing coalition; but she will need to mediate some heated internal party feuds as well as trying to win political support from other parties. From the opposition benches, Netanyahu would try to plot Livni’s failure in the next 42 days, offering a right-wing majority of between six and eight seats the chance to hold out and form a coalition of its own, ‘leading Israel how it should be run’. The race may have reached the finish line, but it certainly isn’t over yet; and even after a governing coalition is formed, will it survive the full four-year term?

Joel Cohen is a former spiked intern and is currently on a UJIA gap year programme in Israel.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild examined the death of the ‘Zionist dream’ and said Waltz with Bashir revealed Israelis’ post-Zionist stress disorder. Mick Hume reported back from a visit to Israel. He also said Israel is not what it was and pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) Israel’s Fateful Elections, Jerusalem Post, 7 February 2009

(2) Stick ’em up, Jerusalem Post Online

(3) Haaretz Poll: Kadima, Likud are neck-and-neck with 4 days to go, Ha’aretz, 7 February 2009

(4) The Lieberman Effect, Comment is Free, 9 February 2009

(5) Lieberman’s anti-Arab ideology wins over Israel’s teens, Ha’aretz, 7 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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