Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The West Bank Robber

The day after Israel’s iconic journalist Yair Lapid announced he was quitting his lucrative job at Channel 2 to run for Knesset, former soccer star Eric Cantona declared he was throwing his hat into the ring for France’s upcoming presidential election. While Cantona is only running for PR purposes and will probably gather 1% of the votes, Lapid is expected to conquer 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and thus to be the next government’s kingmaker.

Besides his anticlerical views (which he inherited from his late father Tommy, himself a journalist turned politician), Yair Lapid has no platform. The fact that in Israel a prospective politician does not need a clear platform in order to become major player in the Knesset goes to show what is wrong with Israel’s voting system. Israel has no district elections for the Knesset. The entire country itself constitutes a single district. Voters don’t select district representatives but political parties whose number of seats in the Knesset is proportional to the amount of votes received by the parties at the polls (which is why this voting system is known as “proportional representation”). Because Israel has no district elections, providing viable solutions to constituents’ daily lives is not a criterion for gathering support. Rather, the most critical ingredient for getting voters’ attention is simply fame (hence did Noam Shalit, the father of Israel’s most famous kidnapped soldier, also announce this week that he would run for Knesset).

Yair Lapid’s meteoric rise in the polls is yet another confirmation that Israel should replace proportional representation with majority representation based on district elections. Rather than cowardly trying to prevent Lapid from running for Knesset with a tailored-made law that would impose a one-year cooling-off period to journalists who decide to go into politics, our lawmakers should better reform a voting system that encourages populism and eschews accountability.

But the “Lapid Effect” also confirms the parochialism of the Israeli electorate and the hypocrisy of the Israeli Left.

Why, after all, vote for a “Lapid Party” that would merely be the repetition of past failures? Israel has had many “centrist” parties that attempted to challenge both Likud and Labor: “Dash” in 1977, the Center Party in 1999, “Shinui” in 2003, and even Kadima in 2006. None of those parties lasted, because they did not provide an ideological and practical alternative to the authentic divide between Right and Left –a divide that stems from two opposite readings of human nature, as well as of man’s ability to change reality.

As for the Left’s warm welcome of Lapid’s decision, it goes to show what the Left in Israel really cares about. After all, Lapid is no peacenik and no socialist. He is even an avowed Zionist. A Tel-Aviv bourgeois, Lapid is economically conservative. Though he favors withdrawing from the West Bank, he no longer believes that doing so will bring peace. In a column he wrote for Yediot Aharonot on June 13, 2006, Lapid admitted that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza had nothing to do with peace or with demography. Rather, its purpose was “to teach the settlers a lesson.”

So if Lapid does not believe in peace, in socialism, and in multiculturalism, why is the Left so excited about the power he would likely wield in the Knesset? Because what the Israeli Left really cares about is not peace, nor socialism or multiculturalism. What it really cares about is getting out of the West Bank. And Yair Lapid may help attain that goal. This is why Yediot Aharonot columnist Sima Kadmon wrote on January 9 that “Lapid must be the man who will manage to put an end to the prominence that the Right has enjoyed for too long.” The same way that Tommy Lapid’s 15 MKs enabled Sharon to “teach a lesson” to the Jews of Gaza, the Israeli Left hopes that Yair Lapid’s expected 15 MKs will force (or enable) Israel’s next Prime Minister to “teach a lesson” to the Jews of Judea and Samaria.

As the Hebrew saying goes: “We’ve seen that movie before.” And there is a reason why the Israeli Left wants to watch the movie again. Rather than becoming a politician, Yair Lapid would in fact turn into a film actor –just like Eric Cantona after he left Manchester United.



i could not agree with you more- the electoral system in Israel leads to weak leaders, and there is no one accountable to the good people.

Marcoroz said...

Brilliant analysis - as usual.

Yuval said...

Why is this 'hypocrisy' on the part of the 'left'? Isn't it rather plausible that there is a reasonably large constituency of liberals (in the broad historical sense of that term) in Israel whose politics are, as you say, bourgeois? Why should people like this desire socialism or 'multiculturalism' (or, for that matter, peace, given certain pessimistic readings of the other side's intentions)?
You are creating a strawman dilemma between two highly caricatured poles of Israeli politics with 'different readings of human nature'. Aside from the highly romanticized interpretation of Israeli right wing politics that this has (how much does Gush Emunim, or Beginistic populism have in common with Burke or contemporary Neo-cons or Thomas Sowell?), this is a convenient and unhelpful way to peg the Israeli 'left' as a bunch of post modern, tree hugging communists. In fact, as the Israeli hard left (i.e. Mapam and onwards) has always contended, the Israeli mainstream 'left' has never been purely left wing (thank god!). The fact that the liberal wing of Israeli politics has never been able to form a solid political bloc is a longstanding problem, but please don't wish the phenomenon away by attributing this to grandstanding, lack of conviction, or hypocrisy.