Israeli Voters Left In The Dark


Israel’s election season seems to have had it all: scandals, personal attacks, verbal battles and tantrums inside factions. And now it is headed for a photo finish, as the leading parties are neck-and-neck ahead of Tuesday’s vote. But there has been one thing missing.

It’s something that Americans take for granted, the omission of which would cause outrage in the States — the party platform.

But with just a few days to go until the election, the ruling Likud party hasn’t released a formal platform, and isn’t poised to do so.

In fact, its most important policy change only became known after somebody somewhere had been bored in shul last Shabbat, and journalists subsequently dragged the news out of its campaign.

Israeli synagogues are littered with low-budget newsletters containing religious essays and political commentary, and when worshippers get bored, they peruse these publications. And it was not in a platform, or even a speech, that we learned that Benjamin Netanyahu has jettisoned his momentous 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and spurned the two-state solution. Rather, it was in a few matter-of-fact lines in one of these publications.

In more of an election guide than a news scoop, the newsletter was summarizing where different parties stand on the two-state solution. It stated that Netanyahu’s Likud is opposed, that the Bar-Ilan speech is “cancelled,” and that Netanyahu’s “entire biography” constitutes a fight against a Palestinian state. 

The policy change was only confirmed by Likud after a few journalists who read this, or talked to someone who read it, demanded clarification — and even then only after a confusing flap that initially saw the campaign dismiss the newsletter’s formulation as the position of a single lawmaker. To add to the (intentional?) confusion, this was followed by a denial from Netanyahu’s prime ministerial office that he had changed his stance on the two-state solution.

The chaos surrounding all of this epitomizes the extent to which the public has been kept in the dark during this election campaign.

The Zionist Union, Likud’s main rival, only revealed its full platform on Sunday. This is disappointing, as platforms should shape the election discourse and not simply try to influence voters who are, at the last minute, still undecided. The Zionist Union has spent far too much energy in this election season on negative campaigning, telling voters simply that they need a change but not informing them enough about what it will do if elected.

Both of these parties refused to put their leaders in the ring for the televised election debate, which, laughably, became a discussion featuring almost all the party heads apart from those who actually stand a decent chance of leading the country.

What is more, both of the main parties have left themselves enormous wiggle room on the key issue of the last election: the charedi draft. In 2013 Likud said it was determined to end the exemption from national service enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox men, and passed legislation to draft them. Now that Netanyahu is courting charedi parties as coalition partners if he wins, he claimed that he’s actually opposed to the criminal sanctions for draft evasion that his party enshrined in law, and wants to cancel them. The Zionist Union also wants to downgrade sanctions and make the draft more consensual and sanctions non-criminal.

Most of the draft law is still to be implemented, and charedi parties will certainly be planning to demand, in return for joining the next coalition, that sanctions are of an economic nature and are so soft that their community will be able to sustain them instead of having its members serve. Could the winning party in Tuesdays ballot agree? The nation has no idea — and has been steered away from focusing on this question.

It’s not only the main parties that have created the sense that politicians have spent weeks urging people to vote without clearly outlining what they are voting for.

Arabs are being pressured to vote for the Joint List — an alliance of several Arab political groups — on national and ethnic grounds, and being told that they are letting down their community if they don’t comply. (See Opinion piece on page 29.) However, nobody is explaining to them how a party that has within in Islamists as well as secular communists will conduct itself in Knesset.

Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, promises socioeconomic “revolution” in its online videos, which feature secular Israelis grappling with the cost of living. Walk around the streets of Jerusalem and Shas appears to be a completely different party. There are huge posters of Ovadia Yosef, the revered rabbi who established and ran the party but died in 2013, overlooking Jerusalem. “Father is watching from above,” screams the caption. The message is that Yosef will be peering down from heaven on the city (or on your voting paper?) on Election Day, and you are under religious obligation to vote Shas. How will Shas balance its promises to secular voters and its sectarian obligations to the ultra-Orthodox? Ask it after the ballots are counted — in election season you can be all things to all voters.

But while the Zionist Union’s last-minute release of its platform is disconcerting, and while it is unfortunate that smaller parties play their electorates while big questions go unanswered, the ruling party’s failure to release a platform is more troubling.

Israelis deserve to know where their prospective leaders stand on defense and social policy. However, Likud has created a false dichotomy between the two, and used it to try to silence the discussion on social issues, on the premise that security threats are far too important for the party to get sidetracked. Netanyahu basically said this when the state comptroller released a damning report that said that the government has failed to act as housing has become unaffordable. “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself,” he tweeted. “The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Likud’s campaign has consisted mainly of presenting Netanyahu as the only man that Israel can trust to navigate it through the next few years. This depends on one’s perspective, but however talented and fit for leadership Netanyahu may or may not be, he still owes voters a formal outline of what he wants to do. Perhaps, if voters felt that if he were listening to their concerns at home as well as preaching to them from Washington, they would have responded more positively to his speech to Congress last week.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.