(Political) Resurrection in the Holy Land


(Political) Resurrection in the Holy Land

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

When an American President or British Prime Minister leaves the scene after a political defeat, it marks the end of a political career (see: Jimmy Carter, George Bush the Elder, John Major, et al). The Land of Israel, however, is used to resurrections of all sorts – especially the political type.

How else to explain the incredible comebacks of Yitzchak Rabin (15 years after leaving the office after a minor financial scandal) and now Binyamin Netanyahu (after a disastrous electoral defeat in 1999 and an even worse election debacle in 2006), who has just been officially nominated by the State President to try and form a governing coalition? What does this say about Israeli society, the Israeli system, and/or the Israeli electorate?

First the good news: the Israeli public demands a long comeback and some proof of continued capability. As mentioned above, Rabin had to wait 15 years, in the meanwhile (re)proving himself as Defense Minister; Bibi has had to wait 10 years since the end of his former prime ministership, in the meanwhile serving as an excellent Finance Minister.  Moreover, Israelis do not automatically enable political resurrection. Thus, despite Ehud Barak’s professional work recently as Defense Minister (at least militarily-tactically, the Gaza campaign was carried out in almost exemplary fashion), the Labor Party with Barak at its head collapsed electorally in the recent election to the lowest point in the party’s history.

The bad news: such resurrections are further evidence of Israel’s broken election (and representation) system. Forget for the moment that coalition building has become an almost insuperable problem with so many parties needed to form a government, and that once formed the lifespan of recent governments has been short indeed. Beyond this is the underlying problem in which the Israeli electorate has no direct way of voting for its leaders and representatives. True, there are party primaries in which the candidates for the party list are chosen, but only a very small percentage of Israelis bother to register as party members (and it also costs some money to register as a party member), so that these lists are not very “representative” of the wider party’s constituency. And if a specific candidate does not function properly in the eyes of the broad electorate, as long as that party leader maintains party popularity among the narrow membership base, s/he can continue serving “forever”.

Put another way, it is extremely difficult for Obama-type new faces to make it relatively quickly up the ladder to a position of leadership. Even Tzippi Livni – a relatively “new face” – has been in the Knesset for ten years! And she became a candidate for prime minister only due to completely unexpected circumstances: PM Sharon’s coma and then PM Olmert’s corruption investigations.

This is not to say that only “the system” is to blame. One can well understand Israelis, constantly faced with existential threats to the nation, gravitating back to the tried and true (albeit flawed) – instead of the fresh but unknown (and perhaps even more flawed?) – leader.

So if you think that you have seen the last of Ehud Olmert, get ready for a surprise. Assuming that he can finalize the Gilad Shalit return to Israel before leaving office, and then can overcome his judicial problems, we might well see him running for the prime ministership in 2012 or 2016 at the head Kadima. If that thought does not get the new government moving seriously in the direction of major election reform, then nothing will!

Feb. 20, 2009

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