Pity the Israeli Voter
No matter which party is in power, Israelis will end up disappointed.
An Israeli voter is not to be envied. So many parties to choose from, so many promises to be tempted by—the voter knows that most of these are empty promises—and so many post-election scenarios to take into account.
An Israeli voter is not to be envied—nor to be believed. In survey after survey, he or she tells the pollsters what they expect to hear: Economic issues are the top concern, social justice is a top concern, Iran is a top concern. And yet very few can differentiate among the parties’ platforms when it comes to dealing with these issues. All parties are against nuclear Iran; all want peace on Israel’s terms; all are in favor of lower prices and a more reasonably priced housing market; and all agree that the gap between rich and poor should be narrowed.
And how? How will they achieve all of these things? The Israeli voter knows not to invest the time in reading party platforms. Many parties do not even bother to have any: They know voters won’t bother to read them, and voters know that the parties won’t bother to follow up. In a parliamentary system, when parties have to live with other parties in an uneasy alliance, the excuse for not keeping promises is ready-made. It is always the fault of a coalition partner. In this most recent campaign, Yair Lapid said he could not be the finance minister that he wanted to be because of disruptions initiated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Netanyahu said he could not fix what needed fixing because of the incompetence of a finance minister (Lapid) whom he was forced to appoint.
There is no need to believe the voters when they give fancy explanations to justify their decisions. Most of them follow tribal instincts—the traditional Sephardic voters of Shas, the Zionist-religious voters of Habayit Hayehudi, the Russian-born voters of Avigdor Lieberman, the secular Tel Avivian voters of Meretz, the my-family-always-supported-Likud Labor voters of Likud/Labor. Yes, these are all stereotypes that the voters do not appreciate, but, with few exceptions, they cover a lot of Israel’s political ground.
And then there are the perennial undecided voters, or, as Israelis call them, “kolot tzafim”—floating votes. This time, in mid-February, a survey found enough floating votes to determine 28 Knesset seats. Another survey found 20 percent of voters still floating. Historically, the floating votes are not fully committed to a tribe and shop around for the trendy message of each election cycle. In this cycle, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu wooed voters with a promise to lower the cost of living—the way Kahlon lowered the cost of cellular phones when he was communications minister under Netanyahu. Back in the 1990s, Yair Lapid’s father gathered such votes with a fierce anti-haredi campaign. In 2013, similar floaters flocked to Lapid the son and his Yesh Atid party at the last minute, giving him a 19-seat election surprise.
But the rest of the story was not much of a surprise. Rather, it was the story that repeats itself with many such last-minute parties. Yesh Atid misused its 19 seats in the Knesset and achieved little. In this election cycle, yet again, it showed its mettle in running an effective campaign, but it has yet to prove that it can contribute to an effective government.
Many Israelis float until the very last minute, awaiting some revelation that will guide them toward the better option. Alas, there is no “better option.” Not when it comes to ideology, where most options are pretty much the same. Netanyahu and Labor’s Isaac Herzog, Kahlon and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, Lapid and Lieberman are not that far apart on most important issues. They have different tones, and they emphasize different messages by way of showing off to their respective constituencies. But Herzog knows that a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority is not an achievable goal; he knows that his own election slogan on billboards all across the country—“Zero poor elderly within a year”—is a laughable promise that can’t be kept. And Netanyahu, for his part, knows that Herzog is neither the post-Zionist nor the anti-Zionist portrayed by the unstylish Likud Party campaign. Herzog is a traditional Labor Party hawk on most issues, not a dreamy leftist.
An Israeli voter is not to be envied: His choices seem many, but they are few. If he is highly ideological, right or left, he can vote for parties that will not make much of a difference. If he is highly committed to a certain “camp,” he can vote for the party for which most of his friends are also going to vote. If he is floating, he can toss a coin. Chances are, the party he votes for will disappoint him. Chances are, the more fashionable the party, the less likely it is to survive for very long. (Dash, Shinui, Tzomet, Kadima—the proof is easy to find.) Chances are, within a year he’ll find it quite difficult to explain why he voted for this and not for that. Chances are that he miscalculated and voted for a party that joined a coalition he dislikes, or refrained from joining a coalition he likes.
An Israeli voter is not to be envied. Looking at the emerging options of a next Israeli coalition, he is very likely to face, within two years or so, a dilemma not much different from the one of 2015.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist,editor and researcher. He writes daily for the LA Jewish Journal and is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times.