I am an optimist, and new elections generally inspire me to hope. As new parties and new personalities enter into the fray, I find myself anticipating the new ideas and thinking that will enter into our political discourse and open up new horizons for Israel.
This optimism often causes me to vote for the latest new party, the one that has not yet disappointed me. My track record hasn’t been that great, but as an optimist, I am not inclined to allow past failures to colour my hope for the future.
This election season started with great promise, and, indeed, new parties and very talented individuals have emerged across the political spectrum. The problem is that this influx hasn’t generated the expected new ideas. It is possible that this is the consequence of an election whose outcome is already clear, with the only issue up for grabs being the elements that will constitute the right-wing bloc that will lead the country afterward – whether Likud-Beiteinu will get 35 or 38 seats, or Habayit Hayehudi, 12 or 15.
The parties aren’t campaigning to win, for it is already clear who will win. The campaign is about increasing one’s party size by one or two seats over the latest projections and most significantly, avoiding mistakes that might lead to a decline of one to two seats.
These elections are boring. Not only are they challenging for an unrepentant optimist such as me, they are also dangerous for Israel and its future. Israel and Zionism are about ideas, about ways in which the national homeland of the Jewish People will represent and embody aspirations for justice, decency and intelligence within our foreign, military, economic and social policies. They are about creating an exemplary society, which, while grounded within realpolitik, nevertheless continually aspires to change it for the better. When Israel stops leading with ideas, and our politicians are the great protectors of the status quo, Israel becomes ever-more distanced from its true purpose.
One of the more exasperating examples of the mediocre rut into which our political thinking has descended is the debate within Likud-Beiteinu as to whether to include in the party platform Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The speech put an end to the affiliation of the Likud party with the dreams of a Greater Israel and tacitly admitted that settlements in certain areas of Judea and Samaria would have to be dismantled for the sake of peace.
The reason given by some of the more moderate voices within the party for removing the speech from the platform is that given Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s apparent policy to sidestep direct negotiations with Israel, we should not “reward” him with such a prize. There are others who today play a far more central role in the leadership of the Likud party, who want it removed because it contradicts their ideology, which still holds fast to the fantasy of a Greater Israel.
What both hold in common is the belief that the current status quo is sustainable and plays in Israel’s favour. They are at home in a politics devoid of new ideas and may consider expending effort to produce them only after they are inspired by evidence of new thinking on the other side. This is a path that produces not a greater Israel, but a smaller one.
A second example of mediocrity is being exemplified by the Labor party’s decision to avoid speaking about foreign policy in its current campaign, in the hope that a focus on economic and social justice disconnected from the party’s past peace platform may “fool” one or two mandates away from the centre-right. This is a policy well at home in the current election culture and may ensure Labor the accolade of being the biggest party amongst those who lost. It is, however, a poor service to a party that in theory aspires to lead, and an even poorer service to the country.
In a democracy, the opposition plays a central role as generators of ideas and as watchdogs against stagnation. When the opposition is leading the charge down the path of complacency, the dangers to Israel’s future are multiplied.
When functioning well, an election season serves to put forth noble and naive ideas that everyone knows need to be and inevitably will be tempered by the reality of the day after the elections. Cynics may argue that a campaign is about putting forth the lies that the population wants to hear. I believe that its purpose is to set forth the goals that give the electorate a window into the minds and hearts of those who aspire to represent us, the goals to which they are committed so long as reality doesn’t get in the way.
We need to reconnect to the political discourse of hope and aspirations. Of course we have peace plans. Let’s talk about them, debate them and figure out which ones best serve our values, goals, interests and concerns. The fact that we may have nobody to talk with has never stopped Jews from talking. We are the People of the Book, who have spent 3,000 years putting forth ideas and chiselling away at the rock of reality until we penetrate it.
Let the dreaming and talking begin. May the next month until the elections be filled with a competition over innovation, a rivalry to discover new ways to change the status quo and place Israel on a trajectory to a better future. The job of the politician is to lead. Please begin to do your job.
Donniel Hartman is president of Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the Engaging Israel Project.