The next elections will be a referendum on Israel's post-pandemic socioeconomic future. Time for the cynical old guard to move aside
DEC 21, 2020
It is still too early to know whether Gideon Sa’ar caused a political earthquake by defecting from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud camp. Sa’ar is a serious politician, admired by many for his years of service. The very flattering polls done since his surprise announcement are showing exactly that. However, as public trust in our legislators is running on fumes (only 4% believe them, according to a recent Channel 12 broadcast); with a third lockdown a question of when and not if; with new candidates warming up on the sidelines, change is in the air, and when it comes, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
What is becoming clear as day is that the impending elections will be almost solely on the right. Fifty shades of right. Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Sa’ar immediately come to mind. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox parties remain firmly with the right. In the center parties as well — Blue & White and Yesh Atid — most Knesset members feel much more at home under the Likud than with the Joint List, the alliance of Arab parties. Facing off against the right’s energy and momentum is the exhausted and dismantled left-wing bloc. They again (although in diluted force) are grasping at false hopes for a general who will save the nation from itself.
These fast-approaching elections will not be won or lost on vaccines (they are already here) or Israel-Gulf relations (we are already there). They will not revolve around the debate over the justice system, for which reforms are not on the table as long as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial is in swing. And proposals to advance sovereignty in Judea and Samaria do not seem realistic as long as Mr. Biden sits in the White House.
These elections will be about the future of Israeli post-Corona society. Therefore, they will be determined on socioeconomic issues, “on life itself,” as Netanyahu once remarked. At issue will be real solutions for the self-employed and small businesses. Almost a year of living through the worst epidemic in a century has stretched our society to the limit. The civil sector, the social safety net, is collapsing. Seniors are locked in their homes for months. Hundreds of thousands of families are fighting to keep their heads above water, with little optimism, as past promises of fast economic recovery materialized first for the already well-off.
Without genuine faith in a better future, significant parts of the public will reduce consumption. The wheels of the economy will then get stuck. Then, no artificial respiration will rescue the economy from freefall — not even by creating debt our great-grandchildren will continue to pay. True, the vaccines are coming fast, but public health is only one aspect of the multifaceted challenges we face, which are social, economic and psychological. It will require serious surgery to address the core issues Covid-19 revealed, accelerated and foisted on the lives of so many of us.
There is also no vaccine against the loss of trust and confidence in the government and the political establishment. The rift between the public and our elected officials is deep and getting deeper by the day. The groundwork was laid over years of leaders choosing jobs over ideology; self-interest over the public’s interest, of splitting and reforming parties. Those politicians shouldn’t be surprised. They fundamentally sullied their image in the eyes of those who elected them, with rising contempt on each election day. The Knesset isn’t a shining beacon of role models but a mockery. Covid-19 is just the kindling that lit the blaze.
The promise of the “Old Right” was fortitude and reliability in national security and international affairs while standing for solidarity, empathy, and steadfast commitment to tackling socioeconomic issues. That was the right of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin: A right-wing unafraid to challenge outdated systems and power structures that fail to meet the challenges of the present (and the future); A right that offers new solutions, a new perspective for a rapidly changing reality.
Gideon Sa’ar, and others, would be wise to keep in mind that the public is tired of the “new party, same old faces” mentality. We are tired of Musical Chairs, of “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Tired of ego wars in Knesset committee hearings and at all-too-frequent media briefings. We are fed up. The public demands elected officials who understand it’s their job to work 24/7 until the crisis is adequately met, leaders who are willing to find common ground to move forward. Many are looking for different, young, new leadership.
The proof is in the rising popularity of just such politicians: determined ideologues who are not afraid to look for solutions on the ground, to engage the public in earnest.
Just look at Yifat Shasha-Bitton and Amir Ohana of Likud, and Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), perhaps the three most promising and popular politicians of the moment. Others outside the political sphere should be brought to the table. Israelis of diverse backgrounds have been at the forefront of the fight against the virus and its consequences. Whoever manages to harness the vitality and perspective they bring will benefit greatly, both politically and in his or her ability to govern.
These are professionals who see that in every crisis, there is also an opportunity. There are quite a few of these. As in the past, in the shadow of a threat, our society is exploding with talents and abilities, and it is time for them to be heard in the corridors of power in Jerusalem. Leaders rooted in the people and not in the Knesset, in social organizations, and not in the IDF’s General Staff. Their time has come.
The moment of truth is approaching. Will we see the return of a political right that offers a desperately-needed socioeconomic course of action that combines expertise with fresh perspective and energy? Can that Old Right be our new hope? We will soon find out.
Featured in The times of Israel.