A Tale of Two Elections

Friday, February 13, 2009
Special to the Jewish Week

Having experienced the almost palpable sense of exhilaration that was so much a part of the American presidential election just a few months ago, the near universal sense of frustration and despair that haunted voters after the electoral stalemate of the past week in Israel was a rude reminder of the fractured nature of Israel’s political system.

It was not a matter of who won and who lost. It was, rather, the absolute inability- yet again- to determine who won and who lost, and how to deal with that lack of clarity. The stakes, of course, are blatantly obvious. With an Iran with nuclear aspirations rattling its sabers and hostile terrorist organizations still perched on it northern and southwestern borders, it’s not as if there’s nothing to be concerned about. Israel’s security, both long-term and short term, hangs in the balance. It’s obvious to even the most untrained observer that the lack of consensus in Israeli society about the crucial questions of the day has rendered its electoral system not only dysfunctional but dangerous. It’s even obvious to the main players. But for reasons petty and consummately political, they are reluctant to change that system lest they lose their power bases in the process. It’s worse than a shame; it’s a disaster.

I have been in Jerusalem this week, attending the international convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, which overlapped the Israeli elections by sheer serendipity. No matter where on the political spectrum we found ourselves, right or left of center, my colleagues and I who had come from the States were greatly saddened by the degree of hopelessness that seemed to characterize most Israelis. From the people on the street to the talking heads on television, there was a sense of “here we go again.” No clear mandate for any one party, and the only chance of putting together a governing coalition of like-minded parties would make for a narrow right-wing government sure to come to blows with America and Europe.

Sometimes you have to leave America to appreciate its greatness. For me, spending time in Israel is invariably a gratifying experience for all the reasons you might expect: pride, Zionism, family, spiritual and national fulfillment… But this time, I found myself appreciating anew what had transpired in America in November. Despite the dire economic situation in our country, we voted in a president based on hope. Rational or not, justified or not, enough of us were actually able to elect Barack Obama based on the belief that he could make our situation better. We were able to conceptualize a political leader actually improving our lot.

No major political leader in Israel does that for Israelis. Not a one. And not only to they not see a way out of the mess that they’re in, but the very people they don’t trust are still going to be leading them for the foreseeable future.

No, it was not a very good week for Israel, or for Israelis- or for those of us who love Israel.

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