Question: How do you know it’s election time in Israel?
Answer: When you stop thinking about politics and spend your time obsessively doing basic arithmetic in your head.
You pass your makolet – your corner store. You spy a Ma’ariv headline predicting 26 votes for Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud, 21 votes for Gideon Sa’ar and New Hope, 15 for Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, and 14 for Naftali Bennett and Yamina. You zero in on the parties you could live with, and BOOM: 21 plus 15 plus 14 equals 50. As you wonder where they might get another 11 votes for that blessed 61-seat Knesset majority, you also wonder whether they could ever cooperate – while knowing these equations will keep changing.
A week imposing Israel’s fourth election in two years and third lockdown in nine months was a doozy. But as Benjamin Netanyahu continued placing his needs ahead of the needs of nine million Israelis, a few political heroes emerged. Alas, they’re political outliers: none of them has served as IDF chief of staff and none has been served with an indictment. Instead, Ze’ev Elkin, Ram Shefa, and Michal Cotler-Wunsh evoked the old, traditional Zionist values which established Israel, challenging us to imagine a back-to-the-future tomorrow wherein idealism not cynicism prevails.
Ze’ev Elkin grabbed the most headlines – justifiably. His searing indictment of Netanyahu was courageous and timely. After serving in the Knesset as a Likudnik for 11 years, including five years in Netanyahu’s cabinet, after defending Bibi so intensely for so long, he knew he would be pilloried as a hypocrite and a traitor. After all, he’s too right-wing for Likudniks to slam with their usual – despicable — “curse” of ALL — Arab-Loving Lefty.
Elkin faced the partisan’s unappetizing menu when your leader loses his way. First you ask, can I stop his descent, or slow it down? Then you wonder, can being on the inside mitigate the damage? Finally, you calculate: when can I jump ship?
Elkin not only walked – he talked. In his characteristically straightforward, un-flashy style, this Russian-born, educator-activist, laid out the facts. He confirmed what many of us have been saying for months (and yes, Elkins had denied): that despite his many skills and achievements, Bibi now holds Israel hostage. He no longer thinks like a statesman about what the people need to thrive, but like a perp about what he needs to survive. “For personal reasons, you have once again taken the country to its fourth election in two years,” while “trying to blame others,” Elkin said. Revealing what’s really happening around Netanyahu, Elkin added: “As someone who is watching this dangerous process from up close, I see how his personal considerations are getting mixed up with the national considerations, and even triumphing” over the national interest.
Now cynics and Bibistas – I know I’m being redundant – will charge that Elkin feared losing a Knesset seat and just bought a high listing with Sa’ar’s new party. That pragmatic truth doesn’t trump the deeper truth that Elkin confirmed fears that Israel is cursed with this over-the-hill, distracted leader forcing the country to sputter from election to election. So let’s admit: politics is like math: those who cannot calculate, cannot lead; those who only calculate, cannot lead constructively.
From across the aisle, Blue-and-White’s Ran Shefa denied gossip claiming he hid in the Knesset parking lot to confound coalition whips before voting for new elections. Shefa responded magnificently when accused of misleading his party leaders, proclaiming: “I am in politics too little time to become someone I don’t want to be.”
Actually, the fourth election became all-but-inevitable when Shefa’s colleague Michal Cotler-Wunsh finally got fed up with all the Bibi-bamboozling. Her super-powered tweet-heard-‘round-Jerusalem proclaimed: “I supported entering the unity government out of responsibility for the citizens of Israel. That same responsibility requires me now to consider the bad option of elections and compare it to the intolerable reality of a government that does not function….”
Cotler-Wunsh and another Norwegian law beneficiary, Tehila Friedman, have proved that you need not relinquish your soul to serve effectively in the Knesset. Ably representing Israel’s idealistic olim, Cotler-Wunsh has championed better Israel-Diaspora relations, strict term limits and good governance, while Friedman’s inaugural Knesset speech went viral, seeking “a pact of moderates” to “create a common center.”
Elkin, Shefa, Cotler-Wunsh, and Friedman are all over the map regarding what outsiders believe is Israel’s great divide: what to do with the Palestinians and the territories. But these four Knesset members have remained thoughtful, values-driven and committed to Israel as a Jewish-democratic state.
What’s their secret?
They’re not typical party hacks. All are educator-activists from the third-sector – civil society – who spent surprisingly little time in national politics – or classic party dues-paying – before joining the Knesset. Elkin has a B’nai Akiva background and worked in the Gesher organization to unite Israeli society and absorb new immigrants. Shefa headed the National Union of Israeli Students. Cotler-Wunsh worked for the IDC-Herzliya, served on the board of Tzav Pius to reconcile religious and secular Israelis, and specializes in human rights law. Friedman is a religious feminist activist who chaired the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah centrist religious Zionist organization and researched in the Shalom Hartman institute.
We should campaign to keep all four in the next Knesset, while doubling efforts to make these kinds of pragmatic idealists the new norm for Israeli politicians: constructively returning us to the Zionist thinker-builders who created Israel and first led it.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.