June 27, 2019

Political Times They Are a-Changin’

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, from the Jewish Home party, enter the room before delivering their statements in Tel Aviv, Israel December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Election seasons are like black holes. They devour everything, eliminate all other topics of concern, take over conversations, dominate the agenda like nothing else — except wars. Election seasons fill our brains with political gossip, petty trickery, unnecessary trivia. 

Like a horse race, it’s interesting when the horses are running but feels somewhat hollow after the winner crosses the finish line. So much time spent, attention diverted, minds preoccupied, so little substance.

And yet, election seasons can be a beneficial time if we look not just at the fluctuation of polls (read about the polls on the almost-daily online updates of Rosner’s Domain) but also at the underpinning trends that dominate the race. In Israel, these trends — in this election cycle — seem to suggest a paradox: On the one hand, we see fragmentation, or maybe it’s more appropriate to call it atomization, of the political system. On the other hand, we see old divisions disappear, and a relative consensus emerges. 

Take, as one example, what happened on the night of Dec. 28, when two ministers, two political leaders, announced that they were leaving their party, The Jewish Home, to establish their own party, The New Right. By doing this, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked added another split to an already splintered political arena. They added another right-wing party to a crowded field of such parties. And yet — here lies the paradox — they also declared the end of an era, or at least attempted to make such declaration. They declared an end to the era of religious-secular sectarianism.  

Once Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked realized that The Jewish Home Party limited their horizon, the two leaders jumped ship.

Let me explain: The Jewish Home, the party that made Bennett and Shaked, is the historical vehicle of religious-Zionism. It used to be called Mafdal, acronym of Miflaga Datit Leumit —  the religious national party. For seven decades, Israelis belonging to this sector voted in great numbers to this party, that in return focused on sectorial interests — more funds for religious schools, more accommodation for Hesder Yeshivas, more legislation that favors the settlers. This was a fine arrangement for a group that felt like a vulnerable minority but started to feel awkward and misplaced when religious-Zionists started to play a much more pronounced role as leaders in all Israeli institutions. 

Bennett and Shaked identified the changing times and wanted to turn The Jewish Home into something else, less sectorial, more cross-over. They failed. The DNA of The Jewish Home is one of sectorial politics, and it proved resistant to dramatic change. 

Bennett and Shaked have little interest in being the leaders of a sector. They entered politics to reach the top. And once they realized that The Jewish Home Party limited their horizon, by insisting on playing the old sectoral politics of religious-Zionism, the two leaders jumped ship. A bold and risky move — but one, if successful, of significance beyond the race horse.

According to early post-split polls, The New Right is going to attract many Israelis that used to vote for The Jewish Home. The message of religious-secular party, a post-sectorial party, resonates with these people who are no longer an endangered minority in need of special protection. Thus, the split could signify a new merge. The split is just a way to abandon the old religious-secular split to create a new partnership that no longer makes the yarmulke (or lack thereof) a defining feature of political vote. 

And this is just one example of an old political Israel that is cast aside as times change. Yesh Atid is a party of secular and religious, a party of centrism. Kulanu is a party of centrism. Gesher, a new party of Orly Levy Abekasis, is a party of centrism. These parties cast aside the old definitions of right and left, as does the new party of former generals seems to be positioning itself in a similar manner. Sure, this is partially because the “left” is no longer a viable currency in Israel’s politics, so everybody must rush to the center. But make no mistake: this is not just tactics. If General Gantz (considered to be more to the left) and General Yaalon (a longtime rightist) can form a party together it is because the traditional sectors and splits are dying.