January 17, 2020

Political Chaos and the Tzadik

Every year on the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, thousands of Jews journey to pray at his grave. He was an important Chasidic leader, a prominent student of the Maggid of Mezeritch and one of the founding fathers of Chasidism in Poland. He died on the 21st of the Hebrew month of Adar. In 2020, this date falls on March 17. 

March 17 was the natural choice for Israel’s third election, until someone was reminded that the day would be Elimelech’s yahrzeit. The Jews who flock to Poland on this date vote primarily for one party: United Torah Judaism. So the party objected to the proposed date, and the other parties obliged. The Likud Party is not in the mood to mess with its natural Charedi ally, and the Blue and White Party is working to convince the Charedis that it is not their enemy. Call it ridiculous, bizarre or outrageous. Call it whatever you want. The fact is, that Elimelech, from his grave, still affects our lives. It may be the clearest evidence that he was a true tzadik. 

In his famous book, “Mipeninei Noam Elimelech,” the rabbi emphasized the role of the tzadik in spreading Ahavat Israel, the love among the Jewish people. He also wrote about the power of the tzadik: “By his holy acts, the Tzadik can abolish all bad judgments. … The Tzadik decrees and the Lord complies.” Unfortunately, the tzadik can command the Lord but this power does not extend to commanding Israel’s politicians. Earlier this week, these politicians seemed to have little patience for great teachings as they busied themselves with last-minute maneuvers and blame-game manipulations. 

Three main themes emerged as these politicians (and Israel) moved closer to the political deadline. The possibility of immunity for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the feasibility of him serving as the prime minister when his trial takes place; the whose-fault-is-it blame game, in which all parties strived to convince voters that the chaos is someone else’s doing; and the what’s-next discussion, whether for a last-minute rescue from the calamity of a third election or for having a reasonable outcome in the next election that could enable a government to finally form.

These themes serve all political actors as they strive to make a case for themselves. And they serve them well among their own voters. That is to say: Netanyahu convinces his voters, and Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz convinces his. Of course, this means that no one switches sides and no one is able to show real political gains. 

Here is an example of how this works: In a survey by Israel’s Democracy Institute, the question that was presented to voters was, “Who, in your opinion is mainly responsible for the fact that over the past two months no government has been formed?” Who is winning this argument? If one looks at the public as a whole, it is clear that Gantz is the winner. The highest percentage of Israeli citizens (43%) blame Netanyahu for Israel’s political deadlock. Only a few (7%) see Gantz as the person who makes things difficult. 

A win for Gantz? Not so fast. Gantz voters and voters of other parties opposing Netanyahu see the prime minister as the main culprit of deadlock. But Netanyahu voters don’t. They see Avigdor Liberman as the problem (38% of Israelis). Among members of the right bloc, only 23% blame Netanyahu, while more than a half (57%) blame Lieberman. Interestingly, on the morning of Dec. 10, 36 hours before the deadline to form a coalition, the main newspaper identified with the bloc, Israel Hayom, dedicated its main headline to the “block on one.” Lieberman is the block that prevents the bloc from forming a coalition. 

But the most interesting finding of this survey comes from the question what Netanyahu should do now. Among Likud voters, the largest group (27%) believes that Netanyahu should stay in his job as the law permits. About the same number say he should be given immunity. Less than 20% want him to temporarily retire until the trial is over (and return if exonerated). A little more than 10% want him to resign. 

Why is this so interesting? Because it is almost identical to the response of Israeli voters half a year ago. With all the headlines and scandals, rhetoric and bombast, political twists and turns, the public hasn’t change its mind. That’s why Israel is deadlocked.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh