After a night of solitude and a revelatory, transformative experience, Jacob resumes his mission of finding a wife from the place of his father’s origin. Rachel, standing by the well, becomes the desire of his eye. They meet, kiss, and live happily ever… oh, wait. Before any fairytale ending could happen the scene quickly turns to the least possible romantic human interaction: labor negotiations followed by deception – wash, rinse and repeat. Work seven years only to be tricked and marry… Leah. Work another seven years and finally marry the desired daughter Rachel, only to work another six years of undesired indentured servitude.
Feeling Stuck? Like maybe nearly fourteen years may be a bit much?
Welcome to the Israeli political reality. Where now we go to elections one time, then another, and an unresolved political deadlock may take us to hope that the third time’s the charm.
Veteran political commentator Yossi Verter summed it up nicely in the pages of Haaretz:
“In April-May, we thought that a second election was madness, simply ungraspable – but it was grasped. In September-October we said, and also wrote, that there’s no possible scenario, no way there will be a third election. Well, the lights in the hall have gone down, the trailers are whizzing by on the screen, the cellphones are muted and eyes are wide shut. Wait for it.”
The political impasse that we have been facing for most of 2019, and are likely to face for the well into 2020 is both debilitating and exasperating. A third election in the span of 10 or 11 months, I fear, would see not only similar electoral results but could cause many citizens to lose faith and potentially just sit this one out.
Worse than that, the country simply cannot afford it. A Knesset finance official interviewed on Israeli public radio this week, plainly explained that it’s not an issue of wasting taxpayer shekels – which is bad enough – it’s that the electoral coffers simply do not have the funds to cover the expense of another election. Not only that, but the dissolution of the Knesset would mean months and months before the work of governing and legislation could get back on track.
This impasse has resulted in over 300 days during which Israel has been led by a series of caretaker governments. A period during which ministerial portfolios have been jockeyed around as thinly disguised political favors (Amir Ohana and Naftali Bennett), and when a succession of ministries (four, soon to be one) was seized by the country’s indefatigable leader.
This has been nearly a year during which countless projects have been frozen — ranging from major infrastructural ones to proposed bus routes in Ashkelon — and public sector workers remain in a kind of indefinite hiatus, never quite sure who will remain at the titular helm of their department — or from which party, or for how long. Full ministries are going bankrupt and diplomatic missions around the world can’t afford to function or send their emissaries to do their jobs.
Leadership disputes are not new to us and can have long-lasting consequences. We have a long tradition of leaders not begin able to vacate their thrones, which could give us insight as to how to overcome today’s political pickle.
Take for instance the famous story in the Talmud (Brachot 28a) when Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed as to whether reciting the evening prayer (Maariv) was obligatory or optional. Rabban Gamliel held the former view, while Rabbi Yehoshua followed the latter. When a student (whose identity would only be revealed later as the punchline of the story) asked R. Yehoshua for a private ruling on the matter, R. Yehoshua told him Maariv was optional. Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehoshua told others to follow his opinion, Rabban Gamliel – the long-serving Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin, confronted R. Yehoshua, who, in order to preserve the peace, denied his involvement in the matter.
Thinking that Rabbi Yehoshua was trying to evade the issue, Rabban Gamliel forced him to stand during his lecture at the yeshiva. Stung by Rabban Gamliel’s continuing humiliation of Rabbi Yehoshua, the people — not the sages — decided to depose him as the leader. However, the question then arose as to who would lead in his stead. R. Yehoshua could not assume the position, as such a move would be too disrespectful to Rabban Gamliel. Others were unacceptable for other reasons and eventually, the young 18-year-old Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, was tapped for the job.
Would the Jewish people follow such a young man? As an answer, God made a miracle and turned Rabbi Elazar’s hair white as if he were aged 70. Eventually, Rabban Gamliel asked forgiveness of Rabbi Yehoshua, and was reinstated as Nasi, sharing the position on a rotational basis with Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. Here, the Talmud notes Rabban Gamliel’s great integrity, as, during the entire time he was deposed, Rabban Gamliel took part in all the legal discussions in the house of study, sitting among the disciples and accepting Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s authority.
The sages and the people managed to learn a few important lessons:
First, let us be exposed to a world with a different leader and try something new. As in the case with Elazar Ben Azaria, massive reforms took place causing that moment to go down in history as a pivotal social and structural move.
Second, save democracy.
Former MK Naomi Chazan commented on the eve of possible third elections that:
“The democratic slippage everywhere evident has not passed over Israel: for the past decade, quietly, almost surreptitiously, Israel has been one of the first to evince these notable characteristics of democratic erosion. This process in Israel, as elsewhere, has been orchestrated by democratically-elected governments, usually adhering to legal formalities and dedicated to remaining in power through the gradual — sometimes almost unnoticeable — chipping away at the pillars of liberal democratic life. The result has been the replacement of consensus-seeking moderation backed by institutional and individual safeguards with a majoritarian, formal, definition of democratic subsistence.”
Of course, some may counter Chazan’s diagnosis of despondency by saying that the democratic system has never worked so well and is intelligently designed to contend with such extreme cases of political paralysis.
Third, don’t be a sore loser. It’s ok for the sake of the country to not hold it hostage and take a step back. It takes great courage, humility, and reason to be able to put the needs of the masses above one’s own needs, which have not been Netanyahu’s strong traits.
Had Rabban Gamliel – also not known for great humility or flexibility – exhibited such Netanyahu-esque stronghold of power, or Liebermanian stubbornness, or Gantz-like tepid support (despite having won a plurality of mandates).
That is what will need to happen to free Israel from this gridlock.
As we enter Shabbat without a clear resolution to our political plunter (as they say in Hebrew), Israel unquestionably sits at a critical crossroads and the coming days will hopefully provide critical answers to fundamental questions of greater importance than how long PM Netanyahu can resist corruption charges and public pressure by remaining in control. This is Netanyahu’s legacy, but more than that, it’s the country’s national character which is at stake.