2011 cost-of-living protest
Before the early elections were canceled, the protest movement in Israel was on life support. It was nearing death. Photo by Moti Milrod
Text size

Israelis woke up on the morning of May 8 and learned, to the general shock, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz had conspired to create a new ruling coalition between the Likud and Kadima parties.

The day before the biggest thing on their minds had been where to take the kids on election day, which is a national holiday in Israel. Suddenly the day of fun vanished into the ether. It's fair to assume many were pretty displeased, by that if not by the sudden formation of a giant, unshakeable coalition in backroom dealing.

But my advice is to stop moaning and appreciate the beauty of what transpired. Which is this: The thin veil of respectability that shrouded Israeli politics from the glare of day has been stripped off. The decay and cynicism riddling through the Israeli political system like a silent cancer stands naked and revealed.

Of course, muck in politics is nothing new. There was that "dirty trick" in 1990, when backroom double-dealing between left-of-center and ultra-orthodox political parties scuttled the national unity government, replacing it suddenly by a Likud-led coalition. And now again, a small group of political insiders seized power, but this time around the public had been gauzily dreaming of a society where government decisions are made by popular consensus.

So stop whining and thank them nicely for waking you from your naive dreams.

Now, now, there's no use in crying, "I was lied to. I was deceived."

You weren't born yesterday. The backroom agreement between Netanyahu and Mofaz wasn't anything out of the ordinary. It's just one symptom of an increasingly vicious disease eating at Israel's democratic institutions, a disease that has transformed Knesset members into the peons of political and business interest groups, leaving them indifferent to the will of the electorate.

True, just two months ago Mofaz categorically stated: "Listen up, I will not join the Netanyahu government, not today, not tomorrow, nor even after I take over the helm of the Kadima party on March 28. It is an evil and failed government, opaque by nature, and Kadima under my stewardship will replace it in the upcoming elections."

But at the time Mofaz still thought he had a chance of pulling off an electoral victory.  Anyway, when was the last time an Israeli politician said something they truly meant?

Seriously, don't get so down. Instead, say thank you Mr. Netanyahu, and wake up, already.

Elections cost more than NIS 2 billion (some $550 million) and ultimately produce very little change. The way in which the early elections were canceled presents a much greater chance for real systemic change.

First vote for the right people, you silly things

The gag-inducing power play is a perfect reason to take to the streets and shift the political dialogue in this country.

The prime minister and opposition leader both reversed their support for early elections after less than a week, due to unfavorable electoral breezes blowing their way in recent polls.

You want elections? Well the message they delivered was loud and clear: First you, the public, must promise to vote for the appropriate candidates.

Say, thank you, Mr. Netanyahu, and take responsibility for your own role in this mess. Before the early elections were canceled, the protest movement in Israel was on life support. It was nearing death. With elections imminent, the movement was almost ripped to shreds by various political players seeking to appropriate the protests for their own ends.

One of these cynical types was Mofaz himself, who, in a particularly unfortunate statement, pledged to lead the anti-establishment protests this summer.

Parties from across the political spectrum were desperately recruiting the protest leaders, many of are evidently naive enough to believe they could change the system from inside the parties.

The strategic and ideological distinctions between the protest leaders were being exposed and were threatening to tear apart what remained of the movement. Yet now – thank you, Bibi! Thank you, Shaul! – the moral bankruptcy of the political establishment has been laid bare for all to see, revealing the futility of engaging it.

After months of popular demand for reform, the Israeli political establishment has made clear there is no need for change. Thanks for the suggestion, its members tut-tut, but late-night, backroom deals are much more to our liking.

With one bold gesture, the prime minister has shown his appreciation of the protest movement by giving it an opportunity to reinvigorate itself.

If the pent-up rage unleashed in social media and the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after the deal are any indication of the road ahead, Netanyahu can be assured that he succeeded.

Intentionally or not, with his deal, Netanyahu did more to reawaken the spirit of protest in Israel than did all the efforts of the movement's supposed leaders.

But enough with the cynicism, let's talk seriously. Isn't it clear what motivated Netanyahu and Mofaz to cancel early elections?

After all, democracy is volatile, even a little dangerous. Just ask Europe's bureaucrats and central bankers.

They will tell you that if the citizenry would stop griping, they would already have solved the debt crisis. But instead of letting their leaders handle things, the imbecile masses find it necessary to air their views on every matter, as if they know their own interests.

And look what happens when the common rabble are permitted to express themselves.

They vote in droves for parties on the right or left that oppose the austerity policies dictated to them by the elites in Frankfurt and Brussels. They demand to be released from the stranglehold of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, more commonly referred to the troika's “rescue plan.”

“Merde,” is probably what Netanyahu thought when he saw the election results from France, and Nicolas Sarkozy's crushing defeat by the left-leaning Francois Hollande. "That could happen to me." 

Who would have thought even six months ago that Sarkozy would fall from power? And who would have ever thought he would lose to Hollande, no friend to bankers or and tax breaks for the rich?

Democracy, even the low-fat variety, is like a box of chocolates. You think you know what you're gonna get and then the latest polls tell you something completely unexpected, like some entertainer-cum-political upstart is expected to get another Knesset seat.

As in Europe, the Israeli public is seething. It may not have been out of the streets in force over the past few months, but the resentment that brought 10 percent of Israel's adults out on the street last September 3, certainly isn’t going anywhere.

Unlike the Europeans, Israelis have not yet been allowed to vote. But polls show that they don’t intend to give the elite's chosen outcome a democratic seal of approval.

If only Israel's leaders could legislate away elections entirely, they would sing the glories of Israel's democracy to the world.

Netanyahu and Mofaz did much more than just ensure their own political survival.  They also gave Israelis a rare glimpse of what really goes on under their noses every day. This is an opportunity for Israelis to take control of their lives, and say, "No more!"

So say thank you. Netanyahu and Mofaz have given the protest movement a rare opportunity. The actions of these new bosom buddies have reignited public indignation, unifying voices on the right and left, voices they had thought to mute. Israel could yet mobilize as a Greek-style polity, where citizens reject perversions of the democratic process and insist that every citizen be heard.

Will we take this latest "dirty trick" as a call to action or let it become just another anecdote told by journalists who cover the Knesset for a living?

It all depends on our collective ability to comprehend the magnitude of this moment. We must stop whining and take charge.