The Investment Bank of Politics

Elections in this country, both primary as well as parliamentary, are viewed as a personal battle rather than a contest of ideas. Neither concern for the state nor loyalty to a party motivates political races, but personal ambition.

In April 2006, immediately after Amir Peretz, then the Labor Party's newly elected chairman, signed a coalition agreement with Ehud Olmert, some of his party's senior figures rose up against him. They didn't mince words in expressing their disappointment at the way he conducted negotiations with the Kadima leader. Matan Vilnai branded Peretz an electoral failure, Ephraim Sneh suggested that Peretz was ill-suited to be defense minister without an experienced deputy advising him, and Danny Yatom declared that Olmert maneuvered Peretz into granting him humiliating concessions. Much like Amram Mitzna and Ehud Barak (and intermittently, over a stretch of many years, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin), Peretz came to discover that winning a party primary is like sucking on a piece of candy that quickly melts in your mouth. On the morrow of victory, out come the knives and the battle for survival in the party begins anew.

Tzipi Livni is now in the middle of this frustrating experience. Barely a day had passed since her (narrow) victory and her position in Kadima had already been jolted. Shaul Mofaz, who supposedly bowed to the will of the voter and chivalrously retired from political life, leaves behind a set of aftershocks intended to shake her leadership's legitimacy. Israel is not the United States, and our politicians are not Al Gore, who called on the Democrats to recognize George W. Bush's victory in November 2000, even though he lost to him in a dubiously determined election decided more in the Supreme Court than at the ballot box. Israeli politicians have a different temperament. When they announce their retirement, they immediately begin planning their return to the political scene. When they acknowledge their rivals' victory, they start their move toward toppling them. When they are riding high, they are wicked and petty toward their adversaries. When they no longer have the upper hand, they are beset by a mood of victimization.

Elections in this country, both primary as well as parliamentary, are viewed as a personal battle rather than a contest of ideas. Neither concern for the state nor loyalty to a party motivates political races, but personal ambition. Once it became clear to Mofaz that he lost to Livni, his attachment to Kadima dissipated (even though he bothered to announce that he will continue to be a member of the party) and his declared commitment to the common interest suddenly evaporated. He is not alone in his behavior. Livni herself refused to pledge that she would remain in the party, which she sought to lead, if she failed at the polls.

Barak is acting in a similar manner. He is now complicating Livni's efforts to quickly occupy Olmert's chair in the current coalition because he is guided by the desire to one day become prime minister. According to the Labor chairman's calculations, thwarting Livni's efforts now could create circumstances that would lead to early elections, in which he would have a chance to split Kadima and perhaps attract a large chunk of its voters (and MKs) to his party. The man who acted in the name of the country's good in (justifiably) forcing Olmert to resign now refuses to extend a hand to Livni in completing the process and taking a seat in the prime minister's chair. Ditto Eli Yishai, who is now jumping on the chance to extort more personal and sectoral goodies.

In a properly functioning democracy, the natural, obvious move would be to keep intact the present coalition while replacing the resigning leader. There is no logical reason to enact changes to this structure. The parties that agreed to the coalition guidelines two and a half years ago are capable, one would think, of reaffirming them and continuing to manage the affairs of state. Even the desired ministerial reshuffle (for instance, replacing the justice minister or appointing a new foreign or transportation minister) do not necessarily require igniting a political brawl that would be impossible to settle.

Except that some senior figures in Kadima, like Barak and Yishai (and perhaps the heads of other parties) yearn to gain personal benefit from the situation and are already signaling that they plan to make life miserable for Livni by frustrating her bid to stabilize the coalition. The Israeli political system increasingly resembles American investment banks. Neither displays responsibility toward the good of the country, both are driven by personal competition and ambition that know no bounds, both speak haughtily about what is best for the common good while acting to harm it seriously, and both are guided by a code that threatens the political system's very existence.