Israeli Election 2013 as Commedia Dell'arte

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"Politics," said Harvey Milk, "is theater. It doesn't matter if you win. You make a statement. You say: 'I'm here, pay attention to me!'."

This holds true of the 2013 elections in Israel in so many ways. Israel has been called "start-up nation" and it certainly lived up to its name, patenting a brand-new invention this year: elections in which winning is not the goal.

Get Asher Schechter's e-book "Israeli Politics 2013: Movers and shakers unmasked" here

These were elections nobody wanted to win, possibly including the man who actually won them: Benjamin Netanyahu.

No one even set out to win, because from the get-go they saw no way to beat Netanyahu. When the campaigns began, he was considered a king, no less - so secure in his throne that no one could challenge him. So no-one did.

Sure, at first some at least made gestures implying that they aspired to supplant Netanyahu. But soon enough all were vying for no more than a place in his government. The debate wasn't deep principle: it was who should be Minister of This or Minister of That.

If the elections were not about winning, what was their purpose? What was there to be achieved? Well, in the words of Harvey Milk: "I am here, pay attention to me!"

One can hardly say about Israeli politics that it is boring, or lacking in colorful characters. If politics is theater, than the Israeli version would be Commedia dell'Arte.

For years less and less Israelis have made the trek to vote. That’s also true elsewhere in the West.

For every country, there's a different reason. In Israel, it might have something to do with the fact that our politicians are mostly replicas of stock characters from Renaissance theater: Tzipi Livni as Tartaglia, the stuttering statesman; Miri Regev as Pulcinella, the mean clown who protects himself from moral judgment by pretending to be stupid; Yair Lapid as Il Capitano, the insecure general always in desperate need to prove his masculinity; Shaul Mofaz, the Il Capitano of old, now demoted into Pierrot, the sad clown; and of course, Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman as Innamorati, the lovers. Each politician playing his part. Each one wearing his own mask.

In many ways, the 2013 elections were probably the most meaningless in the history of Israel. The winner's identity was known in advance, and little was done to challenge it. The social-justice protests that had 500,000 Israelis howling in the streets and demanding equality disintegrated into the kind of stale, ordinary party politics that bored Israelis to tears.

It may have seemed that left and right had locked horns. But at best, the parties were making feeble attempts to cash in on old stereotypes, with little ideology involved.

Yet in many ways, these elections could be remembered as the beginning of a new era. The era of King Bibi is over, and his (probable) last term may well be a short one. Any coalition he might forge looks shaky at best. The two newly elected go-getters, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are snapping at his heels.

Also, the 2013 elections was the first in Israel where the dominant issues were social and economic, not war and blood. And while they did not yield the result favored by many Israelis who supported the protest, they did provoke discourse on Israel's identity.

But the most important legacy of 2013 is the wave of new faces entering the political arena.

On February 5, no less than 53 new members enter the Knesset. That's almost half the house– an unprecedented churn rate.

Most are smart and committed. Can they sustain their integrity and avoid becoming part of the hated system many of them entered politics in order to change? Or will they succumb and assume their respective roles in the Israeli political theater?

The fact of the matter is that politics in Israel is about people. Parties come and go, and politicians enter and exit parties like they were fast food franchises, but prime ministers – or kings, for that matter – are elected based on their personality. And personality-wise, almost every Israeli politician is a goldmine of insecurities, human frailty and psychological complexities.

The 12 people covered in this e-book are some of the most influential politicians in Israel. Others are new faces eager to make their mark. They are not good, or bad, heroic or otherwise. Paradoxically, in a country where political dialect is shallow and simplistic beyond measure, the political arena is filled to capacity with complex characters. And no matter who they are or what role they are playing, they are all intrinsic parts of the play. So pay attention. Here we go.

Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett.Credit: Archive

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