What Is the Knesset Election Actually All About?

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Sheldon Adelson and Netanyahu.
Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Adelson's wife, Miriam.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

What is the Knesset election campaign actually all about? We’ve almost forgotten, but when the election was brought forward to March 17 of this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would fight to change the system of government. Not long after that, however, the politicians were already appealing for voter support based on the number of journalists and other personalities – whose political philosophies were unknown – had been given reserved slots on their slates.

And then a new controversy surfaced – over who was a Zionist. Just like that, and without wondering what Zionism is and what is it’s current significance. This week Likud figures have already appealed to our sense of outrage over a non-profit organization that supports the left and may have received funds from foreign donors; while on the left the focus is on the controversy over money that the prime minister’s wife, Sara, allegedly pocketed in bottle deposit refunds. What about a diplomatic plan or an economic one? Nonsense. Instead we will soon know how much the Prime Minister’s Office has wasted on scented candles.

In explaining how we ended up with such a meaningless election campaign, it’s worth looking at the deeper trends, both political and cultural. First of all, there’s the influence of the era of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The fact that the person who had been perceived as the most extreme and dangerous figure in politics was then transformed into a prime minister who enjoyed a broad consensus of support, and even ended his career with left-wing support, gave the impression that ideology didn’t really matter.

Secondly, it’s hard to admit, but maybe it’s not so terrible here. True, the security situation is explosive, the cost of living is high and the number of poor is growing, but most Israelis work, fly abroad on vacations and enjoy the good weather. In addition, as long as there is no dominant left-wing leader who is prepared to compromise on the status of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, without which there will be no peace, and also no right-wing leader seeking to annex the territories and threaten to create an apartheid state, the diplomatic situation will clearly not change. It’s a perfect time to debate the small things.

Another reason has to do with the media. The founding of Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu daily owned by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, could have varied the discourse, but from the moment that it was shown to be a hugely financially powerful political entity, the status of the press, which is declining in any event for technological and economic reasons, was harmed. The result is that many items are the product of a battle of highly economic and political character among mainstream newspapers. Allegedly there are hidden interests, but in practice they are already apparent to the public, eroding the standing of the press even further, and in the process, resulting in the loss of another main forum for debate.

But the main reason is cultural retreat. The early 1990s, with the beginning of commercial television broadcasts on Channel 2 and the opening up of Israel to the world, was a watershed. Instead of a fertile symbiosis with the enlightened world, for the most part we embraced the superficiality of American culture. There is still the memory of a time when a distinguished cabinet minister would be a studio guest and people would delight in the fact that he liked soccer too!

It’s not that people were better, but until then politics was still the province of the elite, and it was enough to note the language of the politicians, clichéd as it might have been, as a case in point. Now for the most part, politics is a reflection of the culture of the “Big Brother” television show.

When former soccer star Eli Ohana was proposed for the electoral slate of the Habayit Hayehudi party, the instinct was to be shocked at the thought that “Yetziah Ha’itonut,” (“Press Gallery”), the raucous sports program that he appears on, is the path to politics. On second thought, the idea comes to mind that there is no difference between Knesset debates and the discourse on the show.

This cultural demise has brought about an election campaign that is being conducted like just another highly rated Channel 2 show, in which the producers – meaning the PR consultants and the politicians – are trying to supply more and more items to excite the public. Members of the public see them and may get excited for the moment, but then move on. Until reality resurfaces.

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