Israeli Politicians All Lie, but Only One of Them Has a Vision

Democratic Union's Ehud Barak at a conference, September 12, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Everyone knows the joke that goes: “How can you tell when a politician is lying?” The standard answer is, “When he’s moving his lips.” Nowadays one could also say, “Whenever he writes something on Twitter.” In an election period, the lies are even more noticeable and frequent because the politicians are making more public statements than usual.

The fools among us believe the promises, and the smarter ones know that in every liberal democracy, lying is built into the political battle for power. This doesn’t mean that everyone lies to the same extent, and it certainly isn’t to say that because of all the lies, one should boycott the election. The world can’t be changed through an election, but at the very least it can help to halt a perilous slide and sometimes even to avert a disaster.

Israeli politicians have worked hard this year. With two successive election campaigns, they had to lie more than ever. A few days from now, they’ll be able to rest and lie a little bit less. The winners will secretly laugh at their voters; the losers will secretly curse their stupidity.

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But nearly all Israeli politicians are aware that the current election propaganda is not addressing – directly or indirectly – the elephant in the room: the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Of course the Joint List and Yamina are expressing clear positions on these relations, but all the other parties know full well that the historic argument about peace with the Palestinians has long been tabled from the national agenda, and so they intentionally remain vague and elusive on the subject.

Many people think this might be true of the other parties, but not of the Democratic Union, where many still believe in making peace and its No. 10 candidate, despite his relatively low spot on the list, has “been permitted” to publicly express his position on the matter. According to the speeches and articles written by Ehud Barak, including in this newspaper, the Democratic Union’s peace platform seeks to outline a border between Israel and “Palestine” with or without a regional agreement. But where is the Palestinian leader who will agree to sign such a territorial peace agreement? Hasn’t he learned anything from the past?

The present election will not decide the future of relations between Israelis and Palestinians, so the Democratic Union's positions on this topic are not relevant. This election is about ridding the country of a corrupt, populist leader whose alliance with the nationalist right is accelerating the moral rot of governance in Israel. While one source of this rot is the ongoing apartheid situation, it is also a consequence of the worldwide crisis of values that has put people like Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Putin, Orban, Boris Johnson and others in power.

In Israeli political culture, a government based on nationalist populism is particularly dangerous because of the strong racial components of the country’s national identity. So electoral puritanism is not the answer. Any attempt to block a victory for the Netanyahu-Ayelet Shaked-Betzalel Smotrich alliance should be welcomed by anyone who cares about the country’s immediate future, no matter which opposition party he chooses.

And anyone thinking more about the long run should vote for the Joint List. Despite its ideological drawbacks, it is the only party that features no former defense ministers, each of whom had their turn at bolstering and perpetuating the occupation and the settlements. It is also the only one that offers a vision, even if it’s not practical at the moment, of a fair and historic compromise between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.

Shlomo Sand is a professor emeritus of history.