Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Welcome to Israel

Years ago when Ariel Sharon was appointed Defense Minister by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin many ‘moderate’ Israelis thought the world was ending. Begin himself was quoted as saying that he was worried that one day he’d find the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, surrounded by tanks, with the barrels aimed not away from but towards the building.

When Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister more grumbling by moderates who thought the time had come to abandon the Zionist dream that had apparently abandoned them and find greener pastures.

Few Israelis acted on their grumblings. Most opted to say put and continue grumbling.
This was not the USA in the Watergate era when it seemed as if America was no longer the home of the free and land of the brave but rather a right-wing military-industrial-complex conspiracy out to seize the reigns of power. Not a few Jewish Americans left the confines of the USA seeking a place that still had ideals they shared. They came to Israel.

Statistics show that 85 per cent of those immigrants to Israel from the West who are not Orthodox Jews return to their native lands. However the figures are reversed for Orthodox Jews, only 15 per cent return to their native lands. For those who stay the
benefits of living in a Jewish state where Jewish holidays are national holidays, where arcane rules like the ‘eruv’ around towns and cities is a given, where supermarkets are 100 per cent kosher, where synagogues are found every few blocks in most neighborhoods.

And by and large the immigrants who fell into that category were right-wing. Were conservative, not in the meaning of a stream of American Judaism, but rather in their outlook on life, religion, and politics. The fact that 80 per cent of American Jews living in Israel voted for the Republican Mitt Romney in the last US presidential election was not an anomaly,  but rather an accurate representation of the mindset of the majority of Americans who immigrated to Israel over the last thirty years. Mostly religious, mostly staid and conservative in their outlooks. Many children of Holocaust survivors who are painfully sensitive to any flutter of anti-Semitism in the wind.

The elections for the new Israeli Prime Minister are on the horizon. The Likud party held their primary votes this week, and the right-wing factions swept into the top positions, leaving the moderates without a safe seat on the ticket.  The Israeli system is not like the American system. Each party runs as a block. For every 50,000 votes or so, a seat on the Knesset is allotted. If a party doesn’t get the minimum of 50,000 seats, that party is no longer in the Knesset. Should the party get 20 seats, 1,000,000 votes, than the first 20 people on the list get to be members of Knesset. If someone is number 21, tough luck.

Israel has 120 Knesset seats. The first party to assemble a coalition of 61 or more Knesset seats becomes the ruling party. The remainder becomes the opposition. Since the late 1970’s the Likud party has been the dominant player. For a while the Likud stars rebelled against the old ways. That’s when Ariel Sharon bolted Likud and started his own party, Kadima. With Sharon’s defection, the Likud then fell into disarray. No longer could the Likud get 20 or 30 seats in an election. They couldn’t even get 15. And they kept slipping. Until the present Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu ran again for Prime Minister and won. Now he is the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. Israelis are like everyone else. Just people. And people like security. Safety. Quiet. A steady economy. That’s what has happened under Netanyahu. The recent ‘Pillar Of Defense” action against Gaza was a blip on the screen many will ignore.

However, pundits think that ‘Bibi’ has lost control of the helm. That the right-wing members of his party are going to steer the government towards more extremist and conservative positions. One radical right-winger is Moshe Feiglin who once led protests against liberal moves in government by having protesters block Israel’s main roads. Feiglin, who is modern Orthodox, said yesterday that now perhaps the government will see fit to build the Third Temple, replacing the Second Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago by the Romans.

Former Labor party leader Ehud Barak surprised many when he announced that he was resigning from politics. However, as Jason Robards said in ‘All the Presidents Men’ he gave a “non-denial denial” when asked if he was going to return to politics in the future. Barak has always been enigmatic, all the way down to his tight lips and occasional goofy smile. But he was an outstanding defense minister. He knew how to pull the right strings in the mammoth defense establishment and get things done. Not an easy task.

Now the Labor party will have their primary elections. Their list will be formed. These are not the days of luminaries like David Ben Gurion filling the rosters. The heroic  generals like Yitzchak Rabin and Moshe Dayan are long gone. Now the leaders are former journalists and lawyers. However well-meaning they do not have the stature of those who built the state. Nor the confidence that they can keep the country safe, the economy on an even keel, and the ship of state sailing ahead with a steady hand at the wheel.

So it looks as if the Likud and the coalition of right-wingers will get to form the next government. Foreign Minister Leiberman has melded his ultra-right-wing party into the Likud. Ultra-Orthodox Shaas, the Sephardi party, has made it clear that they would support the Likud. Other smaller parties further to the right will also sign on to the Bibi bandwagon.

And the American immigrants. Gone are the Golda Meirs. Now it would be Golda with a wig and separate seating in the synagogue. No, the Americans will vote for Bibi just as they voted for Mitt Romney. The Palestinians may get a state, but they’d probably find, sooner rather than later, that Moshe Feiglin had finally succeeded in building that Third Holy Temple smack dab in the middle of the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem. And knowing how these guys think, Feiglin might just put a neon sign on the building, “Welcome to Israel.”