Sunday, March 05, 2006

wanted, dead or alive

The paradox of democracy. We fight for the franchise, and then when we have it, there's nobody to vote for.

Example number one: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
Example number two: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry.

When the final lists of U.S. contenders were set in 2000 and again in 2004, it became clear that in a democracy, democracy doesn't always win. The sole choice to be made then in the good-ole democratic U.S. of A was the lesser of two evils - and even with that choice made, the ballot box seemed to have a mind of its own. Lesson learned: Democracy is more than just the freedom to fill out a ballot.

Example number three: Elections 2006 in Israel.

A friend of mine said the other day, "why vote? All the even remotely good candidates die." He ticked on his fingers, "Yitzhak Rabin was killed, Ariel Sharon's now in a coma..."

My roommate, who was listening in the corner, said, "so vote for the person you want dead. Who would you rather die? Olmert or Netanyahu?"

He had a point. But choosing the over-zealous politician you want to see knocked off is not the point of elections - in Israel, at least, it would be counterproductive.

Which leaves all of us frustratingly franchised with a tough decision. Who to vote for?

Of approximately 15 parties in Israel, only about three are even viable options. The country is swimming with extremist factions, a surprising number of which are actually elected into the Knesset every year.

The top three contenders this year, in reverse order according to their standing in the polls, and by no means the three I would consider viable, are: Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, prince of the anti-disengagement activists, king of the anti-Sharon rebels, ultimate duke of hazard; Labor, led by the moustachioed former Labor Federation (Histadrut) chairman Amir Peretz, whose upper lip fuzz and socialist policies are nicknamed Stalinist; and Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon's plucky right-hand man and successor who inherited the prime minister's newly-formed Kadima party just a month after it was created when Sharon fell from his throne as one of the most powerful men in the world into a vegetative state.

Simmering slightly below these are Shas (rightist religious party), Meretz (a secular leftist party focusing on civil and human rights) and Yisrael Beiteinu (hard-lined rightist group). Yisrael Beiteinu is actually putting up a good fight this year, trailing not far behind Likud, and could possibly be party to a coalition government should one be formed. Meretz and Shas will also most likely get seats, though it is doubtful they'll get even six apiece.

There are also a number of Arab parties which, though in past years have secured a few seats for themselves, have faced crisis after crisis this year leading to the possibility that even if they do get seats, it won't be too many - and if Likud has its way, to the possibility of being disqualified from the elections all together. First there was the obvoius lack of women candidates elected to their Knesset list, always a problem in a 'democratic' state like Israel; then there were the rumors, which they fervently denied and Likud fervently belabored, that the United Arab List party was calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Israel; and on top of these systemic problems, there was then the clincher, the report that 46 percent of Arabs were choosing not to vote in this year's election.

So much for democracy.

If Israel were Canada or the United States, then I would without a doubt choose either Labor or Meretz. Labor is a popular but weathered party twice headed by Yitzhak Rabin, which recently re-adjusted its focus to Israel's social problems. Under the leadership of Amir Peretz, Labor has really buffed up its socialist platform, though has also reneged on appearing too consolidated with groups that would make it look 'too leftist,' for instance a group of Labor-supporting youth who went to help reharvest trees in the West Bank a few weeks ago.

Labor has made its commitment in this year's election to alleviate poverty, to seal the gap between the rich and the poor, to raise minimum wage and get lower tuition for students. It's also signed a 'contract with the public' vowing to fulfill each and every one of its campaign promises. Not bad for a country like Israel, which started as a shining example of socialist idealism and quickly descended into the depths of capitalism and class warfare. Amir Peretz is also a Sephardi Jew [read: de la peuple] who speaks Arabic and moreover, speaks to the oft under-represented Israeli population.

Meretz, to the left of Labor, isn't afraid to be called what it is: sweetly progressive. Lefties par example. Its platform this year calls for a re-evaluation of civil marriages, of gay rights and of civil and human rights in general. Most secular progressives I know here are planning to vote for Meretz. And as I said, it it were anywhere else, I don't think I would hesitate to do so also.

While I agree in social principle with Labor and Meretz, there are a few things that are making me hesitate before throwing them my immediate support. Most glaringly is the security situation. I am under no illusion that this country is anything but a mess economically (much thanks to Netanyahu's stint as finance minister in which he pushed apart with herculetic arms the rich from the poor, setting the poverty line to a defiant and steady decline). I am also fully aware that the giant rift existing between the religious and the secular here is enough to easily instigate a hearty civil war. But without a doubt, the most pressing political issue in Israel today is its security situation. Is an unwanted and internationally recognized occupation. Is terrorism. Is its vague borders. Is its inherent societal discrimination.

With the exception of the final Is, I am not entirely convinced that Labor and Meretz have what it takes to fix this problem. Though I'm not completely unoptimistic about it, neither party has voiced a clear, concrete and long-standing program for strengthening security and ending the occupation and attacks. Israel's social and economic situation has been on a decline for years, and there is no doubt that much of the problem is the result of the country's perpetuous state of war. But before the social situation can be mended, Israel needs to get itself together. This doesn't mean neglecting social issues, but it does mean straightening out imperative questions of existence. For example, its borders.

Kadima, Ariel Sharon's quickly orphaned baby, is promising to return Israel to the '67 borders. That's its motto: "Kadima [forward] to the '67 borders."

What's not to like? This is what we've been begging for years. Set the borders, get the hell out of occupation, and get our lives back in order. Everybody wins.

But of course, Kadima's not all its cracked up to be. It's a party run by some of the most corrupt and disgusting politicians in Israel, former members of Likud. While it has also pulled in some of the more centrist and security-oriented figures from other parties as well, like Shimon Peres (who, while one of the bests of the lot, is still not without fault) it is ill-balanced by scandals from Omri Sharon and Tzachi Hangebi, convicted for campaign fraud, illegality and unlawful relations with the business sector, to the speculated upon Ehud Olmert, who among other things is of late involved in a pseudo-investigation of the possibly sketchy business deal he made during sale of his home.

And other than vowing to evacuate West Bank Settlements, Kadima has given no indication that it has any other progressive plans, and has given no solid platform for curbing poverty levels or ending the growing discrimination in Israel. Olmert has even said that should he form the next coalition government, he would not invite Arab parties to join. Aside from that, what does '67 borders mean, anyway? Gaza's already gone, but what about the big West Bank enclaves? Kadima's pretty much announced its intentions to give up some fairly solid isolated settlements, like Shilo, for instance, but does that mean it's going to withdraw from places like Gush Etzion and Ariel? And would we want them to? And what about the Golan? '67 borders technically means everything from the six-day war, including land that was formerly Syria. But time after time has shown us that a lot has to happen before Israel is going to give up that region. Can we really believe Olmert, a man known for his discriminatory policies against Arabs, when he says he will solidify Israel's borders to where they were in 1967?

And again, is that we want? We want to end the occupation, most have agreed, but how tight are we going to make the borders? Will setting these borders actually end occupation? Will it end Palestinian attacks? Will it end Israeli attacks? And how much violence are we going to see from opponents before that actually happens?

Likud, the other party for whom the bulk of its platform is focused on security, has slanted the rest of its campaign on attacking Olmert. Likud should not be elected - it rides on its opposition to any sort of withdrawal. And in Ariel Sharon's own disengagement from Likud, the party has become lost in nearly every way. Likud is painting Kadima - its estranged brother - as the most leftist faction to hit Israel since the early days of Zionism. Banners adorned with scrawling red script calling Olmert 'Smolmert' (smol as in the hebrew word for left) are displayed on bus after bus and billboard after billboard. Kadima calls itself centrist, but if we thought the right and left division around disengagement time had never been so apparent, we have a surprise waiting for us post-elections. If Likud wins, the right wins. If Kadima wins, maybe everyone wins, but the rightist revolution will be there, ready for the rebound. Not afraid of civil war.

There doesn't seem to be room in Israel for a centrist party. Kadima isn't the first of its kind, and if we look at its failed predecessors, it could be setting itself up for disaster. But Kadima has announced its intention to end the occupation. To stop investing in the territories. To pull out from the territories. This at a time when even those not quite willing to call it occupation are ready to admit that Israel is contributing to the perpetuation of violence in the region. Though its practical implications might seem vague, this is a good step. This is a necessary and politically keen move. This is the step we've been waiting for.

Democracy, in its purest form, is about electing the party and candidates who represent the majority voice of the public. The public in Israel is calling for political stability and security. The public in Israel is also calling for a better financial situation. And Arabs are calling for more representation. And so are the religious Jews. And so are the secular. But Israel is divided and extreme ideology here runs rampant. Sometimes to a point where it seems it would be impossible to compromise.

So what does Israel want most of all? What does Israel need most of all? And are these compatible?

Kadima has until now secured the most support in the polls, though its numbers are falling. Throwing support to Kadima could mean defeating the chance for society-oriented parties like Meretz and Labor from getting any seats at all, perpetuating corruption in government and vetoing a focus on better social policies. And despite Israel's need to set its priorities, we still need those social policies. Likud is now safely riding far behind Kadima in the polls, but who can say for sure what will happen election day? Hamas was safely behind Fatah.

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