Intrigue worthy of Shakespeare

By Jonathan Freedland, December 24, 2012

Some people love politics the way others love soap opera. They follow the plots and intrigue not out of a worthy interest in this or that policy but for the sheer human spectacle. For those so inclined, I often recommend an obsessive interest in the US: the outsized egos, the extravagant characters, the perennial culture wars are all reliably gripping.

Now, though, I fear any self-respecting politics nut should be looking eastward, specifically to Israel, especially in the run-up to next month’s Knesset elections. Judged purely as drama, it’s hard to beat.

Last week brought a serious twist: Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as Foreign Minister. Some tender souls assumed this meant the brutish minister — who believes Arabs born in Israel should be stripped of their citizenship if they cannot swear loyalty to the country as a Jewish, Zionist state — would be gone for good.

Those less touchingly naïve know that, in Israeli politics, a resignation is not for life but for Christmas (as it were).

Even an indictment for fraud and breach of trust, like the one facing Lieberman, need not be career-ending. As long-time viewers of the Israeli saga will recall, Shas’s Arye Deri went to jail for taking bribes and is now back as party leader. No wonder the outgoing Foreign Minister says, “I am parting temporarily.”

Even before his move, it had been all action in Lieberman’s party. First the boss merged his group with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, then he purged those colleagues who had displeased him, including Deputy Leader Danny Ayalon, whom he blamed for serial leaking. He gave Ayalon one hour’s warning that his time was up.

Over on the centre-left, it’s not been much more edifying. Two former Labour leaders abandoned their party for Tzipi Livni’s new grouping, one of them, Amir Peretz, for no better reason than that Labour’s new-ish leader, Shelly Yachimovich — keep up — had shown him insufficient respect.

Meanwhile, Livni has eviscerated her old party, Kadima, peeling away a chunk of its former MKs, so that Kadima is now poised to disappear. Livni will at least not have to do battle with a predecessor: former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert considered a comeback, following his own exit amid corruption charges in 2009, but thought better of it.

Not to mention the war of the rabbis, as “Lithuanian”, non-Chasidic strictly Orthodox Jews split into bitter rival factions, refusing to combine forces into a single party in time for polling day.

To be a political journalist in Israel is to be Shakespeare in Tudor England: you’re drowning in material. No wonder one blogger recently suggested HBO give Israeli politics its own series. With all this, who needs The Sopranos?

But the vicarious, voyeuristic fun comes at a price — one that isn’t paid by those watching for entertainment. It is the Israeli people, and those who live alongside them, who bear the cost of a system that can allow a thug like Lieberman to rise and rise, on course, it seems, to become the country’s eventual leader.

It is Israelis — and by extension the Palestinians — who suffer from a political class packed with individuals who scheme and plot their own advancement but who between them have failed to produce anything that could be called a strategy for the country’s future.

Every day, the country is getting closer to becoming a de facto binational state in which Jews are the minority, one that will be either Jewish or democratic but can’t be both. Yet it is saddled with a leadership unable to think beyond next week, let alone next decade. It may be amusing to watch, but it’s a disaster.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 10:45am, December 24 2012