During the recent Gaza conflict, the sky above our village in northern Israel was eerily quiet. But, immediately after the ceasefire, Israeli fighter jets began passing overhead several times a day. You don’t hear them coming until suddenly they are slashing the sky, low and fast, like a new kind of thunder.
It’s the post-war jitters. Russian naval ships stand opposite the Israeli shore, US Patriot missiles are ready near the Turkish-Syria border, a showdown with Iran seems inevitable — and on top of all that, there are the upcoming elections.
Two Jews, three opinions. Two Israelis, three political parties. Or so it seems, even more so now than at the last elections in 2009. These days, almost every constituency has its own party to lobby for its own special interests.
While it is important that Israel’s minority factions are represented in the Knesset, do we really need a party for retirees or for the legalising of marijuana? Israel would be better off having a system in which a politician is elected as leader of the government and then governs, rather than having to scramble to form a coalition.
Tzipi Livni won the election in 2009 but was unable to patch together a coalition because she refused to bow to pressure from religious parties. She is now trying again, with a new party, T’nua, or the Movement.
I am pessimistic about whether the elections can brighten Israel’s currently bleak landscape. Yet there is also a sense of hope because a wave of young adults has been galvanised into action. What started as a loose social protest movement in the summer of 2011 has grown into a serious attempt to impact upon Israel’s political reality.
“Israel needs a deep and fundamental change,” says Maya Speer, a 30-something lawyer who has joined forces with her friends to start a movement called Mitpakdim, or the Registered, a group that urges Israelis to join parties so that they can influence who will be nominated on a ticket for a Knesset seat. Party membership costs about 60 shekels (£10) a year, and once you become a member, you can vote in the primaries. Speer says the group has already encouraged more than 5,000 Israelis to join parties.
I admire her optimism and sense of commitment. It is a relief from the helplessness I often see around me. “What about people joining parties with platforms you don’t agree with?” I asked Speer on the phone.
“It’s more important that people join a party,” she said. “That matters more than my opinion.”
Despite this idealistic push, how can I not be cynical? To paraphrase Allen Ginsburg’s poem Howl — “he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness” — in the 20 years I’ve lived in Israel, I’ve seen the best of our politicians destroyed, too. Moshe Katsav is in jail for rape. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is awaiting a trial for bribery charges. Avigdor Lieberman has been questioned over allegations of corruption. I’m struck by how often Israelis make excuses for their leaders, as though corruption naturally comes with the political territory.
“But if we have hope then maybe something will change,” says Yaara Sayag, a 25-year-old fashion designer. She says she’s voting for political commentator Yair Lapid’s new party, “Yesh Atid”, (There’s a Future), because she likes the fact that he presents a vision of hope that things can change in Israel if people work for it.
“Most of my friends who are also designers have moved to China because they can’t support themselves here,” says Sayag. “But this is my home. The problem is that people my age can’t afford to buy houses or flats or even afford to go to university. Lapid is one of the few politicians to address young people’s concerns.”
Two of my adult children say they are voting for Lapid’s party. I plan to vote for Livni, though I wonder if I’m throwing my vote away. My step-daughter, Libi, said she’d like to vote for a woman — but won’t. “What has Livni done, really, in the past two years?” My unofficially adopted daughter from Ethiopia, Degetu, leans toward Netanyahu depending on who else is running against him. (The tendency — is it a Jewish thing? — is not to vote for someone but to vote against someone else.) My husband remains uncertain.
All that is certain is that the Israel I moved to in 1991, out of idealism and a desire to work for peace, remains mired in permanent conflict.
The elections won’t change much: the future is as unmapped as the sky — with those fighter jets streaking across it.