A campaign messier than usual, or democracy in action?
For a political scientist committed to the view that democratic politics is the essence of civilization, an election campaign can be a difficult test.
The one we are experiencing, like some others I've seen, brings out the worst in those aspiring to national leadership. It's not like an academic seminar of carefully crafted efforts to reveal new information or insights via research and constructive criticism. Yet it's also true that not all seminars live up to aspirations.
If there is a discussion of alternative approaches to the nation's most serious problems, it is difficult to find that in the noise of competing candidates, often appealing to the lowest of feelings and fears in a society that has decent levels of education.
It's a collective scream of "Me first," or "Listen to me," with candidates in media discussions or "debates" talking over one another so that neither can get across the intended message.
Ariyeh Deri is doing what he can to emphasize the issue of ethnicity, i.e., the alleged misery of Sephardim under the self-appointed "elites" of Ashkenazim, along with his claim to being the only party leader genuinely concerned with lower income Israelis.
Several of his opponents are doing what they can to remind us that he is a convicted criminal, who served time in the big house for political corruption, and had to remain outside of politics for a number of years as part of his punishment.
Deri and Eli Yeshi, who split as partners in SHAS, are each claiming that the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would choose him to continue revered traditions.
Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon are competing for the broad middle of the political spectrum by claiming to be more concerned about the needs of the middle class. Affordable housing is Lapid's major theme. The overall cost of living is Kahlon's.
Just about everybody is pursuing the theme of "anybody but Bibi," and hoping that will rebound to more votes for them than for their competitors.
Meanwhile Bibi isn't doing all that badly. A tough 10 days with two State Comptroller Reports that were interpreted as criticizing his management of the nation's housing shortage and his or his wife's management of the Prime Minister's official and private residences managed to drop Likud into a tie with Zionist Union or a couple of seats below Zionist Union, depending on the polls. However, the coming week, with the widely discussed, condemned, and praised speech to Congress may be his best opportunity of the campaign.
Israel's most widely circulated newspapers are adding more to the noise than to enlightenment.
Israel Hayom is justifying the label Bibipress, and Yedioth Aharonoth is firming up its standing as anti-Bibi, and anti-Israel Hayom.
The front page of Israel Hayom's Friday edition headlined Jeb Bush saying that Netanyahu had the right to speak about a bad agreement; the Legal Adviser to the Government saying that there is no suspicion that the Prime Minister was involved in the problems of the Prime Minister's residences, and that his investigation into the expenditures would commence after the election; and that an order preventing the leaving of Israel had been issued against the former manager of the Prime Minister's residence due to his bank debts.
The front page of Yedioth Aharonoth featured a former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, saying "Netanyahu caused the greatest strategic danger in connection with Iran," questioning what he would accomplish by his speech in Washington, saying that Netanyahu had not accomplished anything in the operation against Gaza, and that the Prime Minister was only interested in being photographed alongside a map. Another headline indicated that the Legal Adviser to the Government would begin an investigation into the management of the Prime Minister's residences after the election, without the qualification included in Israel Hayom that there was no suspicion about the Prime Minister. Two smaller headlines said that a Likud activist was suspected of false accusations against the former manager of the Prime Minister's residence, and that there was an unexplained building on the grounds of the Prime Minister's residence.
While Yedioth's headline describes an Meir Dagan's accusation against Netanyahu for the speech against the US-Iran agreement, the article itself indicates that the disagreement between the former Mossad head and Netayahu is one of tactics rather than substance.
This pretty well sums up Israeli opinion. It is hard to find an Israeli of note who supports Obama's posture on Iran. Opposition to the US brokered agreement deals not only with details of Iran's nuclear program, but the willingness of the White House to overlook Iran's involvement in terror, its threats against Israel, and its actions seeking to undercut the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Gulf Emirates."Dagan is not exactly a leftist. All who know his biography testifies to that. On the subject of Iran, he agrees with the concern of Netanyahu that a nuclear Iran is something that Israel cannot live with."
The concern of most who criticize Netanyahu is for his challenging directly the iconic head of the United States, for aligning himself with the President's partisan opponents (Sheldon Adelson, Mitt Romney, Congressional Republicans), for what they call the unproductive bombast and clumsiness of his long opposition to Iran's nuclear program, and for the risks from all of that to Israel's dependence on the United States for political assistance, economic help, and supplies of sophisticated military equipment..
Even among Netanyahu's supporters, it is hard to find anyone who expects a turnaround in American policy toward Iran as a result of Bibi's speech. Yet there is hope that the Prime Minister will make enough of an impression in Washington to harden those Americans urging a tougher posture with respect to Iran.
Most likely it will be more certain, more quickly how the speech rebounds in Israel. We can expect instant pro- and anti-interpretations. Weekend polls may show what the public thinks. Then we can parse the election results starting on March 18 to see signs of the speech's impact, being careful to note the problems in separating it from all the other influences on what the voters will have done.