Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Power of No

Americans live in a certain and stable world.  The United States has elections every four years, no more, no less.  The French have even more time to think, six years.  Israel is a dynamic country.  There is an election whenever the situation requires, generally around every two years.  That does not mean that the actual government changes.  In most cases, the Prime Minister remains the same but the actual coalition is adjusted a bit left or bit right, whatever that means.  The most curious aspect of the Israeli politics is that the best way of staying in power is to say “no”.

To demonstrate, the prime ministers with the most years in power in the history of Israel are Ben Gurion, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir.  David Ben Gurion, who ran the country for 14 years total, is the exception to the rule because he had two advantages. First, he did not have the luxury of doing nothing because the country had just been born.  Second, his Mapai party had a majority by itself and didn’t have to put together a coalition.
The current Prime Minister, Bibi as he is known, has held the position for nine years.  In terms of Israeli’s territorial security or chances for peace, basically nothing has changed in that period, for better or for worse.  There admittedly have a few short conflicts, but more in reaction than as a long term strategy.  The trading off of concessions to the Palestinians and those who want a greater present on the other side of the green line (hard to say that neutrally) has equally frustrated the Israeli left and right.  Combined with a sane but not proactive economic policy, Bibi has managed to survive nine years in the hot seat by avoiding extreme action in any direction.

Yitzhak Shamir, a prime minister for seven years, was less diplomatic than Bibi, but much more forceful in saying “No”.  He was also consistent, refusing any all suggestion for action.  Ask any Israeli what Shamir actually did.  The answer probably will be silence.  Curiously enough, he was rather well liked, a bit like Eisenhower, who was elected to do nothing and did not disappoint. 

The power of this “nothingness” is not a product of the ideal situation in Israel.  Israelis, who love to complain anyway, can produce a long list of problems, including the price of housing and taxes, to name just a few.  Instead, in my opinion, it is the result of living in an area of the world filled with peril.  Any action, however well-intended, may in fact lead to the destruction of the country.  So the country is split between the pessimists, who believe that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, and the half-pessimists, who look for signs that something can be changed and hope not to be disappointed.  If this split seems to lack any sense of ideology, I would tend to believe that level of optimism is a more relevant differential between the Israeli left and right.  In such a world, the famous dilemma from Waiting for Godot seems so relevant for many Israeli prime ministers: Should we go anywhere?

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