August 3, 2000
1. The Convention of Politics: Israel
A poll this week within Israel indicated that a majority (54 percent) ofthe voters would have voted directly for Shimon Peres as president (inthe main, a ceremonial role). The determining vote, however, was castnot by the voters but by the Knesset, where a coalition of Likud,religious and Russian party supporters backed his opponent, MosheKatsav.
Katsav is a nearly invisible politician and Likud loyalist. He was givenlittle chance of being elected -- until the anti-Barak sentiment withinthe Knesset picked up steam following the Camp David meetings. Inessence, the political parties in the Knesset chose Katsav over Peres.What the vote shows, among other things, is that Israel's currentpolitical system has created a disjunction between the broad publicvoice(s) and the individual political parties with which many voters arealigned. Israeli elections function in the following way: Voters castballots directly for the Prime Minister, who leads the nation. They thencast separate ballots for their preferred political parties, each ofwhich has compiled a list of selected party candidates for seats in theKnesset. The candidates owe their position, and hence their loyalty, tothe party leaders. It is a bit like the old machine politics in Americancities, where political bosses reigned (nearly) supreme.
The new political rules were approved in 1993 but not put into effectuntil 1996 when Binyamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres. They weredesigned to make the head of state directly responsible to the peopleand thereby free, or at least freer, of control by the multifariousparties in the Knesset. Previously the party or parties dominating thelegislature elected the Prime Minister, somewhat like politics in GreatBritain. It was a tight, closed enterprise, with more power vested inthe legislature and the voters given a somewhat indirect voice.
Presumably, all that was to have changed when direct elections were putinto place. Power to the people. But it has not quite worked out thatway. Now there is an awkward break between party politics, whichdominates the Knesset, versus a direct public voice, which supportsand/or opposes the Prime Minister. The public voice of course can befickle, ever-changing and undisciplined -- somewhat like democracy inaction.
The stalemate -- and that is what looks like has occurred in Israeltoday -- has been given a respite, almost by accident. The Knessetadjourned this past week for a three-month break. That is just aboutenough time for Prime Minister Barak to work out a solution (or fail todo so) with Yasser Arafat before the September 13 peace negotiations'deadline.
It seems clear that the Knesset will have no truck with Barak or hissolutions. In the autumn, when the Knesset reconvenes, it will probablyvote to dissolve itself and the Prime Minister. New elections will becalled, and a new government will come into being.
There is no guarantee, however, that the results will be any different.They might be, but then again, they might not. It is all reminiscent ofFrench politics in the mid-1950s, when a succession of crises --conflicts in Vietnam and in Algeria, for example -- caused one regimeafter another to stumble and fall. Political paralysis was the result,until something like a bloodless coup ushered in General Charles deGaulle. He changed everything (I would say for the better), but hispolicies almost led to a revolt by the military and the far right, whofelt betrayed by one of their own.
No one is predicting just how the political stalemate in Israel willplay out in the next three months. One fact is certain: Eventually thepolitical system will change. Given the present crisis, Israel has fewother options.
2. The Convention of Politics: America
We in America find ourselves in the midst of national politicalconventions that appear to have antagonized everyone except thedelegates themselves. The delegates come across as excited, pleased,perhaps thrilled by the simple fact that they are conventionparticipants. The same can be said for the speakers -- one of whom wasour own Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon WiesenthalCenter, who was slated to speak for 3 1/2 minutes at the Republicanconvention Wednesday evening. Of course cynics on the outside mightdescribe the delegates as being only members of the audience, applaudingand celebrating the scripted performances on stage. But there are perks,namely invitations to a weeklong series of parties. Who could complain?Apparently a great many people. For one, those groups and voices thatfeel they have been frozen out of the convention platform are furious.National conventions may be described as democracy in action by partyleaders, but the present system is designed to eliminate discussion,argument and dissident voices.
Unity, conformity and agreement was the order of the day in Philadelphiaamong the Republicans this past week as it will be in Los Angeles in tendays, when the Democrats arrive here in full force. In short, all thedecisions have already been made. Neither critics, nor outsiders, normalcontents have been invited to the party.
All of which in part explains the presence of the protesters. Theybelieve their interests have been bypassed or ignored. They can vote inNovember for a presidential candidate, but the issues they hold dearhave been not too subtly swept aside, all in the interest of avoidingcontroversy.
Those small special party interests that, say, are reflected within theIsraeli political system are missing, at least by the time a candidatehas been selected to run for president. By convention time there are nodisparate voices allowed in the hall, among Democrats as well asRepublicans, on issues that are important, even visceral, for many ofus: abortion, gun control, capital punishment, local jobs.
There is also, at times, a parental factor present. To some of thoseprotesting and disrupting on the outside -- "the spoiled white kids," asone delegate in Philadelphia described them -- the convention hall looksas though it is filled precisely with the parents they have struggledagainst during adolescence. Their freedom and separation from familyhave come at considerable cost; and, in many cases, have not been wonat all.
Now these same parents, with whom the young are no longer living, areout to chart the rules and laws within America itself. The rage ispalpable and directed against all authority: city officials, the policeand the delegates.
The streets, then, have become the convention hall for thosedemonstrating. In some large measure the television cameras and the newsphotographers have helped make all this possible. They verify theprotests and link the demonstrators to us, the other audience. Oneresult is that the convention process has evolved into a two-stepaffair: First the controlled event, more spectacle than politicalhappening, more public relations than political dynamics; and, second,the protests in the streets and the alternate forum halls, where outsidevoices are heard.
Indeed, the convention has become so artificial and unreal that manyofficial political contributors and media stars have themselves opted tobe outside. Enter the Shadow Convention, organized in Los Angeles byArianna Huffington, a political writer with outlets in many newspapersacross the country, and as well a frequent political commentator ontelevision. She is being joined here next week by other media stars, aswell as by such political contributors and activists as Warren Beattyand Stanley Sheinbaum.
Their Shadow Convention is in its own way a reflection of their refusalto be part of the audience with all the (powerless) delegates. They wanta more prominent role in the proceedings. And, at the very least, theyare making an effort to bring to the convention something like adialogue that touches our lives and affects our political interests.More power to them.