No one ever accused former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni of any hint of corruption. She is a woman with as untainted a record for a politician as one can have. Nonetheless, you’d have to really stretch those muscles of ethical behavior to keep calling Livni a principled politician. No, she didn’t take money, didn’t favor a business partner, didn’t take expensive vacations at the taxpayers’ expense. But her political dealings in recent years have been as follows:
In 2005 she left her political home, the Likud Party, to join Ariel Sharon’s newly formed Kadima Party. In 2008, as the head of Kadima she failed to form a coalition and ran for election. In the 2009 elections she got the largest share of mandates as the head of the party, but failed again to form a coalition. Then she decided not to join the government and remain in opposition. Then she proved to be an ineffectual opposition leader. Then she was challenged by party rival Shaul Mofaz and lost the primary election. So she decided to quit. Then, just weeks ago, she formed a new party – Hatnua (the Movement). Then she started peeling people away from what once had been her own party of Kadima. She needed seven of them to be entitled by law to get the election funds a party can use to promote its cause, and was clearly harmed by accusations of the intrinsic immorality of such move. Then she started peeling people away from other parties as well.
Amram Mitzna was one such person. He is another who has never been accused of any hint of corruption. A former mayor of two cities, a man of integrity and an idealist. But his last decade in national politics has been as follows:
He was once the head of the Labor Party, but lost the 2003 election to Ariel Sharon. Then he refused to join the coalition, pledging to lead the party in opposition. But he was an ineffectual opposition leader, and soon quit this position. He was called back two years ago, to “save” the party. He ran, half heartedly, in the party primaries and made a pledge to remain an active member of the party if he lost. Then he lost. Pledge forgotten, he is now Livni’s number two. And last Thursday, a number three joined their ranks: Amir Peretz. Another Labor deserter, pledge breaker, party pooper.
Israel’s current election cycle is one in which all rules of party loyalty have been abandoned, and the pretense of deep-rooted party ideology thrown out of the window. Politicians – self-described “leaders” – were traded like basketball players. Looking for the highest bid, for the team with the most chances to win a championship or merely to secure a seat at the table. Honest and sincere people such as Livni and Mitzna are brushing off any allegation of dubious behavior. They have one goal in mind – replacing Prime Minister Netanyahu – that overwhelms any other consideration. It is not personal ambition, they say, but rather sheer pragmatism that has made them all ditch their respective commitments, their former colleagues and (in the case of Kadima) their struggling parties. Their public statements are tailored accordingly: Parties are just a mean to an end, and that end – saving the country from Netanyahu – trumps all niceties.
Of course, such pragmatism would seem more convincing had Livni any chance of defeating Netanyahu, which she doesn’t according to all polls. She’s pretty damn far from having such a chance. If pragmatism should be hailed in this amazing boogie of shifting loyalties, it is the pragmatism of voters who seem not to care much. Apparently, their level of expectations is so low that they aren’t fazed by this political commedia dell’arte of masked and ever-changing identities.
Of course, this is not Israel’s first introduction to dirty politicking and to disloyal party members. Six years ago, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon formed Kadima to rid himself of Likud inhibitions and start afresh. Joining him was Labor’s Shimon Peres, who was tired of his own party – but this was not Peres’ first such maneuver. He has a long history of shady deals, among them the failed affair known in Israel as the dirty trick of the early nineties. In the mid-nineties, Yitzhak Rabin – the man who branded Peres’ maneuver a “dirty trick” was able to ratify the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, only by tempting two members of a rival party to join his coalition in exchange for positions and benefits. And short-lived parties are also not new to the Israeli scene: From the Dash Party of the late seventies, thanks to which Menachem Begin became prime minister, to the failed Center Party for which notables such as Dan Meridor of the Likud Party changed loyalties, to the surprisingly successful Pensioners Party of the 2006 elections.
But this time it seems different. Just consider this partial – yes, partial! – list of moves preceding the coming elections:
In a stunning surprise, Kadima joined Netanyahu’s coalition, and quickly left it; Likud and Israel Beiteinu – the number two and three parties – merged; the Jewish Home and the National Union also merged on the right; Yesh Atid, the Movement and AmShalem, all new parties, were formed; seven Kadima members joined Livni, others – Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter – joined Likud; still others – Nachman Shai – joined Labor; Yulia Shamalov-Berkovitz moved from Kadima to Likud to the Calcala Party all within months; Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was thrown off the Israel Beiteinu list by party leader Avigdor Lieberman in a last-minute unexplained shocker; Mitzna and Peretz left Labor to join Livni; Ehud Barak, the Labor leader, left the party to form the Independence Party, then decided to quit politics. In fact, all three leaders of Labor prior to the current one are no longer members of the party; Haim Amsalem quit Shas to form a new party; former General Elazar Stern flirted with Amsalem, Lapid and the Jewish Home before landing in Livni’s lap; convicted felon Aryeh Deri threatened to form a new party, then rejoined Shas to become its number two (but its de facto number one, so he says); and the list goes on and on.
So it is not exactly the changed nature of politics that makes the 2013 election what it is, but rather the outlier becoming the norm. The number of new parties, the tempo of surprises, the boldness of politicians, the unabashed nature of making such deals, the lack of guilt, the lameness of the excuses – all make the 2013 cycle a unique one. The election cycle of no shame.