Looking for a Messiah
“Messiah” may be a stretch. The word implies something from another world, associated with the Almighty, and meant to create some kind of paradise for those who are favored.
Writing from Jerusalem on the subject is especially dicey, given that we are within walking distance of the places where the world’s primary claimant to the title was born and died.
Beginning it with a small “m” might convey a more modest intention, of a political figure who will make things better, provide a new alternative, shake up the tired folks currently running things, or at least bring a new face to the arena.
Americans should recognize the phenomenon in Barack Obama, not all that different from their previous choices of John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush.
Israelis’ equivalents are a long list of candidates and new parties claiming to provide a centrist alternative between Likud and Labor.
The most recent is Yair Lapid and the party he called “There is a Future.” It won 19 Knesset seats in its first appearance for the election of 2013, making it the second largest party. Success gained Lapid the key position as finance minister and party colleagues positions as ministers of education, health, science and technology, and welfare.
Lapid’s big promises were to make things better for Israel’s middle class, and to even the military burdens by solving the problem of the ultra-Orthodox.
His lack of success to date may be measured by his drop in the latest poll to 11 seats. The various problems of even this tiny country are too complex for the nice sounding solutions of a fresh new candidate. The economy is running reasonably well, as it was before Lapid took charge. However, it doesn’t provide all that would be desirable. Likewise, the Haredim will not go quietly into the army, or to work.
With Lapid fading, there is a new claimant in the headlines. The latest darling of Israelis looking for something new is Moshe Kahlon.
Kahlon was minister of communications in the previous Netanyahu government, and gained fame for reducing the cost of cell phones. That got a great press, perhaps too great, insofar as it led to a falling out with the competitor-wary Prime Minister. Kahlon was close to Netanyahu in policy and popular appeal, and the Prime Minister would not support his moving up in the ministerial ranks too far and too fast. Kahlon decided not to participate in the national election of 2013, and spoke about a time out from politics.
More recently he has talked about running apart from Likud. He has yet to create or name a party or identify running mates, but he has gained enough support for the survey to indicate that he and unknown colleagues would win 14 Knesset seats, right behind Labor (15 seats) and not too far from Likud (23 seats).
If people outside of Israel have not heard of Moshe Kahlon, that is no surprise.
We don’t know a great deal about him or his intentions.
That suggests another trait of a messianic candidate—there isn’t much to use by way of detailed criticism.
However, political messiahs age fast.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama won second terms, but commentators have not been kind to Carter, George W. Bush or Obama. Clinton and Kennedy have supporters, but Kennedy’s have to insist that he would not have escalated in Vietnam.
Reports are that only a minority of the cadets stood and applauded when Obama was introduced to speak recently at West Point. His style was typically attractive, but his claim that the world looks to the U.S. to deal with the major issues of the world, like Ukraine or Nigeria, does not stand up to his accomplishments. Not mentioning Israel and Palestine, was a transparent effort to avoid an embarrassing failure begun with foolish aspirations. The president’s emphasis on what the United States would not do with its military encourages some of his supporters, but has generated criticism among those already firmly opposed.
Israeli equivalents go down in the smoke of failing to deliver on their major promises.
Tsipi Livni came to the election of 2013 with a new party having the less than modest name of “The Movement led by Tsipi Livni” and a promise of seeking peace with the Palestinians.
The poll that elevated Kahlon above Lapid indicates the end of Livni. According to its findings, Livni’s party would get no seats in the next Knesset.
Remember Kadima, the party that Ariel Sharon formed when he broke from Likud after withdrawing Jewish settlements from Gaza? Ehud Olmert led a Kadima government after Sharon became ill. Olmert is currently facing a six-year prison term, along with other charges that may add to the toll.
Kadima squeaked into the present Knesset with two seats, and the survey that elevated Kahlon projects no seats for Kadima in the next Knesset.
Politics is fluid. Running any country is a tough job. The United States and Israel are tougher than most. The problems of the American President include the size of the country, its domestic complexities, and international responsibilities.
Israel’s problems begin with a divided and contentious population, and being at the focus of international pressures.
Benyamin Netanyahu’s three electoral victories and 8 years as prime minister put him in a league with the iconic David Ben Gurion.
Just as Israelis got tired of Ben Gurion, however, there are signs of Netanyahu’s vulnerability.
Most prominent is his clumsy effort to influence the pending presidential election. The prime minister searched up to two hours before the deadline for a candidate to stand against the veteran Likud politician Ruby Rivlin, who had fallen afoul of Bibi and Sara. At the end he tried to persuade Elie Wiesel to be his candidate, but Wiesel lacked Israeli citizenship, and claims to have been astonished at the offer. Then Netanyahu announced his support for Rivlin. Commentators suggest that Bibi’s support might actually weaken Rivlin’s chances. Likud MKs as well as those of other parties are looking for opportunities to embarrass Netanyahu.
Several of Bibi’s party colleagues are maneuvering for the inevitable opportunity, whenever it comes, to name a new leader.
Likely candidates who have spent years just below Netanyahu in the top tier of Likud ministers are Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, former Minister of Environmental Protection and current Minister of Communications Gilad Erdan, and former Education MInister and current Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar.
With the possible exception of Ya’alon, none of those figures are well known outside of Israel. Ya’alon’s international fame may rest on his outspoken comments about John Kerry during Kerry’s recent peace campaign (obsessive and messianic, and concerned mostly for the prospect of a Nobel Prize).
Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman is even better known for a sharp tongue and postures outside the politically correct (transferring Israeli Arabs to Palestine). He has recently moved toward the center, perhaps even a bit to the left of Netanyahu on peace with the Palestinians. However, he has not abandoned the idea of trading Israeli Arabs to Palestine in exchange for the inclusion of West Bank settlements within Israel. Lieberman is marginal to Likud, but is the king pin in Likud’s present partner Israel our Home, and must be counted among those with their eyes on the big prize.
Netanyahu is currently secure, but shaking. Kahlon’s options include creation of a new party, or taking on Netanyahu directly in a Likud primary.
An earlier Moshe has weathered the test of time.
This week we celebrate his major accomplishment, which occurred all those years ago alongside one of the mountains in the Sinai.
However, don’t expect too much from Moshe of cell phone fame.
Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.