In Israel, ex-pats perplexed by political musical chairs

Click photo to download. Caption: On Dec. 4, jettisoned Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid political party, speaks during a farewell party in his honor at the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem. Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were dismissed from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition on Dec. 2. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/JNS.org

There are two kinds of olim (immigrants) these days in Israel: those who are living through their first sudden call for early elections, and those old-timers who have seen it all before. 

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jettisoned two members of his coalition’s cabinet, the Knesset scrambled to dissolve itself on Dec. 8 and set elections for March 17, 2015. While they struggle to understand the rules of the game, the newer immigrants’ faces look hopelessly befuddled.

Students in the ulpan (Hebrew immersion class) in Maale Adumim who hail from countries around the globe were uniformly perplexed. “I try to understand it, but it’s very confusing. … This system seems to generate so much insecurity,” says recent immigrant Betty Anschlawsky, who is from Peru.

“I really don’t understand what is going on with the government,” says Colombian ex-pat Rajel Torres DeLeon.

Sharon Borchardt, who made aliyah from North Carolina this year, says, “I’m so caught up with getting settled that I only keep up with the news on a need-to-know basis. I guess I have no choice but to trust the people who are getting the job done.” 

Many of the new olim were among the Israelis who tuned in to Netanyahu’s televised statement on Dec. 2 announcing his dismissal of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and the subsequent unraveling of the prevailing multi-party coalition. Since citizens vote not for candidates but for parties, the upcoming election could change the balance of power in the Knesset and the cast of characters holding the nation’s top leadership slots.

This was obviously a risk the prime minister believed he needed to take. He said he was doing so “in order to go to the people and seek a clear mandate from them to lead Israel.”

“This is not an easy thing to do, what I’m doing tonight,” Netanyahu said Dec. 2. “Frequent elections are not a good thing, but a government with no governability that includes ministers who are working against it from the inside, is much worse.” Indeed, insiders have long commented on the fractious nature of the 20-month-old coalition, many adding that they were not surprised at the firings.  

Certainly, for those not intimately familiar with this internal strife, the seismic governmental shift seemed both sudden and unsettling. But for seasoned Israeli observers like Vladimir Marshak, it’s business as usual. It has been a full 24 years since Marshak (who also lives in Maale Adumim) left the former Soviet Union for Israel. He says he has “always been fascinated by politics and the ways governments work,” and admits that it took him more than a year of study to fully understand the inner workings of his new home’s system of leadership selection, including how and when a national election is called for. 

Though he considers these elections “often a total waste of time and money,” Marshak insists they’re nothing to worry about. “After you’ve been here for some years and you’ve seen a few of these, you learn that there are almost no governments in Israel that have actually lasted the full four years. So it’s not like it’s a surprise that this one has fallen apart too,” he says. 

This system of seemingly sudden leadership shifts can actually be a positive strength, Marshak argues. “In America the impeachment of a president is a very extreme act; things have to be very bad to even attempt it,” he says. “But here in Israel, because it is a parliamentary form of democracy, when a government isn’t working, it can be changed and the people are invited into the process to have their say as to how the country needs to be run now and who will lead it. And that can be a very good thing.” 

Marshak says he hopes that fact will be a comfort to the new olim concerned about the stability of the Israeli government in the light of the coalition’s dissolution. 

“But I’ve come to the conclusion that psychologically the less you worry about politics here, the better off you are,” he says with a smile. Sometimes, he adds, that means walking away from the television or shutting off the radio or Internet news. 

“Remember, the first rule of happiness here in Israel is not to let yourself take the politics too much to heart,” he says. “If you do, you run the risk of it keeping you up at night.”

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Posted on December 9, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, News.