It is said that a nation gets the leaders it deserves. If so, we all have cause for despair as we approach election day, whatever the outcome.
Politicians naturally prefer kissing babies and muttering inanities to describing the policies they will follow if elected, for fear they might offend some group of potential voters. They seek to remain pleasant-looking ciphers upon whom every voter can
project his or her fantasies.
But voters in a democratic society presumably have an opposing interest in forcing candidates to clarify the policies they advocate. To the extent that individual voters cannot force the candidates to do so, it is the task of the press.
Not in Israel.
To judge by the coverage so far in the press, the elections have nothing to do with the policies that will guide us over the next four years. The elections are treated as just another form of sports or entertainment. We have had more articles about the opposing coaches - Carville, Finkelstein, Sharansky's 'Finkelstein' et al. - than about the candidates themselves.
The latter are treated as if they were nothing more than puppets endlessly repeating the lines scripted for them.
In place of policy analysis, we receive daily 'Oscars' conferred on the slickest TV ad. Endless polls about who is winning have replaced serious discussion of what difference it might make. No wonder Shimon Peres felt so bitter about the 1996 results: After all, he won all the polls except one.
Yes, all politicians lie, and never so shamelessly as in an election campaign. But at least in America they run on a platform, produced after extensive internal party debate, and feel compelled to put out detailed position papers to justify their
sound-bites. As a consequence, their claims and promises can be subjected to a reality check.
Not in Israel. One Israel has made no attempt to show how its candidate can possibly make good on even a fraction of his promises.
In America, a candidate - especially the challenger without a record to run on - who avoided face-to-face debate and tough questioning, would be laughed out of the arena.
Not in Israel.
Ironically, the absence of any serious discussion of issues is in inverse proportion to the significance everybody attaches to the outcome of the upcoming elections.
If the latest polls are correct, the Left will be able to form the next government without the participation of any religious parties. The stage is set for separation of state and religion demanded by Meretz and Shinui and many in Labor. If that happens, it follows as the night the day that the Law of Return must be abolished, as Yaron London and others on the Left frankly acknowledge. Once Israel formally ceases to be a Jewish state, there is no basis for preferential treatment of those of Jewish ancestry.
Perhaps such a separation is a good idea. But shouldn't we at least have heard, the views on this subject of the man who can bring it all to pass?
On the crucial issue of negotiations with the Palestinians, Binyamin Netanyahu stands accused of having been an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps. If so, it should surely be an easy matter for Ehud Barak to explain clearly what he would have done differently in the past or will do differently in the future.
He has steadfastly refused to do so either as opposition leader or candidate. Remaining deliberately vague, Barak can present himself to Upper East Side supporters in America as a closet dove and to Russian immigrants as a closet hawk.
The Left ridicules Netanyahu's common-sense mantra: 'If they comply, they'll receive; if they don't comply, they won't receive.' But Barak has refused for three years to address the issue of Palestinian compliance. He has neither said whether the Palestinian Authority has complied nor whether it matters. Asked about weapons in PA hands far in excess of those allowed under Wye and its predecessors, his spokeswoman only repeats over and over again, 'Iranian missiles are a bigger threat.'
That response is nonsense. First, one threat does not preclude the other.
At least, we have a credible deterrent for Iranian nuclear attack, but none for Palestinian guerilla warfare. In the latter case, the weapons at the disposal of the Palestinian army and the areas from which they can launch attacks are of crucial importance. Moreover, concern with Iranian nukes can be used to justify any and every concession to the Palestinians.
In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned on a secret plan to bring American soldiers back from Vietnam. Barak is campaigning on a similar secret plan to bring our soldiers back from Lebanon within a year - a plan unknown to him as chief of staff or foreign minister. Shouldn't we be told what that plan is so we can judge its feasibility and the cost of implementation?
In addition, to the issues of state and religion and war and peace, there is also that of the economy. Barak has followed Carville's 1992 script for Clinton: 'It's the economy, stupid.' But Clinton's challenge was at least credible on economic grounds. The supply-side economics of the Reagan-Bush years were an economic joke.
Netanyahu, by contrast, would be thrilled to have the election determined by a poll of leading economists. Let them compare the performance of the Israeli economy over the last two years to that of other leading industrialized nations. Or compare the long-range economic prospects of all segments of the Israeli population today to what they were after the free-spending years of 1992-1996.
Barak will not even really tell us whether he favors the modified socialism of Shlomo Ben-Ami and Avraham Shohat or a move to greater privatization of the economy. Does he have a solution to the biannual national strikes of public employees, each one costing the country hundreds of millions of shekels? Or will he attempt to buy off the unions as Shohat did as finance minister?
Might Ehud Barak turn out to be a fine prime prime minister? Could be. The problem is that we the electorate have no way of passing an informed judgment. And for that we have only ourselves and our assorted 'wise men' in the media to blame.