Is There an Israeli Future? Post-Election Reflections on Minister Lapid, “Riki Cohen from Hadera” and the Pursuit of a Normal Society

In the immediate aftermath of the latest elections in Israel, my (somewhat snide, but really felt) response was “good thing there is a future; there’s surely no present.” Meaning, I suppose, something like: nice to see that folks really made a statement that the current political system is fundamentally broken (by voting in droves for the newly-minted Yesh Atid [i.e., there is a future] party), but that doesn’t mean that anything has actually changed, or can be expected to change, any time soon. I had wanted to try to develop that reaction into a sustained thought, but failed. Then, in the build-up to Obama’s visit and the drama of Netanyahu’s troubled, but ultimately (and predictably) successful, attempt to forge a coalition, I thought that there was a real moment to expand on my initial response. I failed again. Obama’s visit itself would have been a nice occasion to revisit my thesis and see how it was holding up against “facts on the ground.” But, alas, that moment passed as well.

Who would have thought that the “critical mass” would have been reached through a seemingly benign, almost anodyne, gesture by Yair Lapid (head of the afore-mentioned party) in saying that any structural changes to Israeli economic and fiscal policy—and such changes, it is universally agreed (and, seriously, now, how often is universal agreement reached on anything in Israel?)—must first of all resolve the difficulties faced by the “ideal typical” family of “Riki Cohen” who (it so happens) is said to hail from Hadera, the suburban semi-city between Tel Aviv and Haifa where my wife’s parents have lived for 25 years.

So, I am sitting here in their house in Hadera, looking over the pages and pages devoted to “Rikigate” in the thick Friday [think: Sunday] editions of Yediot Ahronot and HaAretz (including prized positions on the front covers thereof), and I realize: this is the evidence that the January version of me would have wanted to rip from the near future and point to in making my comment about the lack of a political present in Israel. Basically, it seems to me, the situation is like this: a relatively (and surprisingly) broad swath of Israeli society got together to say that while there is no organized left worth voting for anymore in Israel, and while the centrist parties of the 1990s and 2000s have shown themselves to be equal parts feckless and selfish opportunists, the domestic policies of the right and further-right are fundamentally disastrous for the modern, liberal Israel these folks believe themselves to live in and be a part of. These people agree about this, and this is not nothing, but it is by no means the basis of a platform around which the kind of structural reformation of public policy and economic development that was the demand of the massive protest movement in the summer of 2011. And so, to the extent that Lapid and his party have been given more or less a free hand to set the domestic policy of the current government—a costly but necessary concession given that he and the nationalist “Bayit HaYehudi” [Jewish Home] party leader Naftali Bennet formed an “in government together or in opposition together” pact, which meant that Lapid effectively controlled as many seats as Netanyahu at the time of the coalition negotiations—he now gets to face the same stalemate we saw in the time of the Trajtenberg Committee. Israelis know that the current state of affairs is untenable, but there remains no consensus about the concrete steps that need to be taken in order to stand the country on legs that can actually carry it to the future. “Yesh atid,” you might say, but we have no (shared) idea of how to get there.

And this brings us to Riki Cohen from Hadera. Maybe you haven’t heard of her, but she’s been the beginning and/or the end of news broadcasts here in Israel throughout the week I’ve been visiting. (Pretty impressive for someone who doesn’t exist!) Basically, Lapid said this: there are a number of families in this country like this imaginary case I have for you. You have a pair of working parents with, say, two or three children. They are professionals and successful. They earn well above the average annual income in Israel (which includes the far too many un- and under-employed), and a decent amount more than the average income for families with two working adults. (This turns out to be the source of much of the controversy, but it is critical to Lapid’s thought experiment.) They bring home enough to keep paying down the house, to keep their cars on the road (fuel is very expensive in Israel, remember), to feed the family, and (and here, again, much controversy) to travel once every two years to a destination outside Israel. But they have no chance to buy a house for any of their kids, and no security for their retirement. The economic and fiscal policy of this government, said Lapid in the meeting where he introduced this character, will first of all take into consideration the need to improve the situation for families like this.

And what followed? In the phrase of my dearly departed mother: a shitstorm. A shitstorm that perfectly shows why there is no present in Israel. All kinds of different constituencies jumped on this one. There are those (and there are many) who assail Lapid (from the left, I suppose) for speaking about people who bring home something like3500 USD/month after tax, when there are many working families that bring home something like 2000 USD/month after tax. There are those (and there are many) who assail him (from the right) for speaking about trips abroad and buying a house for the kids, when we are at war and always at war, and people have sacrificed and will sacrifice much more than a trip to Venice for the sake of the continued existence of Israel. Both of these responses are predictable: they are the source of the stagnation of the past generation. And both of them fundamentally miss the point.

Let me be clear: I am no fan of Lapid, I wouldn’t have voted for him in January had I had the chance, and I haven’t liked him on Facebook, either. But I do recognize that he represented and represents the hope of many young and youngish people that Israel can be “a normal country.” These people don’t all agree (maybe even: don’t agree at all) about the conflict with the Palestinians, or about “the Iranian threat,” and they might very well disagree about tax and spending policy if they were transplanted to the US or to a European country. But they agree that, given Israel’s current realities, people who are more or less advocates of a limited government (neo-) liberal economic model and people who are more or less advocates of a continental European-style social democratic economic model need to make common cause to “rescue” the state from (on the one hand) its vastly too great financial commitments to some sectors (read: the ultra-religious and the settlers, two populations with a fair amount of overlap, but less than you would think) and, on the other hand, from its vastly too advanced (under Netanyahu I and Netanyahu II) program of “economic liberalization” with respect to other sectors.

At the risk of seeming tendentious, I’d like to call these people (the Lapid voters and, say, the people who see why the Lapid voters voted for Lapid) “the adults.” The adults face a stiff challenge: political discourse in Israel is rich and multifarious. All those statements about Israel being a flourishing democracy (albeit with the horrific stain of the occupation, which must end “speedily, speedily in our days”) are true. But the discourse is also often beside the point. If there’s one thing that can come and must come from the most recent election, it is progress on the path toward economic and fiscal normalization. And that will demand that political actors don’t return to bromides about Israel being a socialist country (on the one hand) or nonsense about the perpetual endangerment of tiny Israel meaning that “we all have to make sacrifices.” Both the left, at least in the current form of Avoda (the Labor Party) and its populist-nonsensical-obstructionist rhetoric, and the right are wrong about the future of Israel: where Israel needs to be in 25 years is neither returned to its solidarity-bootstraps (“Socialist-Zionist youth”) roots of the 1948-67 period—with “khol ha-kavod” to those “Pioneers”—and certainly not in some bizarre semi-theocracy of a center-right political faction joined together with a nationalist right and a theocratic faction. It needs to be, as the adults say (and say rightly), “a normal country.”

What is “a normal country”? In this case, at least, it must mean something like this: Israel as a moderate, perhaps somewhat (right or left) populist-leaning liberal democracy standing alongside an at least nominally independent (but economically and militarily coordinated) state of Palestine. That this is Israel’s only sustainable future is clear.  The problem is that there is next to no connection between the present and that future. A significant step in that direction would be to secure the economic future of families like Lapid’s “Riki Cohen from Hadera.” If these people (and they are the sector of Israeli society with which I am the most familiar, I confess) can’t live a life that is analogous to people living and working in economies of similar size whose educational backgrounds and career trajectories are similar to their own, then (even leaving aside “the security issue,” as one can do only ever do in abstraction), contra the name of Lapid’s party and all the interest it generated, there is no future for the State of Israel.

Not, in any case, as a liberal democracy.