The press’ instinct to apply simple narratives to complex stories isn’t limited to American politics. Apparently, members of the media are just as happy to impose superficial storylines on international politics, too.
Over the past few days, a decidedly simple-minded conventional wisdom has emerged to explain what is projected to be relatively low turnout in Israel’s parliamentary elections: Israeli voters don’t care. Journalists and analysts have attributed the lack of the usual sturm und drang to a deep disinterest on the part of voters in the existential issues facing Israel and the apparently boring politicians debating them. But something more complex is at work here: What the press has chosen to define as apathy is actually a kind of normalization of Israeli politics.
Look at some of today’s headlines: the New York Times declares, “Israel Voters Seem to Wait for a Signal,” the Washington Post says, “In Israel, an Unsettled Electorate.” The Los Angeles Times describes the mood of the country: “Although compelling issues are at stake, including Olmert’s plan to redraw Israel’s borders within four years — uprooting many West Bank settlements — the campaign has been characterized by a distinct apathy. Few cars carry bumper stickers supporting one candidate or another, and the TV audience has been largely tuning out political ads, which in the past have gained a large viewership for being clever and funny. The country traditionally has one of the highest voting rates among Western democracies, but turnout was forecast to be low by Israeli standards. The Jerusalem Post called it ‘the most complacent campaign in Israel’s history.’” (It’s worth noting that “low turnout” in Israel still means more than two-thirds of the electorate — not too shabby compared to America’s average of 50-60 percent.)
That complacency would seem almost criminal if true. After all, the campaign has not revolved around mundane issues, but rather the future borders of the Jewish state, the nature of relations with Palestinians and the decision to bring an end to the 39-year occupation of the West Bank. We’re not talking about Social Security reform and tax breaks; these are the issues that will mean life or death for Israelis and define the future of their country.
So what has actually happened? The tumult from past elections seasons that reporters are used to was the result of a political system that presented two distinct ideologies as possible alternatives, neither of which wholly captured the desires of a majority of the country. The left-wing Labor party represented one extreme (negotiation with the Palestinians over a two-state solution) while the right-wing Likud embodied another (continuing the hold over the West Bank and Gaza into the foreseeable future). What Ariel Sharon and Kadima, the party he built, have done is to finally give Israelis a party that is closer to the true feelings of Israelis: disillusioned with the prospects for peace (a bubble burst long ago), but also unwilling to be continuing occupiers of the Palestinian people. Therefore, for better or worse, the Israeli consensus has settled on a unilateral solution that disengages Israel from the territories, but still doesn’t trust the Palestinians.
The significance of Kadima was more than just in the creation of a new centrist party. The popularity of its vision effectively forced both Labor and Likud to take a position on the unilateral option, and now both parties have at least some version of a plan in which Israel would pull back from part of the territories.
The political universe has come into alignment with the will of the Israeli voter. When there are no radical positions but just variations on a similar, accepted theme, it can mean that fewer people feel compelled to scream in the streets, attend rallies, sport bumper stickers, and, ultimately, vote.
While the press may think that is a reflection of political apathy, it is anything but. Rather than signifying a political process that is not working, it might be pointing to the opposite: one that is already so attentive to what the people have to say that they don’t feel any great urgency to make themselves heard.