The Hole in the Bagel
It should have come as no surprise, really. What electorate throws out a government during a period of sustained, low unemployment of 6%? Yes, there is the housing crisis, the opposition’s erstwhile strategic electoral card, but here, too, the left was grasping at the hole in the bagel while Netanyahu gobbled up the dough. Let’s see: housing values have skyrocketed. 70% of Israelis own houses. Hmmm… .
Netanyahu knew what he was doing when he called these elections. He was the beneficiary of a deep, obscure and totally surprising concept most politicians haven’t heard of: the business cycle. Israel suffered its economic slowdown back in 2001-3 and was, thus, shielded from the crash of 2008. Netanyahu’s entire social and economic platform was summed up in the word “prosperity.” A recent Pew Research Center report showed that Israelis are the most satisfied people in the developed world. Go convince them that they’re actually miserable.
There was frustration, to be sure, at Israel’s high levels of inequality – among the highest in the OECD. But when you eliminate those at the bottom of the economic food chain; haredim and Arabs — whose votes are siphoned off into sectoral parties, and the industrial reserve army of guest workers, West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians who do not vote, Netanyahu had noone to contend with. Frustration produced 21 MKs for Kachlon/Yair Lapid, but most of those voters were seeking social change, not regime change.
Rockets and Clear Skies
On foreign policy, too, Netanyahu operated under clear skies. A few thousand families in the Western Negev have been suffering for years from Gazan rockets while governments come and go. Nu? Who cares? Hamas gave us everything they got over the summer and most people felt nothing more than inconvenience. ISIS was a double bonus: scaring Israelis into the nationalist camp while pinning down Hezbollah and Assad.
The left, meanwhile, has been stuck in Oslo for a generation, as if Arafat didn’t launch a bloody intifada from territory he controlled in the West Bank, Hamas didn’t turn Gaza into a terror haven and Nasrallah didn’t transform Israeli evacuated south Lebanon into a huge rocket base. No rethinking. No strategic creativity.
Of course, Netanyahu is digging a security hole that will be hard to fill the next time around. He’s alienated the White House and, by undermining the Palestinian Authority, is deliberately creating conditions for its collapse and the outbreak of the next intifada on the West Bank. He has squandered the geostrategic advantages offered by the disintegration of Syria and the rise of Asisi to humiliate Abu Mazen and expand settlements. Those who understood this voted Herzog. But for now, reasonable Israelis might be forgiven if they see no immediate reason for hysteria.
Burlesque Banter and the Iron Wall
Herzog, therefore, cannot be faulted for running a bad campaign. He had no chance to begin with. The funny thing about the business cycle, though, is that it behaves like, well, a cycle. What goes around comes around. The question is whether the left will be in a position to take advantage of the situation when it does. Netanyahu has been twice defeated: on both occasions by military figures who projected strength in a period of uncertainty: Ehud Barak and Arik Sharon. Their policies were less important than the feeling of confidence they engendered.
After all, Netanyahu’s fundamental security argument is correct. We ARE surrounded by Hezbollah and Hamas and ISIS and Al Qeda. And by different names, we have been so since 1948. Jabotinsky was right. Only an Iron wall will protect the Jewish state from the unwavering hostility of the Moslem world. The question is what goes on inside those walls. Jabotinksy envisioned a liberal society of the sort that is anathema to the present day Likud and its allies.
Here Netanyahu is at his most dangerous. Not that he is fundamentally a racist or an authoritarian. He is simply an opportunist of the most cynical variety. He travels the world lecturing everyone about Israeli democracy, while the settler apartheid he and his friends are building on the West Bank hollow it out from within. The mosque burnings, the price tag attacks, Netanyahu’s own shameful appeal to racism at the height of the campaign – make those who truly cherish Israel’s political culture look askew at his burlesque banter about democratic values. And his next government will go one better, with every fringe coalition partner pushing its own high handed solution to Israel’s travails, from undermining the Supreme Court and the Government Legal Advisor to the “national laws,” from new settlement initiatives to limiting foreign funding to human rights groups and the death penalty for terrorists. Netanyahu will buy in to this dark legislative agenda because it serves his needs, not because it resolves any fundamental problems.
It’s Not About Peace
To prepare for the next round, The left must overcome, once and for all, the juvenile idea, born of hubris, that underprivileged Israelis are concerned with “bread and butter issues,” not whether they are blown up on a bus (to be sure, Herzog and Livni were themselves innocent of this stupidity, pioneered by their predecessor, though one still hears it on the left). We must recognize that peace depends not only on Israeli concessions but, first and foremost, on a still nonexistent Palestinian willingness to accept the Zionist enterprise. We must learn to make the distinction that the entire democratic world understands between settlements and security, taking a relentless stand against apartheid in the West Bank and racism within Israel. In the end, it’s not about peace. It’s about freedom. Let us not squander our capital by joining the European chorus chanting the eternal Palestinian state mantra and hectoring Israel for endless negotiations to nowhere. These are all means, and means change with evolving circumstances. Our focus must be sharper. We must hammer home the message that ruling 2 million disenfranchised people is not some problem for the distant future but a real and present danger, an unsustainable aberration, a moral blight that is eating away at the most important asset we have: a democratic political culture based on a broad social consensus. That settlements are illegitimate. Period. Finally, Labor must begin grooming a confidence-inspiring leader with outstanding security credentials. Yuval Diskin? Amos Yadlin? Gabi Asheknazi? When the time comes to duke it out again, we cannot send a caricature into the ring.
When the Veil Lifts
In the end change will come, as it inevitably does. As soon as the veil of prosperity is lifted, Israelis will come to understand the long term damage Netanyahu has caused to Israel’s internal value system and to its standing in the world – and he will be swept aside. The key is not to lose our heads.