Israel’s Double Moonshot
These last couple of weeks a very small country made two very big bets. Both captured headlines and prompted complex calculations and hopeful odds making. In their own way, the project to land a spacecraft on the moon and the effort to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister each seek to bring Israel into a new universe, one where the usual rules of gravity work differently.
Ever since President John F. Kennedy urged America into the future with a Boston twang, the moon has always been both a metaphor and a goal. Despite the intervening half century, not many have made it. Before SpaceIL’s bid; only the United States, Russia and China have landed metal messengers on its weirdly inviting surface. Previously successful efforts had been top-down, government driven projects. Israel’s is differently shaped. It began as a private entry in the GoogleX competition, and when that deadline came and went with no winner, evolved into a private effort with distinctly communal aims; inspiring students to bend their curiosity towards science and engineering. Tremping with a SpaceX rocket and taking a circuitous route as a concession to its relatively modest price tag, the aptly named “Beresheet” aims to create through adaptation. For a country whose foreign policy is drawn at looping angles because of its dangerous neighborhood, the journey from the Mediterranean to the moon is not so preposterous.
Even as Beresheet makes its way into orbit, Israel’s political galaxy is streaked with all manner of turbulence. Bibi Netanyahu is an electoral singularity. If he can hold office through May, he’ll pass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, an achievement the latter owed to his central role in Israel’s founding and as the unquestioned head of an essentially one-party state. Bibi has achieved his endurance in a fractured and multi-polar system, despite rarely commanding anything close to a mandate. He openly defied one American President on core issues of foreign policy, only to cash out with another one who turned his bets on the Iranian nuclear deal and the location of the American Embassy into resounding winners.
Beresheet must contend with the rules of physics and gravity. Bibi’s chances of success in the upcoming elections hinge on breaking those rules. The specter of criminal indictments would normally be enough to spook voters, but Bibi has long shown that his brand of relativity is specific rather than general. He has been equally adept at vanquishing foes from within his own camp. His improbably journey from incitement against Rabin to his successor remains shocking nearly a quarter century later. By harnessing the chaos of Israeli parliamentary politics, he has managed to ensure his own equilibrium. Bibi isn’t just a force; he is the climate in which every other force operates. His highly criticized orchestration of the merger between Bayit Yehudi and Oztma Yehudit was a perfect exercise in Bibi physics- solving for his political survival by altering the basic underlying calculations.
All of which focuses attention on Blue and White, the latest moonshot aiming to change Israeli politics by solving its most difficult equation; the relentless persistence of Bibi. Like Beresheet, the effort’s success will be dictated not by its splashy launch, but whether it manages to stick the landing. Just as a space launch must account for unforeseen debris and adjust for fluctuating conditions, the Blue and White Party must not only solve the electoral math needed to win the election, but also for the more difficult calculus of how to assemble a coalition and govern a post-Bibi landscape that still seems as foreign and distant as the moon.