There are two ways to win elections: scheming, and leading. Both can win you votes; only one wins you dignity. Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals have been losing with indignity. That has driven malaise and despair, and explains the interest in Ehud Barak, whose jackhammer message that the emperor has no clothes has the pleasing tenor of unabashed truth.
In the coming September election, the opposition enjoys impressive advantages.
Every living former military chief opposes Netanyahu, four of them on the front lines with guns blazing, each in his own way. Three indictments await him, including on bribery. And he was caught red-handed trying to engineer immunity for himself, immediately after polls closed in April, despite fervent campaign promises not to do so.
Moreover, Avigdor Liberman appears to have amputated himself and his Russian immigrant backers from Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc. For the opposition, that turned defeat into a 60-60 tie in terms of Knesset seats, and made the former bouncer a legitimate candidate for history’s strangest deus ex machina.
The country is as an angry wounded beast, rising on hind legs and thrashing in all directions to cast off the flawed but brilliant monkey clinging desperately to its back.
It may still all end in tears, unless the challengers mend their ways.
Scheming these days takes the form of obedience to consultants and pollsters with their data and deep dives pulling campaigns toward what has worked before. Vision falls well outside their scope of work, but politicians listen anyway.
They will tell Netanyahu’s rivals to not risk upsetting his backers by quoting the attorney-general’s scathing accusations, even though this leaves a huge bag of cash on the table. They will also counsel against running on specifics and push for a generic timidity that breeds evasiveness in interviews, drives no momentum, and builds no sort leadership that a human might observe.
This is different from defensible centrism, such as if the U.S. Democrats chose Joe Biden over a “progressive” in 2020. The center can be a better path, more electable and wiser both. But muzzling even the center in hopes of offending no one is how we got a somnambulant campaign in Round One. And that was a waste, because the opposition had finally wheeled out a very big gun: the consensus of the generals.
Over the years of Netanyahu it became clear that the heads of the security establishment mostly opposed his agenda, especially the making permanent of Israel’s hold on the West Bank but also on his reckless gamble to fight the nuclear deal with Iran (they certainly understood that Netanyahu’s insistence that the deal allowed Iran to race to a bomb upon expiration was untrue).
Israeli society may not lionize “the generals” as in the past, which is good, but people will certainly pay attention to them. Until 2019 this advantage of the center-left amounted to another bag of cash left on the table. But daintiness was finally case aside in the creation of Blue and White, and here are the results:
_In the 2015 election, 2,376,498 people voted for the right-religious, meaning 56.5%. Of these, 451,756 voted for Haredi parties, meaning that with them the non-Haredi right got 1,924,742 votes. Meanwhile, 1,824,500 voted for the left-Arab bloc, meaning 43.5%, but a quarter of those went to the United Arab List; excluding it the “Zionist left” got 1,373,616 votes.
_In the 2019 election, 2,391,968 voted for right-religious bloc (including parties that did not get in), meaning 56.8%, slightly higher than before. Of that, 507,324 voted for Haredi parties, where all the growth was; removing them, the right got 1,884,644, or 40,098 fewer than in 2015. On the other side 1,814,467 voted for the left-Arab bloc, of which 388,447 voted for the Arab parties (62,437 less than before); so without the Arab parties the “Zionist left” won 1,426,020, an increase of 52,404.
The Blue and White leadership seems pleased with its 35 seats out of 120, tied with Likud, even though their bloc lost (before the Liberman defection yielded a tie). That came from siphoning most Labor votes from 2015 on top of Yesh Atid’s base. Blue and White was actually meant to increase the bloc from 53 in 2015 to 61, but what was achieved was an increase of just 1.3%, or about 50,000 votes, or about two seats.
And even that modest gain was wiped out by the reduced Arab turnout, from over 60% in 2015 to under 50% in 2019. The reasons include funding woes, anger at the United List for splitting, and a misguided reaction to the Nationality Law (they viewed it as formalizing their second-class status but by boycotting the election they rewarded Netanyahu for it). It probably also relates to Blue and White’s refusing to engage them (although, to be fair, the feeling was mutual).
Blue and White did not invent this; Labor reeked of in its short-lived rebranding as the “Zionist Camp.” The “center-left” acts this way because it sees that two-thirds of Israel’s Jews have voted for the right-religious bloc in every election since 2001, and loses hope (the exception was 2006 election when Ariel Sharon’s Kadima reshuffled the deck by speaking the truth). That the right contains the religious sector with its dramatic population growth breeds despair. So they don masks, hope for the best, and get their butts kicked, again and again.
The question on everybody’s lips this week is which groups will unite and who will lead which subgroup; this is important, but it is another form of scheming. I am here to say ideas are important no less.
My advice (full disclosure: I have offered it directly) has been to speak the truth, because it is right and more likely be work. The main potential messages enjoy support among Israeli Jews. That will make inroads among many who vote by default for the right but are not radical, and energize a base that has been abandoned.
“Centrist” messages might include:
_ Haredim: Nowhere in the world are religious Jews a dependent class as they insist on being here. Workarounds might be found for the army, partly because the army cannot meet their gender segregation demands, but some form of national service is essential. The Haredim must enter the workforce in normal numbers and the state cannot subsidize schools that do not teach math, science and English. A majority of Israeli Jews agree with this.
_ Russian immigrants: You are disproportionately secular, law-abiding and educated, and many appear to be fiercely patriotic new Israelis. The right-religious bloc is turning Israel into a non-Western, non-Jewish, non-secular place. Backing them you align with people who think Israel doesn’t need tanks as long as yeshiva students pray. Liberman, who has helped this cabal for decades, is not the right address. You belong in the center-left.
_ Israeli Arabs: We want to embrace you. Please be as the Hungarian minority in Romania or the Turkish minority in Bulgaria — different, but accepting of the majority group’s right to have one place under the sun. Your second-class status will be totally over, your funding will be equal and perhaps preferential, and we will want you at the cabinet table and in the highest of offices. National service would be nice.
_ Zionists: We will look for ways to separate truly from the Palestinians of the West Bank. While apartheid is not an accurate word for what goes on there, neither is the situation just or sustainable. Even if a peace deal is not possible now, Israel will ceaselessly seek solutions to avoid absorbing 3 million more Palestinians. And it will stop pouring billions upon billions into the settlements; that is a fool’s errand. A majority of Israeli Jews agree with this.
_ Likudnik democrats: This business of overriding the Supreme Court with a simple majority of Knesset members is the end of checks and balances. You know it; don’t support it.
_ Consumers: Israel is not the economic success that Netanyahu claims. The per capita GDP is similar to France’s only because of the artificially strong shekel that devastates your purchasing power and puts Israel among the world’s most expensive countries, higher than all in Europe outside Switzerland and the wealthy-heavy Nordics, whose people get services you do not. It can be different: the vast majority of the land is the state’s, and the state can break crony monopolies, reform taxation, stem waste and accelerate construction.
If the opposition leaders did this, they would lose the racists and Haredim just like their lame advisers warn. That’s a phantom loss: the votes aren’t actually there. In exchange there would be gains all over the map. In exchange, they might inspire.
And if they went down anyway, they would be going down swinging. Ask any slugger: it is the better way.