Roger Cohen doesn’t get it

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote last week that “Israel Needs a Grown-Up,” meaning an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in the Israeli elections on March 17. He praised Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s “Zionist vision” of a two-state solution, compared to what he called Netanyahu’s “lip service” to the idea.

However, Cohen must have completely forgotten his own interview with Tzipi Livni, “Why Israeli-Palestinian Peace Failed,” published on 23 December 2014, in which Livni, the lead negotiator with the Palestinians in Netanyahu’s recent government, blamed the failure of last year’s peace talks squarely on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Livni told Cohen that President Obama had presented Abbas with a framework document for an agreement which Netanyahu had already accepted, with reservations, but Abbas simply walked away from it.

Talks stumbled along but Abbas soon attempted to join 15 international agencies, a move he promised not to make during negotiations, and then on 23 April 2014 Abbas shocked everyone, including the Americans, by announcing a reconciliation between his Fatah movement and Hamas. That spelled the final end of the talks. Cohen wrote:

Livni met Abbas in London on May 15. “I said to him, the choice is not between everything and nothing. And your choice in the end was to get nothing.”

Israelis certainly haven’t given up on the hope of peace with the Palestinians one day, but most understand the reality of Palestinian rejectionism, and therefore no Israeli political party is running primarily on a platform that promises a deal with the Palestinians. While Tzipi Livni has split from Netanyahu and joined forces with opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s Labour party to form the “Zionist Union,” and while they stress the need for Israel to keep an open door to negotiations, if only to maintain international support, voters know that even with the greatest will and flexibility, there is little or no chance that the 79-year-old Palestinian leader will sign a treaty with Israel which signals the end of all Palestinian claims and the end of the conflict.

As Haviv Rettig Gur, the Times of Israel‘s political correspondent wrote: “At the end of the day, after a long string of failed peace talks, Israelis no longer believe in the policy narratives of the past. They do not believe peace is attainable in the near term…”

Despite this, Cohen maintained in last week’s column that a two-state peace was the “fundamental issue” in these elections, but according to all polls, it’s not even close.  Like many foreign commentators, Cohen views Israel almost entirely through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians, but there are other issues that Israelis, living here on the ground, rate as much more important.

A poll in December 2014 (Hebrew link) asked voters to select their top issue for the election, and 38% of those surveyed chose “lowering the cost of living,” followed by 26% saying the “security of the state,” and 14% “reducing inequalities.”  Only 13% chose a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

On 25 January 2015, the Times of Israel reported on a poll which showed that 53% of voters believe social issues and the cost of living are the top priorities in choosing a candidate, while only 9% said the peace process was most important.

As my friend Owen Alterman, a researcher at an Israeli think-tank, put it succinctly: “Israel has survived for 67 years without peace. Without a middle class, we won’t survive a single day.”

Israel saw huge protests in the summer of 2011 motivated by economic and social welfare concerns. Anger over high food prices, growing income inequality, corruption, the lack of competition in many sectors of the economy, and soaring real estate prices that make it impossible for families to buy a home, is still palpable. Yesh Atid focused on these issues in the 2013 elections and took second-place in the vote, winning 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Today it is joined by another party, Kulanu, running on the same issues. Together they could win 20+ seats.

Fears about security are however ever-present in Israel, and there are indications that security is becoming a higher priority for voters, after a flare-up of violence in the Golan Heights, the killing of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on our border with Lebanon, the rise of ISIS in the region, continuing unrest in Egypt’s Sinai on our southern border, and concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.

Likud recently released a campaign ad highlighting this security issue, dubbed the “Bibi-sitter,” which Roger Cohen referred to when he asserted that Israel needs a “grown-up” (watch with English subtitles).

It begins when Netanyahu arrives at a couple’s home to babysit their children, and announces: “You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter.” He then tells the shocked parents: “It’s either me, or Tzipi and Buji,” using Isaac Herzog’s nickname. The husband shakes his head and says no, no, no, “Our children will have to take care of him!” and “he’ll even give away the carpet,” a dig about Herzog’s inexperience as a national leader and perceived weakness as a negotiator.

As for Tzipi being the babysitter, the wife screws up her face and says: “Tzipi? Stay in one place for two hours?”, a mocking reference to the fact that Livni has been in four different political parties in the past decade, migrating from the Likud to Kadima to Hatnua and now Labour.

Cohen chooses to view this ad as “instructive,” demonstrating Netanyahu’s shallowness, as babysitters take care of the kids for the evening but don’t plan for or build their future, but he’s willfully ignoring the campaign message that many Israelis relate to. Love him or loathe him, deserved or not, Netanyahu always comes out on top in polls as the candidate most trusted on security issues, as Cohen acknowledges. In a late January survey, Netanyahu was chosen by 39% of Israelis, with Herzog trailing well behind at 22%.

There are still many things that can trip Netanyahu up, from upcoming reports on possible expenses violations at the prime minister’s residence to the nasty tussle with President Obama over his speech to Congress. A chunk of the electorate is sick of him after three terms in office. The Zionist Union could finally come up with an initiative that sees them catapult upwards in the polls. However, based on current numbers, pundits, even on the left, predict that Netanyahu will be able to form a new government and win his fourth term as prime minister.

About the Author
Gavin Gross, a New York City native, was a commodities trader in New York and London before serving as Director of Public Affairs at the British Zionist Federation (ZF). He has appeared on BBC TV and radio, Al Jazeera English, and Iran's Press TV discussing Israel issues. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London, and now lives in Israel.