Most elections around the world don’t matter all that much. There are reasonable arguments all around. There’s no clear right and wrong. It’s shades of gray, you count the votes, and get on with your lives. But Tuesday’s balloting in Israel is a pretty big exception.
Benjamin Netanyahu is leading the country to ruin and faces scandals that would make a Berlusconi blush. Arrayed against him, backed by close to the entire establishment, are a trio of military chiefs (joined two days before the election by a fourth) led by Benny Gantz, a man projecting caution and character.
This is where the problem begins. We live in dark times when decency can seem a defect. Can the decent deny, obfuscate, distract, as Netanyahu so skillfully can? Can they dissemble with the same digital panache? It may seem reasonable, after years of machination, to inquire.
If Netanyahu has had a signature achievement, it is in lowering the gauge of success by undermining society’s capacity to dream. After a decade of his sneering, few dare advocate peace any more; he has displayed Olympian ability at discrediting anyone who even hopes for something better, and has methodically demonized the bewildered leadership in Ramallah. Mahmoud Abbas has made some dopey moves, but his security forces still cooperate with Israel’s and he has been pesky to an only moderate degree; yet Netanyahu has cast him as a Yasser Arafat for our times, the way Arafat himself was once made to stand for Hitler.
Israelis now content themselves with terrorism having diminished. That this attaches to an unsustainable oppression of the Palestinians in fenced-off autonomy zones that are basically open-air prisons is not uppermost on their minds. This is not evil; it’s human nature. Israelis still remember the Second Intifada of 2000-2004: an endless stream of suicide bombers blowing up in malls and cafes, followed by scenes of Palestinian families handing out sweets to celebrate the “martyrdom” of another child. This, from Israelis’ perspective, after Ehud Barak had offered Arafat a state. The outrage has deepened racism and hardened hearts, for a generation, maybe more.
And it taps like magic into Netanyahu’s brand of pessimism politics.
Gantz and his crew are no starry-eyed optimists. They understand the strategic importance of the West Bank (Dear leftists: without any of it, Israel at its narrowest is about 10 miles wide). But they also see the imperative of moving toward separation and a version of independence for the Palestinians, if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. And while it may seem almost quaint, one suspects morality may actually play a part in whatever they do. For the Israeli government to shift this way would be like a cloud of good karma floating around the Earth.
Conversely if Likud remains in power and continues settling the West Bank, where Jews and Palestinians live under different laws, Israel is headed down a South Africa path. Charges of “apartheid” will be heard more and more. Israel’s defenders will quibble about the historical differences, which certainly exist; it will not matter much. This week Netanyahu said he wants to start annexing parts of the areas, which could easily spark another uprising. This way lie increasing isolation, bloodshed, poverty and despair.
Netanyahu is also taking Israel in a clerical direction that will accelerate fast if he wins on Tuesday. That is because there is no plausible scenario for a rightist coalition that does not place extortionist power in the hands of the religious parties – parties this election finds at their absolute most extreme.
Down this avenue lie more efforts to separate the sexes, to prevent women singing in public, to ban commerce and public transport on the Sabbath. They will ramp up the idiotic battle against the majority of U.S. Jews who are Reform and Conservative. They will continue to allow the expansion of schools where math and science are hardly taught, and disseminate nationalist propaganda in all schools (maps that count the West Bank in Israel are already in place) while complaining hypocritically of (the admittedly far worse) “incitement” by the Palestinians.
As a bonus, all this comes gift-wrapped in bigotry against the one-fifth of Israel’s citizens who are Arabs. Four years ago Netanyahu decided to rally his base on election day with a hysterical video warning that “the Arabs are flocking to the polls.” His government then passed a law reducing their status and that of their language. These days he and his henchpersons are trying to compromise Gantz by arguing his majority would depend on Israeli Arabs. It is a sign of how low he has taken the country that this nastiness flies, and one can only hope the Arabs indeed flock to the polls. In the 1990s, when this precise situation applied to Yitzhak Rabin, even Likud was (mostly) too civilized to openly complain of it.
I have predicted here that if Likud keeps winning elections the result will be a period of societal, moral and economic decline, and the country will no longer exist by 2048. There will be a non-Jewish majority inseparable from Israel because of the settlements, and the Palestinians cannot forever be denied the vote. Indeed, with millions in the West Bank unable to vote (while their settler neighbors can) on Tuesday, this election is tainted as well.
But if you ignore the direction things are headed – as many do just to stay sane – the situation can be made to appear not so terrible. Netanyahu has mostly avoided big wars. He appears to have (recklessly) gambled and won on the question of the Iran nuclear deal. He got very lucky with the election of Trump and now has a best friend in the White House, who pleased almost all Jewish Israelis by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and the Golan as Israel’s land. There is almost full employment – but that is a partly fictitious measure caused by the proliferation of part-time contracts. There is some growth, more than in the EU – but little real per capita expansion because the population grows faster here. There is increase in the nominal wealth per citizen in foreign currency terms (now around $40,000/year) – but that has much to do with the overvalued shekel, which in turn harms exports (including the most confusing export of all, tourism). And, of course, Israel now is a global leader, along with the United States, in inequality of income and wealth.
Netanyahu has Israelis believing they could not do better, though they most definitely can. He even has people accepting that basic things like an Israeli prime minister being received by world leaders is somehow a success that only he could deliver. That is how infantile the discourse has become after a decade of his jackhammer agitprop.
If elected, he is taking the country straight in the direction of Erdogan’s Turkey. In return for giving the radical religious right its little presents Netanyahu will demand a law preventing prosecution of the prime minister (and perhaps other officials). Asked of this in an interview last week he was insistently evasive.
Netanyahu has run a brilliant campaign of calumny and bile, slandering Gantz with abandon. The riposte has been rather too gentlemanly for my taste. As one example, Gantz’s Blue and White party has barely even made use of Netanyahu’s own words a decade ago when he hounded Ehud Olmert into resigning, arguing a leader cannot function under police investigation. He himself now desperately hangs onto power numerous excruciating stages further down the road, with three counts of bribery and breach of trust already announced against him by the attorney general (pending a hearing), a rogue’s gallery of cronies turned state’s witness, and the highly credible specter looming of worse charges still. The hypocrisy is sublime.
The challengers have also been rather mild on the array of policy demerits I outline above, and everyone has an opinion on whether this was shrewd politics or not. Either way, it is just who they are. The exception is the combative Yair Lapid, who spits wonderful venom in entertaining idiom as when he says: The man lies the way that other people breathe.
Lapid, who is co-leader of the party, has a point. Netanyahu is part of the global post-truth brigade, one of the scourges of our era. He may be the world’s top propagandist, outdoing even Trump. With a genius for finding weakness, exposing contradiction, distorting and insulting, no rival goes unscathed. These days that includes the entire opposition, many former allies, law enforcement, the justice system, the security establishment, and of course, inevitably, the press. Today it included France’s Macron, who dared to meet Lapid.
Rarely has an incumbent been more deserving of defenestration, and there is something cartoonish in his even being in the race. If Netanyahu ekes out a victory it will be a sad day for Israel, a source of joy for its many enemies, and another nail in the coffin of democracy around the world.