The worst article on Israel’s politics by someone who should know better

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has penned an article complaining that Israelis won’t take up the chance to give Netanyahu the boot, a decision he thinks, paternalistically, they should make.  “Israelis have a chance to dump Netanyahu, I fear they won’t seize it.”  In titling his article this way he condescendingly places himself as knowing better than the vast majority of Israelis, who he pigeonholes into Netanyahu supporters.  One problem, Mr. Freedland, only about 20% of Israelis have ever voted for Netanyahu, about the same percentage that vote Liberal Democrat in Freedland’s home country.  But Freedland wants to seem like a good voice to the readers, so he has to pose as anti-Bibi and also as educating the Israeli electorate; and in order to do that he must paint the Israeli electorate and its convoluted election system as something it is not.

Miri Regev on the campaign trail in Israel (Seth J. Frantzman)

Miri Regev on the campaign trail in Israel (Seth J. Frantzman)

He claims that the good people outside Israel would know how to make the right decision, “ejecting Netanyahu as punishment for last summer’s Gaza bombardment.”  Unfortunately, as with most of this article, Freedland seems to posit that his Israeli contacts, mostly members of a small coterie of leftist journalists, represent the rest of the Israeli electoral system.  But most Israelis supported the Gaza war and most paid no notice to the body count.  In fact, in 10 years of living in Jerusalem, I’d say that this last war was the one where Israelis cared the least about what happened in Gaza.

Next Freedland trots out “many Israelis, especially those who travel in, or do business with, the wider world are aware that their country is on course to becoming what one Israeli journalist described to me as ‘an isolated, pariah state.'”  Here again he makes the mistake of pretending that the small percent of jet-set Israelis who “travel in the world” know what’s right for Israel.  It is like his comment about “if those outside Israel were given the vote.”  Well, like in the UK, those outside don’t get to vote, and the business elites don’t determine the elections.

The Guardian heavy-hitter claims that “a group of heavy-hitting business tycoons, Israeli and Palestinian, have formed a pro-peace group called Breaking the Impasse.”  Like One Voice and V15, Geneva Initiative and a whole zoo of other pro-peace groups (think J Street, Peace Now, etc), the thing is these groups do better at enriching their consultants than they do at changing the minds of Israelis.  Oddly, Israelis making 5,300 NIS ($1,500) a month, who are about half the electorate, don’t listen to the “tycoons.”  If only they would accept the guiding paternalism.

The author doesn't mention that Netanyahu only got the same percent as the Lib Dems in the UK

The author doesn’t mention that Netanyahu only got the same percent as the Lib Dems in the UK

Now Freedland comes to the meat of his article.  He sat down with Yair Lapid at “his regular corner table in a Tel Aviv cafe.”  Lapid claimed “If we do not come to an agreement with the Palestinians, our ability to retain our economic success almost disappears.”  Then there were more canaries that fluttered by.  “I was told that Israel’s military brass fear the West Bank could ‘blow up this year’, partly because Palestinians see no prospect of any change.”  In a supreme irony, having sat with the finance minister of the Netanyahu government, Freedland claims that “Bibi has done little to address” the concerns of social protesters.  Maybe he should have asked Lapid what exactly the rest of the coalition parties did, since as noted above, Netanyahu only got 23% of the vote and was relying on Lapid and others to run the government.

The author claims that “The end of the Bibi era would be a clear boost for those desperate for change in the apparently never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  This is an interesting theory, but the Labor party is running with Tzipi Livni, who also sat in the Netanyahu government. Gideon Levy has claimed that a “Labor win would entrench the occupation,” because from his radical left view Herzog has already said it would take another five years of negotiations with the Palestinians.  The magic wand Freedland holds up and pretends that the former finance minister and former justice minister of Netanyahu have to solve the conflict is a little rich, considering that both of them could have simply opted out of sitting with Netanyahu the last two years and gone with Labor the last time around.  But Freedland admonishes us, “Banishing Bibi could unlock all sorts of possibilities.”

A Kahlon poster, another candidate missing from this article (Seth J. Frantzman)

A Kahlon poster, another candidate missing from this article (Seth J. Frantzman)

Next the author makes the classic mistake that almost all foreigners do when writing about Israel:  He seems to have exclusively interviewed Israeli Haaretz writers.  It would be like learning about UK politics only from those at the Guardian. He meets with Barak Ravid of Haaretz and then with Tom Segev.  Sagely Sagev tells him “Bibi is still the authentic voice of the majority of Israelis.”  That is the Left wing narrative in Israel, namely that the “bad” Israelis vote for Netanyahu, and this perfectly shoehorns itself into the foreign narrative, namely that foreigners know better than Israelis.  

WHAT FREEDLAND won’t ask is a key question that any on the real Left of Israeli politics have been willing to ask.  Why did Herzog just join the calls to exclude Hanin Zoabi from the election?  The truth is that for years the Left and Center could have easily formed governments without Netanyahu.  Remember in 2009 when Kadima got 22% of the vote and the largest number of mandates under Livni and failed to form a coalition.  She could have partnered with Labor, Meretz, and the Arab parties or Haredi parties.  But no.  Likud had been chopped down to only 12 Knesset members in 2006 in fact.  The return of Netanyahu was primarily the center and left’s fault for achieving very little.  In the 2013 elections Livni, Lapid, Labor, Meretz and other parties could have joined easily to keep Mr. 22% (Netanyahu) from creating a government.  But no. Instead Livni and Lapid jumped aboard the same train they are now saying is going out of control.

Meretz campaign material in Russian; the article ignored all Israel's minority groups.

Meretz campaign material in Russian; the article ignored all Israel’s minority groups.

Now a Ynet oped is saying that the Arab parties running on a joint list with Hadash should support Labor.  What those like Freedland don’t ask, cooped up as they are with Haaretz writers and not talking to others on the left, such as +972, or the right who have insights, is what those Arab parties want.  Arabs make up 20% of the Israeli electorate, the same percent as vote for Likud.  But they won’t be touched by the Left.  Why is that?  Why doesn’t the left talk about voting rights and the occupation?  The whole story of how the “dream ticket” of Herzog-Livni can “solve” all sorts of issues sort of falls apart when one tries to ask what the plan is and where is the enthusiasm for ending the “conflict”?

Like the Freedland piece, the opponents of Netanyahu are running on an “anything but Bibi” platform.  This is an interesting way to run, after so many years the voters may be tiring of Likud.  But in the end of the day the voters were always tired of Likud; which is why it only got 20% of the vote consistently.  Freedland wants to paint Israeli voters as slavishly devoted to Netanyahu.  But it is part and parcel of this ignorance-laced piece that it dares not give readers the nuance of the diversity of Israel.  It doesn’t mention Arab voters, because that scares the center-left to even admit there are Arabs in Israel who also object to the system.  It doesn’t mention haredi voters or Mizrahi voters, it doesn’t mention the poor.  Because so much writing on Israel accepts a very dog-eared and simplistic story, that if you live outside Israel you think 50% of Israeli voters vote for Netanyahu like it is the GOP in the US.  But it isn’t.  Israel isn’t the UK or the US and its elections are a huge mosaic.

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