SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Last Thursday night an overweight man tried to order a hamburger at a late night burger joint in Tel Aviv. He fumbled through his order. Pickles? Onions? What about fried onions? He couldn’t decide. The crowd became jittery. “Get going, choose!” “What’s wrong with you, can’t you just decide which sauce, you jerk?!” When the fat man had finally received his meal he left the scene and the crowd, now stretching outside the restaurant, full of drunken food-crazed men, was incredulous to learn that the cash register was broken. “That prick! He takes so long to order and then the machine stops working.”
The momentum and feelings of rancor and indignity that night in Tel Aviv revisited the whole world it seemed on Wednesday morning when the world awoke to hear that Benjamin Netanyahu had been re-elected. “How could these people re-elect that beast,” wondered commentators. “What’s wrong with them?” What seemed so obvious to several billion people was not obvious for several million Israelis.
Everyone wants to know what is the inside story of the apparently amazing upset victory of Netanyahu? Amir Tibon and Ben Birnbaum at The New Yorker looked “inside” the defeat of the Zionist Union in a well-written piece. Their conclusion, the collapse of the campaign was due to a series of factors; early mismanagement, chaos, an unclear message, a bad TV appearance, polling data that were inaccurate. Yossi Verter’s Friday piece for Haaretz sort of agreed, looking at how Netanyahu had coasted to victory through careful planning. The key word was his “gevalt” campaign. He had inflamed the public with fear in the last days before the election. Verter claimed he had mobilized the “tribes”, Likud voters from the “periphery”, which is to say the poor and minorities. In addition he had brought home the settler-vote, speaking to their pragmatic desire to keep their homes. Other articles at the Wall Street Journal have looked at Netanyahu’s campaign of “fear” and give his strategists credit for the last two days before the elections, as The Jerusalem Post did.
“The devil rides among us”: Israel’s “Left” mourns the loss of the country, again
The failure in the elections sent those who describe themselves as the Jewish Zionist left into a form of mourning. Amos Oz had predicted that this election might mean an increasing march towards a one-state solution, or “a dictatorship of fanatic Jews.” Mourning for the “soul” of Israel was the name of the game, and a vitriol against the “Israel that supports occupation and racism” was how the election was interpreted.
The keyword in Israel these days is “white tribe.” In the newspaper that intellectuals and people who describe themselves as left-wing read, Haaretz, the mourning is in full form for this “tribe.” Verter had mentioned tribes. Tribes are a big thing in israel. For non-residents it seems odd that in 2015 that people talk so much about tribes. But in Israel there is a myth of what is called a “white tribe”, which is self-defined as an “Ashkenazi, Jewish, peace seeking” electorate, concentrated primarily in Tel Aviv and on the kibbutzim. When the numerous Israeli editorials talked about “the periphery”, they mean those poverty-stricken towns outside the center where Israel’s 1950s-era Labor government dumped Mizrahi Jews and subsequently sent Ethiopians and Russians to live. Israel is “white” and “black” and “center” and “periphery”. The more people like Yoaz Hendel try to write opeds to put the “ethnic demon” back in the bottle, the more it needs to be truly addressed.
In Politico, Ari Shavit, a doyen of the elite journalists of Israel, and a favorite of many diaspora Jews for his book My Promised Land, claimed that Israel had “lost its soul.” He noted that Netanyahu’s supporters see him as “the quintessential enemy of the liberal elite: the Israeli WASPS (white Ashkenazi supporters of peace).” He claimed that Netanyahu had “united a varied group of minorities who flocked to his tent of discontent: Russian immigrants, the Ultra-Orthodox, Oriental Jews and ultra-nationalists among them.” His diagnosis: “There must be, above all, a new social contract that will address the inter-tribal chasm paralyzing Israeli society.”
Shavit describes a divided Israel. The good Israel of the Tel Aviv area full of the “white tribe” and then the others, the darker side. Meeting with the Netanyahu voters in TIberias he claims, “they were mostly Oriental, traditional and downtrodden, hard-working men and women who strive to give their children a better future…contempt for the liberal media, because the Tel Aviv elite does not respect their traditions, their beliefs, or their way of life.” He compares Netanyahu to Franklin Roosevelt, “Netanyahu has again assembled a coalition of dejected minorities,” as FDR did in 1932.
The “tribal” nature of the election was supposedly revealed during a rant by a poet at a Zionist Union left wing rally in Tel Aviv. After the election loss Livni and Herzog hinted that the rant by artist Yair Gerboz had offended many people, especially the poor and those outside the “white tribe” and caused a turn in the electorate. After claiming that voters for the right were “idol worshipers and bowers at the graves of saints,” the artist was supported by a poet named Joshua Sobol. It may seem that this is just elementary political schooling, but when someone at a rally talks down to the voters for the other party or those whose votes are not yet decided (as 20% of Israelis had not decided before the election), it doesn’t help. And that is one of the problems on the “left”, there is a total contempt for those outside the center and outside the kibbutzim. They are seen as savages, primitives, dumb, stupid, racist and barely worthy of voting. It is no surprise that well known Israeli singer Meir Ariel had once said Russians should not be allowed to vote and in the 1950s one Labor Party General Secretary described Yemenite voters as a “cancer” because they voted right wing. People called a cancer or mocked rarely decide they want to vote for the party seen as mocking them. It is hard to vote for a group that self-defines as a “white tribe” when you are portrayed as a “dark tribe” and not belonging.
So the election created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before Netanyahu yelled ‘gevalt,’ the “periphery” was already being told they were not wanted. Roy Arad noted that on election day “in the outlying areas in the south, I reported that there was no presence of the center-left on the streets of Sderot, Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon, or in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.” How can people vote for the center-left if it doesn’t bother to even campaign among them and writes them off? The group V15, whose simply message was a “revolution” to replace Netanyahu didn’t seem to articulate a vision for the so-called periphery either. One article mocked their “Chicago-style” attempt to influence Israeli elections.
In the end of the day Israeli voters have a long memory. Not only do they remember the racism of Israel’s leaders in the 1950s that created a segregated society of “Ashkenazi-only” kibbutzim and “Mizrahi-only” townships, but they see it reflected today. One told Ynet, “My neighbors in the apartment building voted for Netanyahu. I spoke to them at length and they know that Netanyahu won’t solve their financial problems and the housing crisis their children face, but they are certain they have to vote for the Likud. One of them talks of the days of Mapai and how the Mizrahim were discriminated against; another says terrible things about the Arabs and is sure that only Netanyahu can deal with them.”
The 2015 election is another manifestation of previous elections dating back to 1977. Each time it is the same story. There is vitriol directed at the “right wing” voters, and total disinterest in their concerns, and then surprise that none of them vote center-left. In some countries there is an attempt to talk to voters about issues, but in Israel primarily people are just blamed for being minorities and voting the way they always have. They are kept outside the tent and then blamed for being outside. The problem is the majority of the people are outside the tent.
“Israel deserves what it gets”: The diaspora reacts
Channeling the feelings of many reacting to Israel’s election abroad, Gideon Levy claimed “The first conclusion that arose just minutes after the announcement of the exit polls was particularly discouraging: The nation must be replaced.” The Forward noted that Netanyahu’s “decisive victory in the Israeli elections has created a wrenching dilemma for many American Jews: how to continue to love Israel while a government that violates many of our community’s values is in place.” The editorial worried over continued US Jewish connection to Israel, and debated how Jews could continue to feel connected to a country ruled by someone that some find so distasteful. Jeffrey Goldberg described conversations with US Jewish leaders and jittery feelings.
Jonathan Freedland, who had already supported the toppling of Netanyahu in an earlier column, claimed it was time for Israelis to pay the consequences; “Whatever form they take, there will be consequences for Netanyahu’s actions. He was ready to sink to a new low to save his skin, but it will be Israelis – and their Palestinian neighbours – who pay the price.” This concept that Israel has changed for the worse and that the Jewish diaspora can’t connect to it tends to rely entirely on the wrong people in Israel as being the messenger. Diaspora Jews read certain commentaries by Israeli locals who describe Israelis as unmitigated racists, and then say “how can we identify with a country that doesn’t have our values.” Peter Beinart, for instance, plays that self-fulfilling prophecy card again and again. Israelis are portrayed as out of step with western modern American values, and then the US Jewish community is told it can’t identify with Israel. “If Israelis have the right to vote for permanent occupation, we in the Diaspora have the right to resist it.” David Shulman writes “What really counts is the fact that the Israeli electorate is still dominated by hypernationalist, in some cases proto-fascist, figures.”
Some of those outside of Israel have a more pragmatic take. Eric Yoffie writes, “When my American friends wonder how Israel’s political system could possibly be so dysfunctional, I remind them to look at the American political system, which at the moment is not functioning at all.” Almost no outlets bothered to put a human face on the Israeli election, to talk to average people or to look at the diverse set of new faces headed to the Knesset. That says something about the diaspora press and its relationship with Israel. Israel is a monolith often, either a positive “start-up” nation struggling against all odds, or a malicious and negative cloud that doesn’t meet up with pre-conceived notions of “Jewish values.”
“Shhhh, Netanyahu is good for the Palestinians”: Why some are happy
Yousef Munayyer was quick to write a piece for the New York Times about the silver lining of Netanyahu’s victory. “Replacing Mr. Netanyahu with his challenger, Isaac Herzog, would have slowed down the B.D.S. movement and halted pressure on Israel by creating the perception of change.” Ali Abunimah also felt relieved. “The advantage, from the Palestinian perspective, of having Netanyahu is that it’s sort of truth in advertising.” The Daily Star has argued that Netanyahu’s victory could be good for the peace process because it paints Israel into a corner. “The [international community] must push hard on several international fronts to challenge and delegitimize Israeli actions in the occupied territories.” Similarly international academic conferences that support BDS or articulate why Israel is illegitimate, like one at Southamptom, will become more frequent.
The concept that Netanyahu is good for the Palestinians is counter-intuitive. Some feel that the right wing is more reticent to use military force, and they recall Ehud Olmert’s war, Shimon Peres attacking Qana and other adventures of the left. They also think that the election of a center-left government ensures continued fake negotiations that go nowhere, whereas Netanyahu’s statements against a Palestinian state and then reversing himself has harmed Israel’s negotiating position. “We know who he is, we know what he is about,” explained one Palestinian woman from Jerusalem who thought the election was not necessarily bad.
Another silver lining some noticed was the emergence of the Joint List, a mostly Arab party that garnered 13 seats and combines Hadash, Balad and Ta’al, three parties with very different ideologies. The ‘Times’ highlighted the party a hopeful “vehicle for progress.” Another oped called it a “spring of hope.” The leader of the party Ayman Odeh has already embarked on a visit to the Negev to highlight the plight of the unrecognized Bedouin communities. Hussein Ibish correctly saw the emergence of the Joint List as a “historic” event.
However the same Jewish Zionist left that had such anger and rancor towards the right, and sank into delusions of a “white tribe” mentality; also has not interest in working with the Joint List. Not only did the List “betray” Meretz before the election by not signing a surplus vote agreement, but the Zionist Union had supported banning Haneen Zoabi. Many of the discriminatory natures of the center-left that are remembered by Mizrahim were also directed at the Arab minority, such as acceptance committees and, just in general, the way the media describes Arab voters.
There is a fear of Arab voters on the center-left as much as on the center-right. In 2011 Assaf Sagic called this the “fear of the democratically empowered masses.” He noted, that just as the Left was disillusioned above with the fact that the poor and minorities vote Likud, “certain liberal-progressive circles have lost all hope of governing the state through electoral force.” He reminded readers that journalist and one time Maariv editor symbolically described debating with members of the non-white-tribe as being put in a cage with a baboon. “All this bizarre zoo needs is some good guards, but where are they?”
So the center-left find itself lost. It preaches to its colleagues abroad that Israel is lost. The narrative that Israel needs pressure to extricate itself from its mess, i.e that it must be saved from itself, has been said many times before. When Obama was elected some wrote oped demanding Obama finally pressure Israel. Now some thing Obama will end the Washington veto at the UN. It is unlikely. There was fear that Netanyahu’s speech at Congress would “ruin” US-Israel relations, but in fact the relations are as good as ever when it comes to the essential items. Nothing has changed in the West Bank. Gaza, despite power outages affecting 20 out of 24 hours a day in some cases, remains under siege.
Israel’s problematic democracy moves on. The world keeps rotating. The fat man with his hamburger keeps eating. And the critics are outraged.