Jerusalem & Babylon |

Like in Britain, Israel's Left Won't Win Until It Acknowledges Voters' Fears

It’s all very well to criticize the right for preying on the insecurity and fears of voters, but if you won’t acknowledge that people have very real fears that are making them feel insecure, they won’t vote for you.

Anshel Pfeffer
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British PM David Cameron (L) and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu meet in London in May 2011. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO
Anshel Pfeffer

Watching the British left wing tear itself up after yet another defeat at the polls last week has been an instructive experience. Naturally, there was a lot of whining and finger-pointing along with dark mutterings over dirty tricks and brainwashing, but there was also a good deal of quite sensible reckoning over the Labour Party and its ideological hinterland’s failure to connect with the concerns of ordinary hard-working voters.

Labour lost in Britain because most of its campaign was about trying to portray the Conservatives as a nasty group of rapacious scoundrels out to cut social benefits, instead of how its government would work to better the lives of ordinary people. As the orgy of hand-wringing enfolded, I found myself bouncing between schadenfreude at the righteous dismay of those who cannot understand why the public didn’t troop out to vote in the right way for the left, and identification with those who got the message: A self-righteous political camp in love with its own perspective and pet theories will never succeed in convincing the majority of voters that it cares enough about them to be entrusted with governing.

It’s all very well to criticize the right for preying on the insecurity and fears of voters, but if you won’t acknowledge that people have very real fears that are making them feel insecure, they won’t vote for you. And exactly the same is true for Israeli politics.

Seven weeks ago, the Israeli left embarked on its own journey of self-pitying recriminations over its serial incapability of dislodging Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office. This week, it reached a crescendo with cries of horror over the impending appointments of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked as education and justice ministers. I’ve no interest in defending these two particular politicians, who I’d much rather see languishing on the Knesset back-benches, but if half this much passion and outrage went into asking why exactly Israelis don’t seem to want figures like Isaac Herzog or Zehava Galon in charge, then perhaps the left could make its first step toward regaining a bit of credibility.

Even when the polls were going against him in the last weeks of the campaign, I was still convinced that Netanyahu was going to win. It wasn’t that I detected any sympathy for him or Likud in the narrow confines of the true-believers’ camp – but if there was a feeling dominant among wide swathes, it was the deep antipathy, and often fear and loathing, of “the left.” There was something almost comical about how people spoke of “the danger” of a leftist government.

Where was this mythological monster? It certainly wasn’t that endangered political species Meretz, forlornly appealing to voters to save it from the oblivion of the electoral threshold. Was it Labor, which was so afraid of being branded as “leftists” that it ran under the Zionist Union label? Or centrist Yesh Atid? Yet the fear was very real and ruthlessly exploited by Netanyahu’s propaganda.

It’s too easy just to blame Netanyahu for his scaremongering tactics and despicable warning on Election Day of Arabs descending in droves on the polls. They obviously had an effect, but to say that voters actually believed that a Herzog government would be controlled behind the scenes by Ahmad Tibi is the sort of intelligence-insulting self-delusion that leftists are all too prone to.

Netanyahu’s scare tactics would not have worked if the opposing political camp had convinced Israelis that they cared enough about their fears. Electoral mathematics are about convincing enough people who don’t belong to either ideological camp, and in Israel that is still the largest part of the population.

For all the attempts to focus this last Israeli election on a social-economic agenda and despite Netanyahu’s initial attempt at transforming it into a referendum on his crusade against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, when it came down to the wire, it was the fear of many Israelis that the left, which was not connected to their daily lives in neighborhoods and towns outside its own comfortable bubbles, a left not respectful of its fears, could ever be entrusted with their children’s security.

And no, this is not about the hoary old Sephardi-Ashkenazi equation. Likud and Habayit Hayehudi’s leaderships are every bit as Ashkenazi as Labour and Meretz’s, and the only main party so far to select a Sephardi son of a development town as its leader was Labour in 2005 with Amir Peretz, which failed dismally in the subsequent election. It’s about something much deeper and existential. It’s the fear of a nation that still believes it is on the brink of destruction. And yes, it may be a fear which any sensible assessment of the military and economic balance in the region immediately proves is devoid of any connection to reality, but it is real nonetheless. Fears don’t have to be rational to be real, and succumbing to them doesn’t necessarily mean you are stupid or ill-informed.

Just in the same way a British voter could easily compare the social and economic manifestos of the main parties and not vote Labour despite the conclusion that it had the better policies because Ed Miliband had not convinced him that the party was actually on his side, the very same can be said of the Israeli voter. Survey after survey show that the majority of Israelis are not enamored with the settlements and accept a two-state solution. They are also overwhelmingly convinced that Israel will not be destroyed by an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Every comparison between the Israeli public’s positions and their voting patterns shows that the majority are several degrees to the left of the Knesset they voted for. There’s nothing unnatural about this – most of us don’t vote for ideas and policies, we vote for people we feel we can trust more to take care of us and our children. The left’s in-built weakness is that it asks us to put our trust in a wonderful idea, but gives us few assurances that it is capable of distinguishing when necessary between its ideals and reality, of sacrificing utopia for the national good. We don’t like the right and its hard certainties, but at least it doesn’t leave us with illusions.

In the West for the left to win it needs exceptional salesmen like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton or orators like Barack Obama to bridge the gap. In Israel for the last 30 years it has only been the centrist generals Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak who could do the trick. On Sunday Israel will commemorate 48 years since the Six-Day War, but Jerusalem Day will be a day of rejoice only for right-wing politicians and the national-religious camp. Most Israelis will barely notice or if they do, shrug their shoulders and get on with their day. Without going into the historical and strategic argument of whether the war was necessary to prevent an attack by Egypt and its allies, its lasting legacy of the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank is now just as big a threat to Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish state. But it barely featured in the election because the right does not believe it’s a threat and the left is painfully aware that the public doesn’t trust it to try and solve that threat by making every effort to end the occupation. There is no greater self-indictment and tacit admission of the Israeli left’s unsuitability to govern than its inability to honestly address Israelis’ fear and convince them that for their sakes and that of their children, this has to end. Until it does so, it will remain unworthy of ever returning to power.