The Dybbuk of Gaza Was the Secret Ingredient of Netanyahu’s Triumph

He summoned the ill winds of summer 2014 just in time to sweep him back to power.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A Gaza war protest in London, July 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

For much of the Israeli left, the summer of 2014 was horrid. While IDF warplanes bombed entire neighborhoods in Gaza to smithereens, a snarly and ugly mood descended on the Israeli public at home. Criticism was curtailed, dissent was banished, Israeli Arabs were boycotted and the outside world, including Barack Obama, was being uniformly portrayed as malevolent and worse.

The entire Israeli body politic seemed to be careening violently to the right, taking much of public opinion with it. Right-wingers turned rabid, centrists and otherwise liberal Israelis worshipped Benjamin Netanyahu, lefties were denounced as traitors and self-haters, while in Jerusalem, bloodthirsty gangs chased Arabs in the streets. It was the worst of times, by far.

Then it was suddenly over. The heat of July-August that Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi once sang of, in connection to another war, seemed to lift, virtually overnight. The mean spirit of summer disappeared, like a self-exorcising dybbuk, and Israel was restored to sanity, or at least to its normal levels of insanity. The political and social and interpersonal convulsions triggered by Operation Protective Edge were gone, the sights of death and destruction in Gaza were expunged and Israelis reverted to their regular bickering and kvetching as if life was going to go on, just like before, as if the sickening summer would never return.

That, it now seems, was just an illusion. The dybbuk hadn’t left; it was just in hibernation. Out of survival instincts, in an adjustment borne of cognitive dissonance, most Israelis repressed the memories of their radicalization while those on the left erased the experience of isolation and ostracization. They were no longer a dwindling political minority fighting for its dear life but a significant force in Israeli politics once again. Given a fighting chance, they could even dream of returning to power.

Netanyahu’s still-astounding decision in December to call for early elections seemed to give the left their opportunity of a lifetime, earlier than anyone expected. With Israelis once again grumbling about housing prices and income inequality, with Netanyahu’s personal popularity plummeting rapidly from its summer high, with Iran’s nuclear deal progressing despite Netanyahu’s best efforts and with his relations with the U.S. President deteriorating to unprecedented animosity, the left began to believe that its time had come. They were ready to party like it’s 1999, when widespread antipathy towards Netanyahu had enabled Ehud Barak and Labor to unceremoniously eject him from office.

On the surface, there was no reason to think otherwise. Although Isaac Herzog in 2015 had none of the charisma that catapulted Barak to stardom 16 years earlier, his alliance with Tzipi Livni galvanized the center-left, and girded it for battle. In post-Gaza Israel, so the rationale went, Israelis might even be ready for a nerdy and cerebral politician like Herzog rather than the rabble rousing confrontational firebrand Netanyahu. The prime minister’s opponents seemed energized and motivated while his own supporters were dispirited and disappointed, as the polls accurately portrayed. Victory-15, it seemed, was just around the corner.

In the last week of the campaign, however, Netanyahu sprang into action. Whether as an act of desperation or a move calculated well in advance, the prime minister burst out of the cocoon that had kept him away from the public’s eye for what seemed to be far too long. He started railing against foreign conspiracies. He began fulminating against NGO’s and other sinister forces. He portrayed himself as one against many, a Jew against the Goyim, the leader who was being maligned and disparaged not because he had failed at his job, but on the contrary, because he was so successful. He was the bulwark against a hostile, illegitimate takeover by a coalition of the Israel’s worst enemies: irredentist Arabs, backstabbing lefties, disloyal journalists, dishonorable American liberals and, worst of all, foreign governments, especially Barack Obama, full of evil intent.

It was the summer’s rogues gallery of the perfidious and secular left, come in for the kill, the demons of disengagement, thirsting for more, the ghosts of Gaza, back on the prowl. Slowly at first, then frantically at last, Netanyahu successfully conjured the specters that strike fear and then provoke rage in many a right-winger’s heart, fusing them all in the end to one terrifying beast that would devour the country if his supporters strayed or worse, stayed home. “The Arabs are coming to the polls in droves,” he said in his perfectly timed Election Day spell, catapulting his voters to save the homeland, before it’s too late.

Netanyahu pulled all the right levers and pushed all the right buttons to revive the suspicious spirits of summer of 2014 just in time. He invoked the paranoia and the resentment and the maliciousness that created the whirlwind that overtook Israel over the summer and used it to push his now fuming supporters into the waiting ballot booths. He used fear and loathing to bring them out in droves, during the very last hours of voting, in to turn the tide decisively, convincingly, irrevocably.

So the polls weren’t wrong, because they stopped gauging the public’s mood before it started to snap. The exit polls can also be excused, because they could not foresee the pent-up wrath that was unleashed in the final hours of voting. Many of the analysts can be forgiven, for ignoring, willfully perhaps, the dormant, subterranean lava boiling beneath their feet. It was Netanyahu who held the keys to the cage in which the ghosts of Gaza past were being kept and it was he who set them loose, when no one was looking, all the way to his undeniable triumph. 

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