Why Israelis Are Tired of Netanyahu

Voters know normalcy is an illusion, but they want a leader who can give them a few days of peace without talking about constant vigilance and regional deterrence.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Zionist Union coleader Isaac Herzog walks past a poster for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, March 12, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

There’s a certain type of Israeli – for want of a better name let’s call him The Professor: if it’s not his actual professional title then he certainly aspires to it – who often finds himself abroad, facing an audience.

The Professor is regularly invited to address academic seminars, media panels and other forums. He likes to think himself a public intellectual. He can’t hide being an Israeli; his accent is too heavy, his name too obviously Hebrew. In any event, that is often the main reason for the invitation to speak or to appear on television. But he feels uncomfortable, because something has tainted his national identity.

It’s not the occupation or the wars. He’s not a self-hating Jew and still considers himself a Zionist. It’s not an issue that has made him so ashamed of being Israeli, it’s a person.

In a way that none of his predecessors as prime minister did, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has sucked the oxygen out of all public debate and overwhelmed his country’s image. The Professor feels that when in polite company, he must make it clear that not only would he never imagine voting for Netanyahu, he physically abhors the man.

When The Professor is in Europe, it’s easiest just to say that Bibi is actually an American, because there is nothing that enlightened Europeans enjoy sneering at more. In the United States, The Professor will reference the Tea Party and other groups feared and hated by his liberal audience. He will explain that, in fact, only 20 percent of Israelis voted for Bibi in the last election, and that if not for Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system, he would never have become prime minister. Anything to persuade his listeners that Bibi is not really Israeli.

That. because Bibi is the most famous Israeli in the world, more famous than Bar Refaeli even, and The Professor can’t bear to think that these enlightened foreigners before him somehow link him to that Israel. That’s not his Israel. His Israel is normal.

But Israel is not normal. A country without fixed borders or any idea of a constitution, written or unwritten, that believes itself a democracy while controlling another nation without the right to vote, that still hasn’t got around to defining basic concepts of citizenship and civil rights – how can such a state be normal? Nothing in Israel’s history, conflicts or neuroses are normal. How useful for The Professor that Netanyahu is such a larger-than-life figure. Just divorce yourself from Bibi and believe you’re a normal Israeli. As if such a thing exists.

The Professor is not alone. If this election has a dominant theme, it is the Israeli voter dreaming of a normal Israel. A car-leasing sales manager who thought I was a potential customer opened up to me this week on his difficulty in deciding to vote for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. “Believe me, I’m right wing, I was an officer in an elite unit,” he said apologetically, as if he should be ashamed of switching parties after voting for Likud his whole life.

“Netanyahu just doesn’t care about normal people anymore. That’s what I want. A normal country where the prime minister doesn’t just talk about Iran all day, but takes care of normal things like high prices and housing.” But he felt it was almost unpatriotic to admit all this. He assured me that he agrees with Netanyahu on security and foreign-policy issues. He was just tired, he said: “At this point, I don’t even mind if Kahlon supports a Herzog government. Herzog is a normal guy.”

According to recent polls, some 40 percent of Israelis plan to vote for one of three “normal” parties. If a bit over 40 percent do so, Netanyahu will not remain prime minister. Kahlon’s party is for normal Israelis who only want to think about normal issues. Yair Lapid has built his image as the most normal Israeli of all, though he is anything but, and that image will once again draw hundreds of thousands to vote for Yesh Atid.

Isaac Herzog, meanwhile, quietly accomplished the most incredible political transformation of all, turning Labor – the movement that once did the most abnormal thing of all, to establish this abnormal state – into a normal party.

He is not a retired general, like Ehud Barak and Amram Mitzna, promising security and peace. Nor is he a firebrand, like Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich, vowing to take on the system.

Herzog wants you to believe he’s the competent, mild-mannered lawyer, come to solve your normal problems. Sure, he’ll take care of the national crises too, but he knows you don’t want to think about them. You want to feel normal, and Netanyahu always makes you feel as if you’re fighting a battle.

It’s not only Netanyahu. Leftist voters feel uncomfortable voting for Meretz, which reflects their views more accurately, for the same reason. Stern-faced and earnest, Zehava Galon won’t let you forget there’s a struggle out there for human rights, for equality, for an end to the occupation. She won’t let you feel normal.

That’s why Meretz is teetering on the threshold of electoral oblivion, despite the fact that at least twice the number of its actual voters agree with at least 90 percent of the party’s positions.

If Netanyahu does lose the election – and despite Likud’s downturn in the polls, he still has an even chance of winning – it will not be due to his many failings as a leader and the damage he has done to Israeli society.

He will lose because he has exhausted too many Israelis who simply yearn for normalcy. Deep down, they know normalcy is an illusion, but they want a leader who can give them a few days of peace without talking about constant vigilance and regional deterrence.

Those outside Israel, particularly Jews, who want to love it as a normal country, also desire this illusion. If Netanyahu loses, they will sigh in relief and feel less ashamed of professing their Zionism to friends and colleagues. The Professor will feel less guilty the next time he gives a talk.

While Herzog and his team have the makings of a much better government for Israel than the current lot, they have no plans to make it a more normal country. But if he wins, we can at least enjoy the illusion while it lasts. We’ve earned that much.

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