Don't Let Netanyahu's Win Fool You: Israel Shifted to the Left

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Herzog and Livni, co-leaders of Zionist Union (on far right: faction head Cabel) as they deliver a post-election statement at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv. March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Tel Aviv is mourning. The exit polls on Tuesday night were disappointing, but the actual vote count to which we awoke the following morning was crushing. I went to the neighborhood market, and the manager greeted me with the weary funereal nod, wordlessly acknowledging our shared loss.

The morning's gloom reflected not just the disappointing realization that we must go on living with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's noxious and unsteady leadership, but a deeper dismay that there is no longer a place in Israel for the ideals and values that matter most to us. Waking up to the news that Netanyahu controlled six more seats in the Knesset than Isaac Herzog, many on the left took the election results to mean that “something is truly broken, possibly beyond repair,” and that "the nation must be replaced," as Haaretz's Gideon Levy put it.

But that is not what the results mean. In the last elections, the combined strength of the right-wing parties – Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism – was 61 seats. In these elections, these same parties together dropped to 57 seats. In the last election, the center – Yesh Atid and Kadima – tallied 21 seats, the same number as the center received in this election (this time split between Yesh Atid and Kulanu). In the last election, the left received 38 seats, and in this election rose to 42 (if one counts Hatnuah as left, given that this year it sat in the center-left Zionist Union). Admittedly, drawing clear distinctions between left, right and center has grown ever more complicated in recent years, and complexity is elided in this back-of-the-envelope analysis. Still, these elections, though they are being described as a landslide victory for Netanyahu, actually saw a shift to the left.

And that is not all. These elections also saw the emergence of Herzog as the undisputed leader of the left, which has wanted for leadership ever since Ehud Barak's disastrous tenure ended 14 years ago. Herzog continued a process of rebuilding begun by his predecessor, Shelly Yacimovich. These elections also saw the emergence of the Joint List, under the remarkable leadership of Ayman Odeh, and a Palestinian-Israeli electorate that seeks, more than ever in the past, to join Israeli political discourse in a meaningful way. These elections also repudiated the xenophobic hate-mongering of Eli Yishai's Yahad party. To conclude from Wednesday's elections that “the nation must be replaced” and that Israeli politics is broken beyond repair, is to misunderstand them.

All this matters, because concluding from the elections that the electorate is hopeless dismisses and disparages precisely the people we need to persuade to bring the change we seek. Many have accused Netanyahu of schnoring votes by manipulating the fears that Israelis feel: fear of Iran's ayatollah's, fear of the Islamic State group, fear of bloody chaos in Syria, fear of Hamas in Gaza, fear of a Europe in which we are told it is no longer safe to travel in T-shirts with Hebrew lettering, fear that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is playing us. He did, disgustingly, and it is right to blame him for that. But it is wrong to blame Israelis for fearing these things. Instead of dreaming of “replacing the nation,” what we on the left need to do now is listen, understand, and create a new leftist politics that addresses the real and justified concerns of Israelis, for security, for decent schools and hospitals, for a living wage and all the rest.

What needs to be replaced is not the nation. What needs to be replaced is the arrogant insistence that Israelis who applauded Netanyahu's speech in congress are dullards and dupes. What needs to be replaced is the condescension of a Yair Garbuz who sees religious folk as amulet-kissing fools. What needs to be replaced is the entitlement that allows some leftists to complain that the country has been “taken away from us.” What needs to be replaced is our a-pox-on-thee despair. What needs to be replaced is the impatience that leads us on the left to see every election loss as final proof that our democracy is a sham, our past is a lie and our future is lost.

The fact is the left took a step forward in this election. It is a much smaller one than we hoped, and one that leaves before us great challenges. Still, the left has begun to rebuild itself. Much work remains to be done. There is little time for despair and, in the fullness of days, we will see that there is little reason for it, as well.

Noah Efron teaches in the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University, hosts the Promised Podcast on TLV1.

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