Make Israel Great Again: Dovish Israeli Politicians Take Page Out of Trump Playbook

Nowadays it seems everyone in the Israeli center-left wants to become a tough-talking, BDS-confronting, Haaretz-hating, leftist-basher.

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Zionist Union chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog / Republican presidential  candidate Donald Trump.
Zionist Union chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog / Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.Credit: Rami Shllush / AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

It could just be a coincidence. But as American voters reward Donald Trump’s aggressive macho straight talk, even when stained with misogynism and racism, there have suddenly been attempts by Israeli politicians on the center and center-left to boost their image with injections of testosterone and ethnic chest-beating.

On the right wing end of the spectrum in Israel – as in many other countries – angry populist posturing as a way to galvanize support isn’t really news. Muscle-flexing turf wars between leaders like the prime minister, the defense minister and challengers like Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and a host of other minor players is almost a daily occurrence.

But traditionally, centrist and center-left politicians make an effort to present themselves as the calm, reasonable and sane face of Israel – one that believes in talking, not shouting.

And now at least one of them has now declared that it is time for that to change - loudly.

Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit released a video this week in which he channeled some Trumpian anger against his own leftist camp and presented himself as a potential savior. The video is entitled “Give Us Our Country Back, Dammit!” and it could just have easily been “Make Israel Great Again.”

The video opens with gloomy doomsday music, and Margalit standing stock still in front of a dark screen, gazing piercingly into the camera while declaring “We screwed up. We screwed up because we let them yell and feel like they were right. We let them scream so they could feel like men. And, my God, look at the psychopaths they raised.”

Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit's video: Give Us Our Country Back, Dammit!

Following is a visual montage of racists, far-right extremists, and hilltop youth. Margalit then launches an angry mea culpa rant sprinkled with expletives, saying that right-wing extremism has broken loose “because we left the streets to... people who shoved the flag up their asses, instead of waving them proudly” and let the right “whine, incite, get hysterical, and complain.” He said that his camp had been too timid to harshly criticize Netanyahu from the right for releasing terrorists and fighting “to a tie” with Hamas because “we were afraid of sounding like them.”

Like Trump, Margalit emphasizes his pride at being a businessman who proved himself as a success in business before entering the political world. He brags about his track record helping the poor by building businesses located in the country’s periphery, while the Likud failed to “piss in their direction.” While he “ate shit, blood sweat and tears” with the Golani Brigade. By contrast, he points out that the only gun the Likud’s Oren Hazan ever held was “a water pistol at pool parties at Bulgarian casinos.” All that was missing was a discussion of hand size.

Margalit concludes: “But they know one thing better than us. They know how to yell. So now we are going to show them that we know how to yell better, too.” He pauses and exclaims “Give us back our country, dammit!”

On the very same day as the release of the video, embattled Zionist Union chairman Isaac 'Buji' Herzog grabbed attention when speaking to party activists, he said the center-left party had to counter the feeling among “the Israeli public that we are always Arab lovers” and therefore couldn’t provide security. He later tweeted in defense of his “Zionist approach” with a GPS crack: that “If they want the chairman of the Zionist Union to give preference to Palestinian interests, I have a message for them: They should recalculate their route.” A statement from his office reinforced the message that in Herzog’s view, the party had big “problems” in the form of “the mistaken and dangerous trend of trying to label us as taking the needs of the Palestinians into consideration before those of the State of Israel and its citizens.”

This all comes at a time of deep uncertainty in the Labor Party, in which Herzog is being seen as vulnerable to a coup by party rivals as he faces questioning in a criminal investigation into his political funding.  

Another high-profile pivot to the right preceded these moves in the Zionist Union. In his Ashkelon “Arab lovers” speech, Herzog acknowledged that Yair Lapid’s efforts at reinventing himself into a tough-talking BDS-confronting, Haaretz-hating, leftist-bashing traditionalist had been successful in siphoning off support from the Zionist Union.

Isaac Herzog, April 18, 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Even as he is scorned and ridiculed for what is seen as an effort to “out-Bibi” Netanyahu, Lapid’s polling numbers have climbed ever upwards, as he moves far right of the message he first carried  onto the political stage when he called for “new politics” in an Israel that would be “part of the Western, civilized world and the international community,” and not “a country that is defined by the separation of groups and sectors.”

Sadly, it seems that such separation – figuratively, with divisive racial rhetoric – and physically, with grander plans to build high walls to keep out undesirable foreigners, seems to be the winning recipe for electoral success these days – both in Israel and the U.S.

It’s no wonder that Herzog and Margalit are willing to withstand the backlash to give it a shot and see if – as in the case of Trump – it just might work.