Israeli Voters’ Masochistic Streak

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On March 17, Israelis are meant to decide who will be leading them in 2019. Not just on March 18 and the rest of this year and the next two, but in another four years. Anyone voting for Likud or one of what are called its “natural” partners – hoping, of course, that a stable government will be formed to last a full Knesset term – is basically stating that he believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is worthy of being prime minister in the spring of 2019, 10 years after he returned to the position, and 20 years after voters got fed up of him and he lost it.

If that’s what Israelis really want, good for them. If it’s pain they want, they’ll get it. They’ll enjoy it, and they’ll beg for more. Instead of a Jewish and democratic state, we will be a “masocracy” – a regime of masochists. There is no other explanation for the willingness of Israelis to absorb failure after failure.

According to those who work with him, Netanyahu is an unhappy man, grasping the reins of power not because he enjoys it, but because he fears the emptiness that awaits him without it. He is looking for excuses to stay in office and conduct futile discussions late into the night on issues that have been debated ad nauseam, just so he won’t have to go home.

His main partner in the last two governments, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, is what the professional writers might call a “driminal,” an ordinary person who suffers from criminal dreams. Lieberman, who is certainly a courageous man, told last week of his police officer dream – a nightmare conversation about him in a meeting between a chief superintendant and three superintendents, who knew him well from his previous interrogations and who knew his habits – strong, sweet coffee and a life of comfort in which tennis is more important than work.

Dream interpreters are well acquainted with dreams that involve a run-in with the police. The experts say they reflect confession and deep regret. Lieberman had the dream in the midst of a political corruption probe that crosses party lines but is focused primarily on “Yisrael Beiteinu Hayehudi,” i.e., his party and Habayit Hayehudi (headed by Naftali Bennett).

If Labor leader Isaac Herzog is serious when he declares he wants change, he must speak up. Just as he has designated who would be his foreign minister (Tzipi Livni) and finance minister (Manuel Trajtenberg), he must announce also who he sees landing the justice and public security portfolios if he gets to form the next government.

A genuine desire for change must manifest itself in a process of changing government policy – a change that is impossible as long as the current people are at the helm.

In the known mix of fixed items and variables, there are factors that are beyond the control of the Israeli voter: from Washington, D.C. to Tehran; from the price of oil to the ruble’s exchange rate. The only controllable variable is to change the person in charge. Herzog will be making a big mistake if he leaves an opening for a coalition agreement with Netanyahu and Lieberman; the corruption and decadence will stick to him.

The governments of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir with Menachem Begin (1967-1970) laid the foundation for stagnation. The Shimon Peres-Yitzhak Shamir governments from 1984-1990 were unable to repair the damage Likud had done during the previous seven years, which fossilized the diplomatic process. Those wasted years intensified the settlement disaster and pushed many of Israel’s American friends to prefer the Likud half of the government over the Labor side.

The government of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (from 2001 to 2002) was a total failure by its own standards. Operation Defensive Shield, a military achievement in the West Bank after a series of defeats in the war against terror, brought Sharon his greatest diplomatic defeat – the first decision by an American president [George W. Bush] to support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The parties that were partners to Netanyahu’s failures are trying to play on people’s feelings of loyalty and belonging, because no purposeful, rational consideration can lead anyone burned by Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett to believe that leaving them in power will heal their wounds and not make them worse. Only a desire for pain can bring the outgoing government back.