Israelis Want a Different Political Agenda

Netanyahu compares himself with Winston Churchill. But Churchill was defeated in the 1945 election because the people wanted a leader with a different agenda.

Moti Milrod

For many years now, the Zionist left and center have been broadcasting defeatist messages that indicate a lack of genuine faith in their ability to effect change. The religiosity that has become ever more deeply rooted here points to faith in God, but also to virtually automatic support for the ultranationalist right. During last summer’s war in Gaza, the Israeli street was on the brink of neo-fascism.

For a long time, the alternative — which is not represented by any one party — did not believe in its ability to rule the state, and settled for trying to poach voters where it could. That no longer seems to be the case. The results of recent mock elections at high schools signal that the tide is turning. Growing numbers of young people are ready to turn their backs on the hard right, as characterized by the Likud leader, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett.

I recently met a young Jerusalemite whose Yemenite-origin family had strong historical ties to the Irgun, the pre-state underground militia led by Menachem Begin. As we were talking, he suddenly interjected, with evident pride, “I’m Meretz, and my closest friends are voting for alternative movements and not Likud.”

Former cabinet minister Amir Peretz — a battle-scarred veteran of elections from those of the Sderot local council and the Histadrut labor federation to that of the Labor Party — says he too senses a shift in public opinion is changing: not a sharp turn, but the “No more Bibi” message has sunk in, he says.

When Meir Dagan became the Mossad chief, I was surprised and disappointed. He had been active in Likud in the 2001 election campaign, and seemed to me like an out-and-out right-winger, an ardent hawk. But after nine years in the post — he left in 2011 — he has led the “prosecution” against the prime minister’s foreign and defense policies. Ill and suffering from pain, he speaks to audiences in an effort to mobilize Israelis against the current course of the Netanyahu government.

Then there’s Shabtai Shavit, one of Dagan’s predecessors in the Mossad. I’ve met with him more than once in recent years; usually, we have disagreed on the issues. He seemed like a real hawk, but a level-headed person. When someone like him publishes an op-ed calling for a regime change, he brings to it all his experience and all his concerns for the future of Israel under Netanyahu.

It is true that the above anecdotes do not necessarily reflect a statistical trend. Nevertheless, it’s very likely that we are witness to a trend. The math is still in Netanyahu’s favor: Those who enjoy calculating the various possible coalitions swear that even if Likud’s Knesset representation drops significantly, the overall electoral picture will allow him to remain in power. But it’s permissible to demonstrate a bit more optimism and faith. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog is gaining more and more legitimacy; Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid is proving his ability to survive; the fears for Meretz’s fate will help it cross the electoral threshold; the awakening among Israel’s Arab citizens in the run-up to the election influences the overall picture and creates a counterweight to Bennett and Baruch Marzel.

It’s hard to change the views of those of little faith, who think deterministically and ignore the sparks of change. Nevertheless, even though it isn’t certain, such a change is definitely possible.

Netanyahu compares himself with Winston Churchill. This is a dubious comparison, but as long as it’s been made it bears remembering that Churchill was defeated in the 1945 election despite his heroic victory in World War II, because the people wanted a leader with a different agenda.

In this election, it seems Israeli voters also want a different agenda. They want solutions to the housing crisis and the collapse of the middle class. Moreover, they want hope instead of an ongoing campaign of intimidation. Perhaps this will lead to a different government. We must believe it, and work to make it happen.