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Polarization Isn’t the Reason for Israel’s Third Election

Israel Harel
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Benny Gantz votes in Israel's election, Rosh Ha'ayin, September 17, 2019.
Benny Gantz votes in Israel's election, Rosh Ha'ayin, September 17, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Israel Harel

We are in a profound national crisis, the national mood says. People despise one another. This crisis, many fine folks believe, is a greater threat to Israel than all the enemies that surround it. We’ve reached the point, I hear in meetings with individuals and groups, where we’ve lost our Zionist and national common denominators.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63

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Just read what people are writing in the newspapers and on social media, and listen to what they’re saying on radio and television: Israelis are hopelessly polarized. And polarization breeds hate. The right hates the left and the left hates the right. According to the popular wisdom, the inability to reach even a minimum agreement between the camps has led us from one election to another. The Zionist project is on the brink of collapse.

Yes, a few leading figures from the successful and educated classes are awash with sick hatred of the right, especially the settler right – to the point of encouraging murderous terror against it. (Also) because Meretz is the political home of these people, and the groups that admire them, this left-wing party was about to vanish from the political map and had to join up with Labor in a degrading agreement that keeps Meretz’s name obscured.

And what did the last holdouts from the pre-merger party do in light of its “betrayal”? They joined up with the Joint List. Apparently, for them, terrorist-supporter Heba Yazbak is more kosher than Itzik Shmuli and Amir Peretz of Labor.

Groups on the right have also developed an extreme hatred – mainly as payback for the incitement against them. Still, these groups are of marginal importance in terms of their standing and that of their leaders.

Their political influence is practically nil, too. Not one of their spokespeople is a central figure in academia (or the yeshiva world), a columnist in an influential newspaper or a leading figure in literature and art. If it weren’t for the media, which magnifies these groups for its own reasons (defaming the right, especially the settlement movement), they would almost certainly have faded and scattered. In the last two elections their political home, Otzma Yehudit, was exposed in all its weakness.

I disagree about the magnitude of the polarization and with the accepted theory that this polarization is the main cause of our third election in a year (with nascent preparations for a fourth one already discernible). The voices of hate, from the left and the right, may be loud, but they’re deceptive. Most of the nation doesn’t subscribe to them. Most of the despair derives from a crisis of leadership. Leaders who cling to glory are fueling and intensifying the polarization.

But to judge from the noticeable strengthening of the political center, this process isn’t penetrating deep. Kahol Lavan hasn’t achieved its success by presenting a politico-ideological agenda different from that of the current governing coalition. Its strength comes from its message of “anyone but Bibi,” from fierce opposition to a leader (but not to the Likud movement) who has lost his charm in the eyes of much of the public.

Israel isn’t becoming more extreme. On the contrary, it’s moving more to the center – as Kahol Lavan’s efforts to form a coalition with a Benjamin Netanyahu-less Likud will attest. Most of the voters who are disappointed with Labor (and maybe also Meretz) have turned to Kahol Lavan, not to the Joint List. The religious-Zionist community, disappointed by Rafi Peretz – and also by his talented but disunited friends – isn’t turning to Itamar Ben-Gvir.

There’s a good reason why Kahol Lavan, Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties are all trying to pull in this community. And it would be a mistake to think that the leadership crisis is just about Netanyahu. Avigdor Lieberman is equally responsible for the political chaos. Kahol Lavan isn’t blameless either – having chosen the least talented of its four top figures to be its leader.

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