Israelis Will Let Vile Netanyahu Reign, So Long as He Gives Them Bread and Circuses

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The people of Israel, like their ancient Roman kin, are interested only in "bread and circuses" (Bloomberg, Dreamstime)

Some 1,900 years ago, the satirical poet Juvenal deplored the decline in civic responsibility among the people of imperial Rome, saying that all the populace was interested in was "bread and circuses" – that is, the provision of food and entertainment.

The people of colonial Israel are hardly different. The message they delivered in Tuesday's election was that they will accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiantly right-wing policies – his rejection of the Palestinians, aggression toward Iran, contempt for local Arabs and dismissal of Western criticism – without demur, but it wants just one thing in return: bread and circuses. It wants cheaper housing, cheaper food and enough money to feel that it’s living the good life. And that’s precisely what Netanyahu intends to give them.

Judging by his speech to Likud activists shortly after the polls closed on Tuesday, Netanyahu got the people's message. With an unexpected seven or so seats under his belt, the xenophobe who had oozed bile and bitterness only hours previously, was all love and charity. He spoke about affordable housing, social welfare and people helping each other – concepts that had barely crossed his lips during his previous term as prime minister.

His Likud party’s dismal standing in the final week of polling had spooked Netanyahu and he reacted as he always does: spitefully, viciously and with a racism that would be shocking in any Western country, though not in ours. Yet, by the time he delivered his victory speech, he had understood the type of deal he would need to make to satisfy the nation – and it didn’t faze him.

While for most of the election campaign, former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon appeared to be a treacherous knife stuck deeply in Netanyahu’s back, that’s not how things turned out. Likud did better than it has for a long time, even without Kahlon, and now Netanyahu had the populist coalition partner he needed to sound convincing about providing bread and circuses.

Kahlon’s 10 seats are a far better fit for Netanyahu than Yair Lapid’s 19 were in the previous government, and Kahlon himself has far more credibility than Lapid ever had. Unencumbered by the out-of-control narcissism that cripples Lapid, Kahlon will cover Netanyahu’s social flank, leaving the prime minister free to hound Iran, insult U.S. President Barack Obama and ensure total stasis on everything to do with the Palestinians.

He and Sara will even be free to continue skimming cream off the top, with Kahlon ensuring that enough dribbles down to the disinterested masses of Israel to keep them quiescent.

It’s hard to deny the justice of it all. Elephants don’t fly, and a right-wing country doesn’t elect a progressive and enlightened government. A government lead by Isaac Herzog would have been an aberration, but another Netanyahu administration certainly isn’t.

Democracy is when the majority of people get the government they want – and that is undeniably the case here. Israel will get the government it sees when it looks in the mirror every morning: ugly but familiar; tribal yet cosmopolitan; intolerant of others but extraordinarily self-forgiving; over-emotional, irascible and sanctimonious.

A rational, reformist government was never on the cards – and it hasn’t been for decades. The fact that so many of us allowed ourselves to be tempted into hope by the wayward polls says a lot more about human nature and Bibi-exhaustion than it does about an electorate that voted consistently. We should have known better.

The best thing that can be said about the next government is that it won’t be an unknown quantity. There will be no doubt regarding what Israel is and who is leading it. We have seen it all before.

A Herzog government would have put a kinder baby-face on things. Months or even years would have been spent trying to figure out whether anything essential had changed; whether Israel 2015 was an entirely new model or simply Israel 2014 in a fancier, more amenable wrapper.

We have been spared all that, which is a good thing. Neither the Palestinians, nor the White House, nor the governments of Europe and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement need to go back to the drawing board. Bibi is back – and nothing has changed.

Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv and an editor at Haaretz English Edition.