Seven Stages of Grief: Waking Up to a Nationalist Netanyahu Government

A month ago we thought the left stood no chance, and then, as the last polls flattered us, a revolution almost seemed possible. Alas, the higher we climb, the harder we fall.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Zionist Union supporters in Tel Aviv, Election Day, March 17, 2015.
Zionist Union supporters in Tel Aviv, Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: AFP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

1. Shattered dreams

A month ago, we thought Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog stood no chance at becoming prime minister. And then, as the last round of polls flattered him with a five-seat lead over Netanyahu, it briefly seemed possible that we could actually squeeze through and create a center- left coalition. Fantasies of change began to flitter through our imagination. Alas, the closer we get to our dreams, the greater the regret when we are denied them.

2. The stakes were higher for them

Netanyahu convinced the national religious camp and the rest of the Israeli right that their lives and their homes were on the line. For 72 hours, Netanyahu roared "Gevalt!" and the voters shuddered. On Sunday, settlers occupied Rabin Square to save themselves from the left, and on Election Day, Netanyahu conveyed his infamous message that the Arabs were voting in droves so (right-wing) Jews had better race to the ballot box.

It worked. What looked like panic to Bibi’s critics was our wiliest politician successfully panicking his base and convincing Habayit Hayehudi voters to sacrifice their party to save hearth and home. The specter of a Herzog-led government protected by a formidable Arab bloc proved far more galvanizing than the threats of a nuclear Iran or ISIS on our doorstep.

We on the left, however, wanted to improve our lifestyle, to help others by creating a more socially equitable Israel, to maybe fan that flicker of hope on the hazy diplomatic horizon to ignite negotiations with those divided Palestinians that maybe, just might, yield results, someday. We had taken to Rabin Square to protect other people from our government’s priorities and xenophobia – the poor, Arab citizens, refugees, Palestinians.

Our values felt under threat, but not our lives.

3. What to expect

With a hard right-wing-and-ultra-Orthodox coalition, expect the swift passage of the Jewish Nation-State Bill and legislation to weaken the courts. Expect more attacks on leftist academics, uppity Arabs and the media, and little sympathy for African “infiltrators.” Expect the easing of restraints on settlement expansion (Netanyahu owes the settlers his survival and he will no doubt repay them). Expect the ultra-Orthodox draft bill to be nullified. President Reuven Rivlin will remain a lone voice of sanity emanating from the official halls in Jerusalem.

4. Meanwhile, in the U.S.

Despite all this, AIPAC will be sure to shore up support for Israel in the Democratic Party in advance of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, while Obama abandons hopes for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

5. We’ve been here before and we’ve never been here before

Electorally, not much has changed. The right-wing – Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beitenu – tallied 44 seats, only one more than it got in 2013. The center-left Zionist Union (of Labor and Hatnuah) and left-wing Meretz scored 28, an increase from the last go-around, when these parties got 23. And in the center – if we count Moshe Kahlon's new Kulanu party as centrist (he ran on a purely socioeconomic agenda) and add to it Yesh Atid – we get a total of 21 seats, only two seats more than in 2013, when Yesh Atid garnered 19 on its own.

The numbers are similar, but the spread of votes has changed, strengthening two key parties: Likud and the Zionist Union list. This awards each of them significant power – especially Likud, when forming the next government.

6. Reinventing the Zionist camp

It isn't enough to call ourselves the Zionist camp. The left needs to refine its vision and renew its Zionist ideology. Our new ideology won’t be socialist or Torah-based, but it must be Jewish. Our inclusive, multicultural vision – which includes Palestinian citizens, too – must acknowledge that Israeli Jews are desperate to feel Jewish and Israeli pride.

Our parties ran weak campaigns –all the parties did – but we revivified the ground game and social media campaign, with V15 leading the way. The street woke up and united behind Herzog, an achievement not to be gainsaid. Someday we may look back on this as the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era. We now need to focus on a long-term game and re-conceiving our educational and outreach activities to create a presence in the field beyond Greater Tel Aviv.

7. Tomorrow

For the doomsayers among us who are dreading what another four years of Netanyahu will look like, remember that the notion of Ariel Sharon as prime minister once seemed the most horrible fate our state could ever suffer. Leftists were supposedly packing their bags, yet we stayed and endured and even evacuated the Gaza Strip. Just like the national religious camp went back to the drawing board after the disengagement in 2005, we will reinvent ourselves and move forward tomorrow.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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