Israelis Went to Bed Hoping for Change, and Woke Up With King Bibi Again

No turnaround is possible in Israeli politics because there’s no longer anyone to be turned around. The people have accepted the corrosive pessimism of Netanyahu.

Tal Niv
Tal Niv
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Benjamin Netanyahu savors victory at Likud party headquarters.
Benjamin Netanyahu savors victory at Likud party headquarters. Credit: Reuters
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

End of Election Day. Likud has grown. Netanyahu, too. By their nature, elections always foment hope and emotion. Even the murkiest, the ugliest, the most verbally violent and the largely unfounded ones generate a certain hope: for victory. For surprise. For the satisfaction of one side or another. And now, from the moment the results of the exit polls are announced, the satisfaction belongs to Netanyahu. There is no center-left government. Anyone who wanted to see Benjamin Netanyahu stew in his own juice is disappointed. Anyone, who expected to see the man who was a six-year failure and who dragged Israel into costly elections vacate the residence on Balfour Street, was rudely awakened by the exit polls.

Netanyahu emerged from a terrible, violent, hate-filled summer into a dispute bearing paranoid contours with his coalition partners, who were already competing between themselves to be more right-wing and extreme than he. He concluded the election campaign with incitement against Arab citizens, with the probability of a right-wing government and with a unity government if he chooses. The public ignored his failures and his royalist posturing.

After waging a bitter war in the name of his newspaper, which has foreign financing, but neglecting the poor of his country, and after a horrific summer with a brutal war, and after an election campaign in which it seemed that the cost of living, if nothing else, would bring about a change of government – it turns out that this is it. Poof. No turnabout and none in sight.

The reason for this is that the depth processes in the Israeli society show a trend toward voluntary relinquishment of civil society and of equality. Not even [Joint List leader] Ayman Odeh’s 14 seats will help.

As for Isaac Herzog: to borrow for a moment from the realm of the monarchy, he – like Bertie, King George VI, who was aided by a speech therapist in order to overcome a chronic stammer and used the important communications media of his time to allay the public’s fears – underwent something of an image turnabout. But neither Reuven Adler nor any other advertising strategist can change the fact that the nice guy from the Labor Party confronted a person who described himself as having been subjected to “intense battering” – but who battered the public. Netanyahu, as the Hebrew saying goes, is a frog whom the public swallowed again. And now Herzog, the affable, sane fellow, remains the opposition. We’re not positioned with Herzog III, [he is a Grandson to a chief rabbi and a son to a president], but still with Bibiyahu I.

Meretz’s hairsbreadth survival does not necessarily reflect the erasure of the citizens who subscribe to its views. It’s due to the failure of the party’s leadership to project itself effectively in the campaign and thereby win the support of both the existing de facto left and to win over those in whom sufficient inspiration and trust can be generated to induce them to vote for the party, too.

The failure of Meretz grieves every proponent of democracy. The failure of Eli Yishai is a small consolation. Arye Dery, who in any event promised to hook up with Netanyahu, is likely to keep his word. Anyway, the counterfeit theoreticians of the neo-nationalism of Im Tirtzu, combined with the religious parties, sealed the fate of the center and the left.

Benjamin Netanyahu governed Israel like a king and adopted monarchical mannerisms. We don’t have to look at [former Mossad head and outspoken Netanyahu detractor] Meir Dagan to understand that the inversion of the terminology and the nationalist extremism that Netanyahu himself encouraged, is now bringing about a situation in which senior figures from the defense establishment will be declared “leftists,” meaning “traitors,” if they express views different from the ruler’s. These are perilous developments. And now come the elections, which put a little color into people’s cheeks in the past week, when it seemed, perhaps, that the poverty in Israel and the fact that the mainstream of the country’s citizens are groaning under a greed-driven economic structure would change the public’s rightward thrust. But it didn’t.

There can’t be a “turnaround” in Israel, because there’s no longer anyone to be turned around. The people have accepted a pessimistic world view; they would like to see two big parties, but not necessarily a thrust for peace.

Herzog ran a relatively reasonable campaign, but it could have been more effectual given the good team he had. A national-unity government is not necessarily good for Herzog; it’s preferable that he lead an effective opposition. In that way he can create a broad base that will lead to a substantive turnaround next time – which is likely to be in less than four years.

The roots of these elections lie in July. They began in fear – huddling in stairwells as air-raid alarms sounded, with mobilization and a ground entry into the Gaza Strip, and with savage aerial bombing, with the killing of women and children – and they’ve ended with a re-enforcement of Netanyahu’s personal power and a larger right-wing bloc. There was no ideological reason for the previous coalition to be dismantled. With the back drop of a lousy national mood, and by placing the left wing beyond the pale or turning it into a dirty word — Benjamin Netanyahu is king.

As in the lovely poem by Yehuda Amichai – “It is morning now and behold, you are Leah. Last night you were Rachel” (translation: Azzan Yadin) – Israel’s citizens went to vote hoping for change and betterment, and after the exit polls found themselves with Benjamin Netanyahu. And with his chill. And with his corrosive pessimism. Netanyahu won.

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