On May 29, 1996, I dropped by the Labor Party headquarters for a Jerusalem neighborhood. It was Election Day. Benjamin Netanyahu was making his first run for prime minister, against Shimon Peres, the incumbent. Polls showed Peres ahead. Peres was the stand-in for the murdered Yitzhak Rabin, and Netanyahu was too obviously trying to shed the rabble-rousing rightist image he'd earned before the assassination.
I found the neighborhood Labor HQ dead, or nearly so. Two inactive activists were the only people there. The phone wasn't in use. For each of the neighborhood's precincts there was a chart on the wall, with numbers running from 1 to about 1,000. Each number stood for a voter.
The way things were supposed to work, in those pre-tech days, was to have a mark next to every Peres supporter who had been identified through phone calls or door-knocking during the campaign. On Election Day, a Labor volunteer was supposed to go to the precinct voting places to get the numbers for people who had already voted, so they could be checked off on the charts. Then activists were supposed to phone or visit pro-Peres people who hadn't voted yet. If 80-year-old Mr. Sasson couldn't get down the four flights of stairs from his apartment, young volunteers were supposed to carry him down.
But the Peres campaign had phoned no one in those precincts, nor had they knocked on any doors. Labor supporters weren't marked on the charts, and no volunteers had been recruited to get them to the voting booth. There was nothing unusual about the headquarters in this neighborhood. It was a snapshot of the Labor non-campaign.
Peres lost the direct election for prime minister by a margin of 50.5 percent to 49.5. With 29,458 additional votes he would have won. A quarter of eligible voters – nearly 960,000 Israelis – didn't vote that day.
Peres and Labor made many mistakes in that election; books have been written to list them all. I submit, however, that if Labor had bothered with a ground game, it could have compensated for those errors and won.
Instead, 18 years later, Netanyahu is still with us, running yet again for prime minister, this time as the incumbent, now a man with great experience - at building settlements, transferring wealth to the wealthy, rabble-rousing from one side of his mouth and sounding smoothly moderate from the other.
And 18 years later, the parties intent on putting an end to the Netanyahu era stand a chance if and only if they organize intense, innovative ground campaigns – with the maximum number of people regularly using every form of media to contact their cousins, old army buddies, neighbors and Facebook friends, from now until they've put the right slip of paper in an envelope on March 17.
What got in the way in 1996 was overconfidence. Today, the obstacle to organizing is despair. Despair in several shades.
One kind is what I find among people who are comfortable with the choice they've already made – to vote for the Labor-Livni alliance, Meretz, or the Arab parties in whatever form they run. But they won't spend any time on the campaign because they're sure it's hopeless, and that if Netanyahu isn't prime minister next spring, then Naftali Bennett will be. This is unrealistic pessimism, because in the real world, power shifts back and forth in Israel and large numbers of people can create change. I have no forecast as to who will be the next prime minister, but I can say with mathematical certainty that if 200,000 more citizens vote for the abovementioned parties rather than stay home, the Knesset will look very different.
Then there's the sharper despair of those on the left who say they've got no one to vote for. Meretz is too bourgeois. Labor is, well, Labor. It will make no difference if Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni trade off in the prime minister's office, because they've both supported settlement building and have rich friends. The lesser of two evils is still an evil. The flaw with this reasoning is that the greater of two evils is still worse, and if you don't vote, you've voted for the greater evil.
And there's the despair of Arab voters, who say that the very structure of the state is rigged against them, and that a vote for an Arab party or a shift in power to the Zionist semi-left won't change this. I can understand why a Palestinian citizen of Israel would feel this way. Herzog and Livni will not change the flag, give the Nakba equal time in the curriculum, or eliminate all institutionalized discrimination. But all-or-nothing politics are self-defeating. Netanyahu did not merely maintain inequality. He and the Likud have sought to increase it.
In contrast, a prime minister who needs the support of Arab parties will have to negotiate with them, as Yitzhak Rabin did in 1992. The new government will have to equalize funding to Arab schools, create jobs in Arab towns, and much more. This is more likely to happen if Arab parties have 15 seats in the Knesset and less likely if they have nine. Arab turnout will make a difference in people's lives.
Despair is an excuse for inaction. For that matter, it does no good to sit home and hope. Organize and change the state.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG
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