It’s wrong to portray the current Israeli election campaign as a historic moment of choice between two competing narratives: that of the isolationist-nationalist Israeli Right, and the liberal-democratic-peace-seeking Israeli Left. This is a false dichotomy. Also false are the doomsday scenarios about Israel being taken over by right-wing religious fanatics, forfeiting its democracy, and losing its global friends. So why the apocalyptic analyses? Because the Left is setting the stage for “wiser” actors to intervene “to save Israel in spite of itself.”
Clever pundits like David Remnick of The New Yorker and Ari Shavit of Haaretz have tried to portray the current Israeli election campaign as a historic choice between two competing narratives: that of the isolationist-nationalist Israeli right, and the liberal-democratic-peace-seeking Israeli left. They argue that the alternatives are a dark rightward shift or a new opening towards peace.
But these brainy journalists are all-too-slick and only superficially sophisticated. Their caricature of the Israeli right, in particular, is invented. The dichotomous moment they have summoned-forth is false, and their reading of Israeli society and polity is terribly off-base. Very few Israelis see things the way Remnick and Shavit do.
Israelis don’t see themselves as standing at a historic juncture. They don’t believe that Middle East circumstances are ripe for peace, and they don’t expect their prime minister to be making any dramatic diplomatic moves. That is why Tzipi Livni’s “I can bring the peace” messaging never took hold during the current campaign.
As a result, Israelis are not looking for revolutionary change. They are waiting-out the ‘Arab Spring’ and other storms, taking no irresponsible risks, and voting for steady hands at the helm of state. Whether they vote for Netanyahu or not, they don’t feel that Netanyahu is going destroy Israel. They don’t buy the doomsday scenarios drawn by Reminick or Shavit (or by some Diaspora Jewish leaders like Eric Yoffie of the Reform movement or Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund) about Israel being taken over by right-wing religious fanatics, forfeiting its democracy, and losing its global friends.
In fact, what Israelis expect is more of the same, and what they want to see is Netanyahu in government with parties of both the Zionist right and left. They expect another complicated coalition government, with built-in checks and balances.
That is the reason why the Israeli electoral campaign has been mainly a popularity contest, driven by personalities. Shelley or Tzipi. Bibi or Bennett. Lieberman or Lapid. The main question is: Who can be trusted to manage the affairs of state at a time of uncertainty without embarking on any wild initiatives or dangerous adventures. Nothing more and nothing less. We’re not making a grand choice between good and evil, between peace and war, between liberalism and fascism.
That’s also why no single issue emerged as a central election campaign focus. Not peace with the Palestinians or relations with the United States. Not employment figures or social welfare matters. Not the draft of the Ultra-Orthodox or issues of human rights and democracy. Not Iran.
They’re all important issues, and there are principled differences between the parties on these matters. But circumstances have narrowed our choices on all these issues. In practice, our politicians will have little leeway to make revolutionary decisions. Realism will prevail, not eschatological aspirations or radical ideologies.
So why the apocalyptic analyses? Unfortunately, I sense that the Israeli and American Jewish ideological left has gone stir-crazy with Netanyahu hatred. They can’t accept the fact that the political Left’s twenty-year-long crusade for Palestinian statehood has been proven bankrupt; they can’t’ stand the fact Netanyahu is going to be reelected; and they are setting a trap in which to bring him crashing down.
By positing that Israel is at an apocalyptic crossroads, and that Israel is pigheadedly making wrong and dangerous choices, the stage is set for “wiser” actors to intervene “to save Israel in spite of itself.”
This is the upshot of Jeffrey Goldberg’s celebrated Bloomberg News column, in which he describes the lack of trust and frustration in the White House concerning Netanyahu. Netanyahu just “doesn’t understand what Israel’s best interests are,” Goldberg has Obama saying, and “his conduct will drive Israel into grave international isolation.”
With such isolation, even from the United States, Israel won’t survive, Goldberg (or Obama) opines. “Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term threat to its existence.” Therefore, real friends have to step in to save Israel from itself, by imposing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which is swift establishment of a full-fledged Palestinian state. For Israel’s own good, of course.
Like Peter Beinart before him, Goldberg says that Obama himself is not going to pressure Israel on this matter, and I think they are right. Instead, Obama has outsourced the Palestinian issue to the Europeans. Europe is going to take the lead in wedging Israel into a corner against its own self-perceived interests (but in reality “for its own good”) – with Obama “leading from behind.”
This explains the overwhelming European vote at UN in November in favor of upgrading the status of “Palestine,” even though Washington was opposed (at least in public) to the move and voted against it. Nevertheless, Obama didn’t seem too upset with the Europeans for voting against Israel and the U.S. Like I said, it’s called outsourcing the pressure on Israel to Europe.
The next European move (with Obama “leading from behind”) will be an imposed internationalized framework for Israeli-Palestinian talks with terms of reference that basically settle everything in advance in favor of the Palestinians (1967 lines, etc.)
The Palestinians will be forgiven for their unwillingness to enter direct and unconditional negotiations with Israel. Europe will dispense with insistence on that venerable principle of the peace process. After all, they no longer trust Israel to do what is in its own best interests (to withdraw), even if there were direct talks. So best just get on with it and impose the outlines of a “settlement” in indirect consultations or an international forum.
And besides, the main point of the process will not be real negotiations or true peace, but the dethroning of Netanyahu.