The Israeli prime minister is running against a left that no longer exists
First posted in The Atlantic
The Likud campaign ad opens with a 1999 victory rally of newly elected Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who promises cheering supporters “a new dawn,” bringing the Oslo peace process to its successful conclusion. Cut to the image of a bombed bus. An ominous voice-over reminds Israelis that instead of peace, “we received the intifada,” four years of the worst terrorism in Israel’s history. “We must not repeat that mistake.” Then the names of the leaders of the new centrist party, Blue and White—Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid—appear on screen: “Lapid and Gantz. Left. Weak.”
It might seem odd that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party are focusing on events that are two decades old and invoking a long-discredited and irrelevant Labor Party leader. But the Likud understands what much of the international community never internalized: that the second intifada—which began in 2000, shortly after Barak accepted the principle of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and which resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries among Israelis and Palestinians—remains the great Israeli trauma of this generation.
The main political casualty of the second intifada was the Israeli left, which became effectively unelectable. After all, the left had assured Israelis that a two-state offer would bring peace, but the numbing wave of terrorism immediately following Barak’s acceptance of a Palestinian state shattered the left’s credibility. The Labor Party, which helped found the state of Israel and which was the uncontested party of government for the country’s first three decades, now appears likely in polls to win six to eight seats (out of the Knesset’s 120)—competing with the small, further-left party Meretz. The left remains so discredited that the Labor leader, Avi Gabbay, tried to deny that he was a leftist at all—a statement he quickly retracted after party faithful revolted.
And that is precisely Netanyahu’s problem: He is running against the ghost of the left. Israeli politics is no longer a contest between right and left, but between right and center. And the center basically agrees with Netanyahu’s reading of the threats facing Israel—from the growing Iranian presence in Syria to Hamas’s mass riots along the Gaza border to Hezbollah tunnels reaching across the Lebanon border into Israel. The Blue and White party—a coalition of figures from the center-left to the center-right, named for Israel’s national colors—emphasizes patriotism and a tough military posture no less than the Likud. Blue and White is not Peace Now. Crucially, the party leadership includes three former IDF commanders in chief, all of whom served under Prime Minister Netanyahu. The hawkish Moshe Yaalon, known as Bogie, went on to become Netanyahu’s defense minister. It will be hard to convince Israelis that the Likud’s slogan—“Left. Weak.”—applies to Bogie Yaalon.
Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate and strident campaign hinges on two far-fetched premises, both of which resurrect the ghost of the left. The first is that Blue and White is a left-wing party pretending to be centrist. There is no such thing as the center, Netanyahu says; when someone claims to be a centrist, he’s really a leftist.
But Netanyahu is going further. Under the threat of indictment on three charges of corruption pending a hearing, he is accusing the legal system of participating in a left-wing conspiracy to bring him down. The left can’t defeat me at the polls, he likes to say, and so it’s trying to defeat me in court.
Netanyahu’s problem is that the investigations were conducted by his own appointees. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is a religious Jew from a venerable Likud family; the former police commander Roni Alsheikh once lived in a West Bank settlement. Some of Netanyahu’s closest former associates are said to have turned state’s witness. Far from a left-wing conspiracy, this moment is a self-reckoning within Netanyahu’s most intimate circle.
It is a measure of just how formidable an opponent Netanyahu remains that no less than three former IDF commanders are required to try to bring him down—the democratic equivalent of a military coup. Even opponents concede that he has kept Israel safe and prosperous through the convulsions of the Middle East. Among his supporters, there is genuine anxiety over Israel’s ability to adequately defend itself in a post-Netanyahu era. He has deepened Israel’s relations with China, India, and parts of Africa, and, crucially, developed a quiet strategic relationship with much of the Sunni Arab world against an expansionist Iran—even as he has worsened Israel’s relations with much of the liberal West and even parts of American Jewry, Israel’s most important relationship.
On the Palestinian issue, the divide between Blue and White and the Likud is subtle but crucial. Centrists share the fear of the right—that a precipitous withdrawal could turn the West Bank into another Gaza, risking a Hamas takeover and rocket attacks on Israeli cities. But centrists also share the fear of the left—that the occupation of the Palestinians threatens Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish-majority state. A centrist tends to have two nightmares: that there won’t be a Palestinian state and the occupation will continue indefinitely, and that there will be a Palestinian state and Israel won’t be able to adequately defend itself from narrow borders in a disintegrating Middle East.
Despite a shared pessimism with the right about the chances for peace anytime soon, centrists believe that Israel must hold open that possibility—if only, as Blue and White’s Gantz recently put it, to prove to our children that we tried. And, implicitly, to prove to an increasingly skeptical international community that Israel remains committed to an eventual two-state solution.
No less crucial for Israel’s future is the divide between Blue and White and the right on democracy. Netanyahu’s Jewish-state law, which passed half a year ago and which reiterates Israel’s long-standing self-definition as the state of the Jewish people, upset the delicate balance between this country’s two essential identities: as the homeland of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens of Israel, and as the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews. The law sins not so much for what it contains but for what it omits: a definition of the state not only as Jewish but as democratic. And while a law guaranteeing individual rights does exist, no law defines the nature of the state as democratic. Gantz has promised to amend the Jewish-state law.
Netanyahu’s apparent motive in emphasizing the Jewishness of the state was to push back against those in the legal system who downplay Israel’s Jewish identity. But here, too, he is fighting against ghosts: That tendency, while prevalent in the 1990s, has been suppressed by a more conservative supreme court. The Jewishness of Israel is no longer seriously challenged within Israel. And if the law’s purpose is simply to preempt such future challenges, then why not also define the state as democratic?
If anything, it is Israel’s democratic identity, and not its Jewishness, that is under threat today—most of all, from Netanyahu himself. In one of the most cynical moves of his career, he sponsored the merger of the mainstream right-wing party Jewish Home with the far-right fringe party Jewish Power, whose leaders have, in the past, celebrated terrorism against Palestinians. Netanyahu initiated the move precisely because Jewish Power is so marginal and had almost no chance of passing the electoral threshold, thereby losing some votes for the right-wing bloc. In the process of preserving those votes, Netanyahu has legitimized a racist, pro-terror party and debased the state he is committed to defend.
Netanyahu’s war against the ghosts of the left isn’t just a cynical manipulation but a family inheritance. Though Netanyahu comes from the Israeli equivalent of aristocracy—his brother Yoni was the fallen hero of the 1976 Entebbe rescue, the Israeli commando operation that saved more than 100 Israelis and other Jews held captive by Palestinian and German terrorists at a Ugandan airport—the family carried the deep wounds of Zionism’s old divide between left and right. And in the early years of the state, when Labor governed uncontested and controlled most of the country’s economy and intellectual life, the Netanyahus were on the wrong side of that divide. Family lore insists, not unreasonably, that its patriarch, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a historian whose work on the Spanish Inquisition is considered definitive, was denied tenure because of his right-wing politics. As a result, Ben-Zion sought employment abroad, and in the mid-’60s, Bibi went to high school in Philadelphia, where he learned his flawless English.
The infighting that tore apart the Zionist movement in the pre-state era was so bitter that it persisted even at the height of the Holocaust. At one point, the left-wing underground Palmach militia actually kidnapped members of the right-wing underground Irgun and turned them over to the British occupiers. And in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Labor Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF to sink an Irgun ship, filled with arms and volunteers, off the Tel Aviv coast; though the ship raised a white flag, 16 Irgunists were killed.
For most Israelis, those wounds have long since disappeared. But not for Netanyahu, who carries his father’s profound mistrust for the perfidious left. In the Israel of 2019, he is fighting those ghosts, too.
Netanyahu’s inherited memories were reinforced by his own bitter experience in the 1990s, when the left accused him of creating the atmosphere of incitement that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The accusation was, to some extent, unfair: In vigorously opposing Rabin’s Oslo peace process, Netanyahu was fulfilling his role as head of the opposition. And though he turned a blind eye to the ugly rhetoric in the streets, he himself certainly never called for violence. Despite the accusations, and largely in response to the first wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, Netanyahu won the 1996 election. Subsequent attempts, especially in parts of the media, to delegitimize him as a leader, and his defeat by Barak in 1999, remain imprinted in Netanyahu’s consciousness, long after the left has faded as a credible electoral threat.
Netanyahu never lost his oppositionist posture, never internalized that the right had become the establishment and he its uncontested leader. Two of the indictments pending against him are based on alleged attempts to manipulate media coverage, and what is so astonishing is how unnecessary it all was. Netanyahu feels threatened by an all-powerful left-wing elite—in media, in politics, in the courts. And in his alleged recklessness and contempt for the law, he has empowered those ghosts.
This much should be said in Netanyahu’s defense: Like his supporters, he deeply believes that he is indispensable for Israel’s protection. It was, after all, Netanyahu’s lonely and single-minded campaign against Iran that galvanized the international community to impose sanctions and that led to the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, almost universally loathed among Israelis and Arab leaders.
And so he will do whatever necessary to protect Israel’s protector. Netanyahu likes to say that he enters every election with the assumption that, no matter how flattering the polls, he will lose. That approach, he adds, brings out his fighting spirit. The current polls are showing that this time Netanyahu might indeed lose, and they are bringing out the worst in him. His steady incitement against the legal system has resulted in police protection for the officials in charge of his cases. And media reports say that the Jewish Power party has been promised a seat on the committee that appoints judges—a very real threat to the rule of law.
One casualty of Netanyahu’s election campaign is the democratic tradition of the Likud itself. Former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a staunch defender of the legal system, once famously praised the supreme court for ruling against his own government, proudly proclaiming, “There are judges in Jerusalem.” Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, walked out when the far-right leader Meir Kahane, the spiritual father of the Jewish Power party, spoke for the first time in the Knesset.
However significant his contributions to Israel’s defense, Netanyahu has become so divisive, so contemptuous of democratic norms and moral sensibility, that he is now more liability than asset. Power and toughness are prerequisites for Israeli survival in the most dangerous region on the planet, but so are Israel’s moral credibility, the cohesiveness of Israeli society, and respectful relations with the Jewish diaspora. Netanyahu has actively turned Israelis—Arabs and Jews, right-wingers and “leftists”—against one another. No matter who wins next month, the Israel that emerges will be a more wounded and divided nation.