Into the Fray: Be afraid, be very afraid
The election results indicate the Israeli electorate has become dangerously detached from real challenges the nation needs to address.
Netanyahu surveys Syrian border,
Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich join Netanyahu’s coalition without Bayit Yehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu will have no option but to follow the path of Begin, Rabin and Sharon and reach a painful agreement – Eitan Haber, Yediot Aharonot, January 23, 2013
It is still too early to fully assess the ramifications of this week’s election results, or to accurately identify what caused them.
However, on the basis of the available evidence, Tuesday’s poll is unlikely to portend anything positive – unless of course you subscribe to some theory of socioeconomic alchemy, which holds that the whole of Israel can be miraculously transformed into a Beverly Hills-like clone but one in which everybody will live happily ever after in an atmosphere of egalitarian social justice.
Bread & butter vs life & death
Clearly, the major story of the elections is the extraordinary and unexpected success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which managed to win 19 (just over 15 percent) of the total 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, thus for all intents and purposes becoming a crucial power broker in the formation of any coalition.
In his campaign, Lapid focused almost exclusively on alleviating the alleged plight of Israel’s middle class, studiously eschewing any reference to security and foreign policy issues, other than an occasional oblique allusion to Israel’s growing isolation in the international community and the need to address it.
Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor Party, which won 15 seats, also assiduously avoided broaching matters of external policy, and confined its campaign attention to assailing Binyamin Netanyahu’s domestic record – albeit with far more “social-democratic” welfare-oriented emphasis than Lapid.
We are compelled to the conclusion that in casting its ballots, a decisive portion of the Israeli electorate has given priority to issues of “bread and butter” over those of “life and death.”
Retreat into denial?
It was as if the Israeli voter opted for denial, ignoring the massive challenges facing the nation, such as:
- contending with the repercussions of the “Arab Spring” and the ascent of radicalism in the region;
- addressing the deteriorating situation in Sinai and a possible breach of the peace treaty with Egypt by its Islamist regime;
- coping with menacing developments in Syria and the specter of a radicalized al-Qaida-affiliated post-Assad regime;
- confronting the increasingly evident intransigence of the Palestinians and the fading prospects of a two-state- settlement;
- and preparing for possible regime change in Jordan, and the ascent of Muslim extremists to power.
And, oh yes, we almost forgot, there is the small matter of the Iranian nuclear program.
These are all issues which neither Lapid nor Yacimovich have any competence to deal with – or lay claim to any such competence. Indeed, neither gave them any centrality during their campaigns. Yet they enticed almost a third of the electorate to vote for them.
Disturbing drop in national adrenaline?
The fact that such a significant portion of mainstream Israeli voters supported lists that not only deliberately downplayed – but made little pretense of intending to address – matters that impact the very survival of the state, seems to point to a dramatic and disturbing drop in the levels of “national adrenaline.”
For given the immediacy and the intensity of the threats facing Israel, it seems almost inconceivable that the issue of who was best suited to deal with them played such a negligible role in the election.
Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel’s electorate has become dangerously detached from the real challenges the nation needs to address.
Don’t get me wrong. As someone who is light years away from tycoon status, I am keenly aware of the socioeconomic pressures the average Israeli citizen has to contend with. Indeed, I have my own (long) list of gripes regarding the dysfuntionalities of the Israeli establishment.
Clearly, there is much to address on the domestic, socioeconomic front. Eminently plausible claims can be made for the need to restructure the tax system, make markets more competitive, streamline bureaucracy, raise salaries for specific professions and so on. But Netanyahu’s government was in many respects responsibly addressing these matters.
Arguably more than any of its predecessors, it has been willing to challenge the monopolists/cartels and confront the “tycoons.” It oversaw the dramatic reduction in the cost of mobile-phones service and even went so far as to adopt the ethically suspect measure of retroactively raising royalties on the profits from the newly discovered marine gas fields – incurring (somewhat understandably) the wrath of the plutocrats.
Protesting popular plenty?
Poll after poll, both foreign and local, shows extremely high levels of satisfaction with life in Israel, well above that in most industrial countries. Important socioeconomic indicators are better in Israel than the average in the OECD countries. According to the OECD Better Life Index site: “Israel performs favorably in several measures of well-being, and ranks close to the average or higher in several topics in the Better Life Index… Money, while it cannot buy happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In Israel, the average person financial wealth is 47,750 USD per year, more than the OECD average of 36,238 USD.”
Moreover, life expectancy – usually taken as an indicator of the level of a country’s healthcare – is almost 82 years in Israel, two years above the OECD average.
Israel also scores higher on the prevalence of high-school education with 80% of adults aged 25- 64 having the equivalent of a high-school degree, above the OECD average of 74%.
A cursory stroll through urban Israel will reveal that restaurants are full, cafes crowded, pubs jam-packed; the recreation industry appears booming, with beaches teeming in summer, the ski slope crammed in winter, rural byways swarming with off-road cyclists over the weekends, decked out with the latest equipment and accessories…. Nor are overseas trips the exclusive privilege of a wafer-thin layer of the “crème-de-la- crème.” Out of a total population of 7.8 million, millions of Israelis travel abroad regularly, spending billions of dollars on overseas trips.
Against this backdrop of “popular plenty,” the eruption of “middle class” discontent, as reflected in support for Lapid’s principal electoral theme, seems oddly misplaced.
After all, surely not all these diners, latte drinkers, late-night revelers, surfers, skiers, bikers, vacationers can be parasitic ultra-Orthodox, privileged settlers or plutocratic tycoons?
Success as reason for failure
Paradoxically, it was precisely the Netanyahu government’s success that sowed the seeds of failure at the polls.
On the security front – excluding the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza – Israel is enjoying the longest period of calm for decades. This has relegated security concerns to the back of the public’s mind and allowed more mundane issues to dominate its agenda – unlike the situation under Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon when Palestinian terror wrought carnage on the streets of the nation’s cities and towns.
Nor have the Netanyahu government’s achievements been confined to security. Indeed, it has stewarded the economy remarkably well through the dire global crisis that affected much of the industrial world far more seriously.
Thus, hitherto largely untouched by the world economic crisis and accustomed to increasing consumption levels, Israelis are refusing to tailor their expectations to their means. But as talent (and luck) are not evenly distributed, it is unreasonable to expect an egalitarian reality in which the fortunes of all are similar. Greater prosperity has – inevitably – yielded greater inequality. Accordingly, keeping up with the Joneses is becoming increasingly onerous, with social pressures pushing many to live beyond their means.
It is this growing resentment, coming not so much from the “have nots” but from the “want mores,” that generated much of the anti- Netanyahu sentiment. A cursory glance at the election results seems to indicate that Lapid fared better than the Likud mainly in well-to-do areas, but not in those that allegedly suffered from Netanyahu’s economic policies, where the Likud outperformed Lapid.
To a large degree, FrontPage Magazine blogger David Hornik got it right when he wrote: “The Israeli public has not done justice to Binyamin Netanyahu, whose overall record these past four years on the security, diplomatic and economic fronts is solid and commendable; while falling for the somewhat facile appeal of the untested Yair Lapid.”
But Netanyahu is not blameless. This is the second atrocious campaign he has run, displaying a remarkable knack for almost snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In 2009, the glaring lack of clarity and focus, of direction and resolve, in the Likud’s message left – almost inconceivably – Kadima, a party riddled with unprecedented charges of corruption and a disastrously failed record of performance, with the most seats in the Knesset.
It was only the good graces of fortune – and the gross incompetence of his rivals – that prevented Tzipi Livni being given the task of forming the government.
Precisely the same error was evident in this campaign, in which until very recently, Netanyahu’s – and the national camp’s – undisputed victory was a forgone conclusion.
Indeed, the fact that the Likud – almost incredibly – decided to campaign without presenting the public with a platform, could not but have left many wondering what they were being asked to vote for! His strategic errors began this summer, when instead of holding elections – as he had already announced – he incomprehensibly entered into an ill-considered and inevitably short-lived alliance with Shaul Mofaz. Had Netanyahu held the vote then, before Lapid had fully organized himself, with Livni still undecided whether to run, and probably unable to, with Obama still gearing for elections in the US, with distinctly favorable public approval ratings, he almost certainly would have fared far better.
His merger with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu was – as I pointed out in a previous column – a disaster foretold, creating a united list that, inevitably, could be expected to yield fewer seats than if they had run separately.
Anyone with an aversion for Netanyahu could no longer vote for Liberman without voting for Netanyahu – and vice versa.
Thus voters afflicted by an anti- Bibi or anti-Yvette phobia were left with the choice of either abstaining or voting for parties such as Lapid’s or Bennett’s. It is far from implausible to assume that the Likud’s ill-advised attacks on Bennett, a natural ally, convinced at least some of these voters to side with Lapid. Indeed, the fact that according to a poll just published, 34% of Yesh Atid voters decided to vote for the party in the last three days of campaigning, lends credence to this contention.
Cause for concern
Admittedly, Lapid has conducted himself commendably since the election results were announced. He has come out with some surprisingly – including to myself – assertive Zionistic pronouncements.
However, I would urge caution. I have attacked Lapid on numerous occasions, underscoring how he exploited his widely read Friday Yediot Aharonot column to propagate positions he himself later conceded to be merely mendacious manipulations.
Thus, on the eve of the disengagment (June 24, 2005), he published a caustic castigation of the opponents of unilateral withdrawal.
He warned darkly of the dire consequences and the unbridgeable rift that would result if they succeeded in persuading the public that the expulsion of Jews from Gaza should be aborted.
Menacingly, Lapid declared that Israelis were tired of sacrificing their lives for the sake of the religious settlers, and that for the majority in the country, disengagement “appeared the last chance for us to live a normal life.”
However, barely a year later (October 13, 2006), when the catastrophic failure of the disengagement was undeniably apparent for all to see, Lapid published a breathtakingly brazen follow-up, titled “Things we couldn’t say during disengagement.” In it he admitted it had all been a giant ploy: “It was never about the Palestinians, demography, and endeavor for peace, the burden on the IDF.”
No, confessed Lapid, the real reason for imposing the deportation of Jewish citizens and destruction of Jewish towns and villages was…
to put the settlers in their place, to teach them “the limits of their power” and show them who really calls the shots in the country.
I don’t not know if Eitan Haber (see introductory except) is a Lapid supporter. But the sentiments that he expresses are certainly characteristic of the prevailing sentiment in much of Lapid’s core constituency.
It would be more than naïve to expect that the current political super-star will not face growing pressure from his base, to whom he owes political allegiance, “to follow in the path” of those who brought the extremist warlords to the fringes of Eilat, the reign of terror to the streets, cafes and buses of Israel, and the rain of rockets to the towns and rural communities of the South (and beyond).
So be afraid, very afraid – perhaps the best we can hope for is early elections.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director