On the morning after last week’s Israeli elections, Knesset member Zehava Gal-On wrote the following to supporters of Meretz, the left-wing party she chairs:
“Nobody in our camp should have the gall to say that the voters disappointed us. On the contrary: we disappointed them. … If the public chose to diminish Meretz’s power, if it chose to give Netanyahu another term, it is I alone who must draw conclusions…”
To say that Gal-On was disappointed in the results of the election is an understatement, and yet her mature and dignified response acknowledges that the left failed to offer a compelling alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More than any recent election, this one was a referendum on the prime minister, and Israelis re-elected the incumbent because the challengers failed to convince voters to replace him. Gal-On did not blame Netanyahu’s “race-baiting” or “fear-mongering,” perhaps because she gives Israeli voters more credit than that. She did not rip Netanyahu for statements he made during the last lap of the election cycle or behave as though Netanyahu had just run over her dog.
In contrast, leading American liberal Zionist leaders refuse to consider why Netanyahu was re-elected; instead, they focus on Netanyahu’s campaign statements, questioning whether they can continue to love Israel, professing that it is easy to fall into despair, proclaiming the end of the Zionist dream, and calling on fellow progressive Zionists to punish — yes, punish — the Israeli government for rejecting a peace plan that they urge President Obama to articulate.
Two statements made by Netanyahu at the tail end of the campaign have come under close scrutiny. The first — “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” — was unquestionably alienating to one-fifth of Israel’s citizenry. But when one paraphrases this as “Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel was endangered by Israeli Arabs exercising their right to vote,” shifting from “the right-wing government” to “Israel” being in danger, it is a distortion. Unprecedented Arab turnout indeed makes it more difficult for Netanyahu to form a right-wing coalition, a fact that he laments and others celebrate. As a last-minute election ploy, it was divisive, cheap and alienating, exposing some of the worst elements of Israeli society — bad enough without overstating the case.
As to Netanyahu’s statement that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, one need not be a Talmud scholar to understand how it is compatible with his acceptance of the two-state principle. The reflexive interpretation of the doomsayers, under which Netanyahu never negotiated in good faith, is extraordinarily uncharitable. In fact, a majority of Israelis accept the two-state principle but as a pragmatic matter are very wary of an agreement during a period of regional instability and without certain safeguards. Understanding this position — which lies between the outright rejectionism of the hard right and the end-the-occupation-now voices on the far left — goes a long way to explaining Netanyahu’s appeal to Israeli voters.
But even if Netanyahu lied, he would not be the first to lie in a campaign speech. Ariel Sharon promised while running for prime minister in 2002 that he would not unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip; in 2005 he did just that. Speaking at AIPAC on June 4, 2008, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, declared: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Two days later, he “clarified” the statement — “walked it back” in the current parlance: it would not be divided by barbed wire, and it would remain Israel’s capital and also be the capital of a Palestinian state. Obama’s White House has stuck to the clarified/revised position, condemning Israel whenever plans to build homes in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem are approved at any level. What Netanyahu and Obama have in common, if nothing else, is that they are politicians, masters of exploiting ambiguities to allow for multiple subsequent interpretations and clarifications.
The shame of it all is that the self-fulfilling prophecies of estrangement of American Jews and their Israeli counterparts misread the Israeli political map. In these elections, Labor won more seats than in any election since 1999. Arab representation grew while the right remained the same size. That is, even those who loathe the Israeli right (and many Israelis held their noses while voting Likud) have plenty of Israelis with whom to connect. Netanyahu’s “landslide” gave his party a mere 25 percent of the Knesset as opposed to Labor’s 20 percent. So Israel is not a “red state.” If anything, it is a “swing state,” though in truth it is far more colorful than that.
Disappointment in the wake of Netanyahu’s unexpected victory is understandable, but statements like “How do you love a country whose government is not aligned with your core values?” seem fickle. Governments come and go, and the left — to one’s chagrin or delight — will rise again. As Meretz’s Gal-On concludes:
“Keep your heads up. … I know full well that politics ebb and flow. … Maybe it seems distant … but we will return to the government. Not because we deserve it, but because we will work hard together to make change…”
Until then, and even then, Israel will always be much more than its politicians. Today, as always, Israel remains a vibrant, wildly democratic, infuriating, frustrating, argumentative, innovative, constantly evolving and downright wonderful little country.
Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer, Hebrew-English translator and frequent contributor to these pages.