Just days before the Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed poised for an epic tumble from power.
Polls leading up to the election consistently showed his rival, Isaac Herzog, ahead of Bibi. His neglect of bread-and-butter issues at home (Israel’s cost of living has skyrocketed) had disenchanted many voters. Even election day exit polls, usually considered accurate in Israel, suggested that the two would tie and potentially split power.
But the numbers proved pollsters, pundits and street corner psychics all wrong: Netanyahu, or “King Bibi” as some have come to call him, cleaned up.
His victory gravely worried his critics — would the reelection of the bombastic Bibi, who, appallingly, resorted to drumming up race-based fear of a high Arab voter turnout, dash all hope of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I spent a year living in Israel and knew the deep dissatisfaction that many of my friends there felt for their prime minister. Herzog’s defeat has left many in despair. I’ve heard it all and more:
“How could this have happened?”
“Don’t Israelis realize how damaging Netanyahu is to Israel’s reputation?”
“Is this the end of the Israeli left? Has the right wing won Israel for good?” Or, as one Israeli friend bemoaned, “Some people here are addicted to Bibi.”
OK, everyone take a (deep) breath.
Israel did not shift rightward; its right wing simply consolidated itself behind Netanyahu.
But didn’t Netanyahu win a clear plurality? Yes, but not because significantly more Israelis voted conservative. Israel’s incoming parliament has 10 parties who represent a gamut of ideologies and interests. “Winning” elections therefore says a lot less about where Israelis are politically than it does in the United States when a party takes Congress.
In truth, Netanyahu mostly poached voters from his right-wing rivals, not the left.
Still panicked that this is the end of Israel as we know it? Let’s take a lesson from another bitterly fought campaign.
Back in November 2004, George W. Bush had just won reelection against John Kerry. Like Netanyahu, Bush was a polarizing, unapologetic leader who won reelection against an opponent more palatable to our friends abroad.
Like Netanyahu, Bush pursued many policies, such as the Iraq war, that severely damaged our relations with some of our historic allies. Bush stuck to his guns, even as many of our friends abroad perceived his policies as destructive. Many of our allies were probably asking themselves, “What the hell is America doing?” when we reelected Bush, as Israel’s allies are doing now.
Like Netanyahu, Bush focused his narratives on national security concerns, as our wounds from 9/11 were still fresh. Israel is in a neighborhood disintegrating into chaos and terror, and faces the overarching threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu spoke directly to these threats. This tactic clearly proved successful at distracting many Israelis from their economic woes.
And like Netanyahu, Bush stoked a fear of the “other” to mobilize his base. For Netanyahu that “other” might have been Israel’s Arab minority. For Bush, it was gays. Let’s not forget that Bush made opposition to gay marriage his primary social issue on the campaign trail. He regularly spoke about the issue, and his allies even placed a measure banning same-sex marriage on the ballot in the swing state of Ohio. Evangelical turnout surged in Ohio, which largely propelled Bush to a second term.
Bush and Netanyahu also both faced opponents who had impressive resumes but weren’t quite ready for prime time.
Most importantly, both Kerry and Herzog ceded the security issues to their opponents.
The Democrats seemed incapable of victory, and it seemed Republicans were poised to win for a generation. Sound a little familiar (#Israel)?
But by 2008, Americans, disenchanted with Bush’s policies and the Republican Party’s direction and captivated by a smart, new rising star of the U.S. Senate, elected liberal Democrat Barack Obama to the White House and a Democratic super-majority in Congress. Elections certainly have consequences, but they are far from permanent.
Perhaps Israel has made a generational rightward shift. Maybe the Israeli left has been relegated to a permanent minority, mostly confined to their sandy beaches in Tel Aviv.
Or maybe it’s still 2004 in Israel. Maybe Israel’s left just needs a new leader with a vision of a new way forward. Maybe Israel just needs Netanyahu to really screw up one more time without apology. Maybe Israel’s democratic system will ultimately ease our concerns rather than create them.
Requiems for liberal Israel are premature. Let’s check back in 2019.
Aaron Taxy is a Coro Fellow working temporarily with The Times' editorial board. He lived in Israel in 2009-10.