24.04.2019 commentary by Molad

Five takeaways from the Israeli elections

It’s easy to get confused by the whirlwind of post-election spins. Before engaging in the habitual self-flagellation, let’s pause over some truths: the settler right has failed to “settle in the hearts” of Israelis; we need more than a shiny campaign to win elections; courting the political center isn’t enough; Israel is split down the middle; and the way ahead starts with formulating a clear, consistent political identity

In the aftermath of the elections, it’s easy to drown in the spins showering down on us from commentators and politicians, both on the right and left, claiming that the recent elections proved the democratic and liberal camp is a minority in Israeli society and that there’s not much to be done about it. But that is simply not true.

The truth is that we lost the elections because of bad strategy. The problem of the Israeli center-left is not a lack of support for its ideas, but translating this support into political power. Israelis steadfastly support the progressive worldview and center-left positions, as survey after survey shows: yes to the two-state solution, no to annexing the Territories, yes to public transportation on the Sabbath, yes to equal rights for the LGBT community, yes to social-democratic economic policies, yes to upholding equality and democracy as the core of Israeli society, as Herzl and Ben-Gurion envisioned it.

Why is the center-left failing to translate public support into political power? For several reasons. Politicians have adopted a habit of obscuring their positions, and some have internalized the delegitimization by the right. Too few institutions are working to build a solid political infrastructure. Instead, resources are spread over too many small-term projects. The bottom line is that for years, Israel’s liberal camp has been without the political representation it deserves (read our analysis of this phenomenon here.

So what can we take away from the elections? Here are the five main conclusions we should take away from the elections:

The settler right has failed to “settle in the hearts” of Israelis

Despite waging a concerted campaign for years to “settle in the hearts” of mainstream Israelis, the settler right has failed to break out of its narrow sector. The rationale for this campaign, which is currently dictating the public agenda, is massive elector support for measures such as weakening the Supreme Court and incorporating religious indoctrination in state schools. However, even if we count all the votes for the New Right, Zehut and the United Right together, the result is less than 10% of the electorate. Religious Zionism, which sees itself as the sector that is supposed to lead an ideological revolution in Israel, got a paltry four mandates in these elections and is represented by the likes of Bentzi Gopstein, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

The echo chamber of Channel 20 TV and the Mida website have led many astray, including the newly unemployed Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who were sure many Israelis back their goals of weakening the Supreme Court, annexing the Territories and the Palestinians, and privatizing social services. In reality, support for this ideology comes from a small minority that barely exists beyond the religious-Zionist sector. Its representatives in the media, however, are vocal and driven, keeping a loud barrage all day, every day. Yet these are the radical fringes of Israeli society – certainly not “the people” they purport to represent.

What is true? The right, and especially the Likud, are good at clinging to power. Yet the recent elections showed that other than a desire to rule, the Likud has nothing to offer but adoration of Netanyahu, hatred of anything to do with the left or state institutions, and continuing the status quo – which includes missile fire on Gaza and on central Israel, and paying Hamas protection money. The Likud is ideologically bankrupt; small wonder that it has not published its party platform for years.

You don’t win elections with a campaign.

There is only one way to win at politics, and Netanyahu knows this. To get out of the rut, the center-left must sharpen its positions and show up in the political domain. This means working hard, all year round. Politics are something you do throughout the government’s term in office. You don’t win elections with a hip Twitter campaign or a viral video. The center-left needs to build up a brave, incisive political identity over time.

That means, among other things, sticking to your guns and not flinching when you face a bullying interviewer or a tough Knesset vote. You can’t waffle and flirt with the right all year, offer no tangible alternative, and then hope that one or two months of shiny campaigning will save you. It just doesn’t work like that.

It means no more parroting the right-wing narrative that leftists aren’t Jewish enough, and no more lending implicit or explicit support to the delegitimization of Palestinian citizens of Israel, including in the Knesset. It means pushing back against the post-Rabin spin that there are “extremists on both sides”, as though there is any similarity whatsoever between Jewish terrorists and left-wing activists who write annoying op-eds for Ha’aretz.

It means not giving up on the only solution that offers us security – two states. It means not stuttering or wavering, not buying into right-wing spins, and not asking our community to consider “creative” solutions like annexation.

It means repeating, over and over again, that the process is stuck – not the solution. That the entire Israeli defense establishment supports the two-state solution, and that the right’s “plan” to annex the Territories along with 4.7 Palestinians will result in catastrophe and the end of Israel as the Jewish and democratic state. The Labor Party crashed in these elections, although its campaign in the month leading up to the elections garnered many compliments. Labor did not “suffer” defeat at the hands of anyone but itself. Its leaders are now busy blaming the Blue White Party, instead of looking inwards and asking how their party reached the elections with such a dismal showing in surveys before Gantz appeared on the scene. 

The left must stop focusing on short-term projects and seek shortcuts. We have to fight for voters 24/7. That means that in addition to important – but secondary – issues such as the cost of living and corruption, we have to cultivate the long term and focus on formulating clear positions on security and the identity of our country. That is where the battle lies, those are the issues that drive the national agenda, and rightly so. The right wing realized this long ago. It’s our turn.


The theory of veering center is not enough

More than a decade ago, Haim Ramon came up with the theory of a political big bang. The idea was to blur ideological differences between left and right and establish a centrist movement – like Kadima, Yesh Atid, and most recently, Blue White. It turns out this theory can’t win elections by itself, as has been proven repeatedly over the years.

Blue White took the centrist theory to the very extreme and did not beat Bibi. Gantz beat the Labor Party. He didn’t take any mandates from the right wing and didn’t change the map of political blocs – his voters are still mostly center-left. So the theory that veering to the center and obscuring leftists views, especially regarding the conflict – where they offer a real alternative to the right-wing worldview – causes massive damage to Israel’s liberal and democratic community.

From 1996 to 2015, no less than nine centrist parties were founded in Israel. Most vanished after two elections. The story repeats: left-wingers split between left-wing and centrist parties, the latter gain initial momentum when the first appear, weaken in the next round and have to reinvent themselves.

Remember Yesh Atid? The party was established with a fanfare in 2012 and won 19 mandates a year later, becoming the second largest party in the Knesset and tipping the scale in Netanyahu’s coalition. This resulted in five ministers in the 33rd government. Yet unclear ideology and a willingness to compromise on basic principles (also as a result of the alliance with Naftali Bennett) led to lack of real action and perpetuated the idea that the liberal camp is passive and incapable of changing reality. In the 2015 elections, after Netanyahu fired Livni and Lapid, Yesh Atid dropped to only 11 mandates. Does anyone remember Shinnuy? The party that won 15 mandates in 2013 didn’t get enough votes to enter the Knesset this time round.

For years, centrist parties have been repeating the mantra “we’ll do things differently, because something has to change”, without actually offering an alternative worldview. These parties are not made to be in the opposition – because they are not truly an ideological opposition, but a scattered marketplace of ideas. Their election campaign did not challenge the right because it offered no alternative and no clear ideas or messaging. Being “statesmanlike” is not a worldview, just as being polite is not a substitute for leadership. You can’t have your cake and eat it – you have to decide between construction in settlements and separating from the Palestinians. You can’t support the Nation-State Law and be against incitement. When you don’t voice clear opinions, it’s like playing soccer with your legs tied. When the other side keeps yelling that you’re a traitor, or mentally ill, or weak, and all you do is gasp weakly that there is no right or left – you lose.

Corruption and incitement will not change the government

The charges hovering over Netanyahu would help topple his government if only they were coupled with a true challenge to his worldview. But when three former chiefs-of-staff effectively promise to be just like Netanyahu, only less corrupt and more statesmanlike, that’s not enough. Right-wing voters prefer the real deal to a pale imitation. They are willing to forgive Netanyahu all of his sins – corruption, incitement – in order to beat the left. The Blue White Party did not challenge Netanyahu’s worldview, or provide better reasons to back it for a change in government. Its leaders followed the advice of media consultants who urged them to say nothing of substance in order to attract “light” right-wing voters. But when the debate is all about who is more right-wing and who is less so – the right wins. When candidates offer no good reason to leave one’s base and make no attempt to persuade voters to back their ideas, but merely try to look like a cleaner version of someone else, voters have no reason to switch horses.

Nothing has changed,
Israel is still split in half. Netanyahu can be replaced

Despite the drama and the endless commentary, at the end of the day, nothing has substnatially changed in Israeli politics. The division of blocs remain basically unchanged. So – no, the elections didn’t prove that “the Israeli people are right-wing”. They proved that virtually nothing has changed and Israelis remain politically divided. In these elections, the right wing continued to staunchly support a candidate who is okay with rocket fire on communities in southern Israel, Tel Aviv and the Sharon area, pays Hamas protection money, and has three indictments hovering over him. That means that the “anything but Bibi” theory of change failed yet again. There is no escaping the need to construct a clear, differentiated political identity.

As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome. In the aftermath of these elections, we can say to ourselves, as we have done again and again in recent years, that it could have been worse. We can say to ourselves: hey, at least we didn’t crash and burn. Or, we can tell ourselves the truth: that it’s time to change. It’s time to stop relying on gimmicks or a surprise trick up someone’s sleeve, and to put an end to myopic politics. It’s time to state who we are, what we stand for and what we don’t, and to repeat it over and over again, proudly and without wavering. The time to start building is now, and to keep at it steadily – until the next elections.

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