Israeli voters went to the polls last week with a sense of impending crisis. How they responded tells us a great deal not only about Israelis themselves, but about what how the international community ought to respond if it still harbors hope for peace in our region.
Though pundits predicted a ho-hum election, the results were dramatic. The two major stories were the significant weakening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, which lost considerable ground, and the rise of the previously unknown Yair Lapid, who is a staunch centrist and, suddenly, a major player.
All the predictions had been that Israelis would move to the right. They did precisely the opposite.
Why did observers assume Israel would swing right? The Jewish state faces threats from every direction. Iran, declaring that Israel is a cancer, gets ever closer to a nuclear weapon. While Israelis appreciate America’s support, they give little credence to President Obama’s assurances that Iran will not be allowed to get a bomb. His second inaugural address, in which he said that “a decade of war is now ending,” confirmed their intuition that when it comes to Iran, Israel is on its own.
Closer to home, Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who makes no secret of his disdain for Jews or of the fact that if only he could, he would annul the peace treaty with Israel. So blatant is Morsi’s anti-Semitism that when a group of American senators went to meet with him, he launched a diatribe about Israeli policies that had the lawmakers “physically recoil[ing],” according to the account of Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
Are 35 years of peace about to end?
In Gaza, Hamas rules with an iron fist and is equally determined to destroy Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah essentially controls the country, and, like Hamas, is hell-bent on Israel’s destruction.
Then there’s Syria, where, if Bashar Assad is defeated, it will likely be by forces no less hostile to Israel but much less predictable than he was.
And what about Jordan? Will King Abdullah survive? Should he fall, is there any doubt that he will be replaced by forces more religious and thus, more anti-Israel? Is Israel’s treaty with Jordan also vulnerable?
The single largest conflict, of course, is with the Palestinians. Israelis intuit that Netanyahu lost the international public relations game by not reaching out to the Palestinians, but they also doubt that President Mahmoud Abbas is serious about negotiating.
They remember: When Netanyahu agreed to President Obama’s first request for a settlement building freeze, Abbas refused to come to the table. Abbas still insists that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state; he recently claimed that the “Zionists” had collaborated with the Nazis.
Finally, there’s Israel’s own economy. It has weathered the economic slowdown better than many countries, but cutbacks are inevitable, and citizens worry that our stratospherically high taxes might rise further.
Given all these dangers, pundits predicted that Israel, fearful for its future, would lurch to the right, which is seen as being more reliable on security issues. That assumption was fueled by the campaign’s main story until Election Day: Naftali Bennett. An unknown, Bennett took the National Religious Party and reshaped it as the Jewish Home Party, reaching out to religious and secular voters alike, many of them young.
The most famous line from Bennett’s web video was, “There are certain things we simply know aren’t going to happen. ‘The Sopranos’ are not coming back for another season, and there’s not going to be a peace deal with the Palestinians.” Bennett advocated annexing part of the West Bank to Israel, thus ending the pretense of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once and for all.
Bennett horrified the international community. Netanyahu at least pretended to want a deal, they said, even if he did nothing. Suddenly, Bennett was the hottest item in Israeli politics. Obama snidely opined that “Israel doesn’t know what its best interests are.” The American press and many American Jewish leaders moaned that the Jewish state was about to stumble off a cliff into a hell of its own making.
But those prognostications were based on a fundamental misreading of Israeli society.
While Bennett did well, he did not do as well as had been expected, with his party receiving only 12 seats of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset.
That slight rise was completely overshadowed by the exceptional showing of a rising star and his fundamentally hopeful message: Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) party. Lapid’s party received 19 Knesset seats, making him the second largest party, and almost certainly a key partner in whatever coalition Netanyahu manages to cobble together.
This is a profound statement about the very nature of Israel. Surrounded by enemies, beset by internal anxieties, the people did not take the bait of extremists. Nor would they validate the status quo.
To the contrary, Israelis chose to embrace the center. They heard Bennett and were not sure that he was wrong, but they were unwilling to declare peace dead. Instead, they decided to give negotiations one more try, weakening Netanyahu by heaping votes on a new, third way.
Who is Lapid?
Long known to Israelis as a smart, trendy and handsome TV journalist, he is a newcomer to the political scene. He ran as a hopeful pragmatist, neither naïve nor hardline. A secular Jew with personal ties to Judaism’s liberal Reform movement, the members of Knesset from his party will also include Orthodox rabbis.
By no means naïve about the Palestinian refusal to compromise, Lapid still believes Israel needs to talk to them, if only to avoid being perceived as the obstacle. Unlike Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, which ran on a nearly socialist agenda, Lapid is a committed capitalist but nonetheless wants to address issues of economic inequality.
Netanyahu appears to have survived as prime minister, but is more than a bit beaten up. Having performed much more poorly in the elections than he had hoped, he must cobble together at least 61 seats of the 120 Knesset seats to have a majority. Meaning he will likely need both Bennett and Lapid, as well as a few others, to form a true governing coalition.
Taken as a whole, then, what did Israelis do? They reelected Netanyahu, because Iran still looms, and they trust him more than anyone else to make the right life-and-death decisions. But at the very same time, voters are clearly tired of Netanyahu’s bravado. Those convinced that there’s no deal to be had with the Palestinians prefer Bennett’s lack of pretense; those not yet certain clipped Netanyahu’s wings with Lapid’s scissors, hoping that will force the prime minister to give it a serious try.
Jewish tradition is fundamentally deliberative; its central religious text, the Talmud, is a 20-volume conversation, in which both the winning and losing positions are revered and studied. The Jewish state is similarly deliberative; Israeli society is fundamentally “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Israelis want both capitalism and a social conscience. They demand both hard-nosed security and the openness to negotiating. They know that Israel needs both the freedom to defend itself and restored standing in the international community.
Israelis do not give up on hope; in fact, “Hatikvah,” our national anthem, means “The Hope.”
Netanyahu offered no vision for a different future. Both Bennett and Lapid did. Netanyahu paid the price; Bennett and Lapid collected the spoils.
The question now turns to Israel’s neighbors — which, in far too many cases, are her enemies. The Jewish state has proven its moderation, even in moments of great distress. But what about the Egyptians? Gazans? Palestinians?
Americans and Europeans who will hold out hope for an agreement should now say this to the Palestinians and their rejectionist allies: “Look at what the Israeli elections just revealed. They’re not going to compromise their security (Netanyahu). But now, something has changed. Time is not on your side. If you do not deal, they’re eventually going to permanently annex the land you want (Bennett). But for now, they’re still willing to talk (Lapid).
“So stop the evasion. And while you’re at it, look at the country those Israelis have created. You see their freedom of the press? Their attitude to women (more in this Knesset than ever before)? Their openness to gays and lesbians?
“We Americans believe in all those things. Their election has reminded us that they are our natural allies. You want our support, too? Drop the fundamentalism. Stop the hatred. Work with Israel.”
Will they, or will they continue to put disproportionate pressure on Israel to bring about change that it simply cannot accomplish on its own?
Time will tell. But let there be no doubt: Everything now depends not on Israel, but on those very governments that dreaded what Israelis might have done, but didn’t.