Israel, March ‘15

I was in Israel for the election, a few days before, and a few days after.

Before the election I spoke at the final conference of a three-year dialog process for Arabs and Jews. The dominant tone of the conferees was clear, and astonishing: hope. People in Israel don’t hope. They are cynical, certain that things will get worse, trust no leader. (The Orthodox may be an exception here.) The hope, to be sure, was guarded, limited, but there was a strong sense that change was coming, maybe big change. Not much analysis, but strong feeling. Arabs and Jews agreed. As did the polls.

Newspapers overflowed with analyses and predictions. They also overflowed with vicious headlines, photos, and rant. They were not covering the election; they were players. There were three demonstrations, 25,000-35,000 people each: the Orthodox, the right wing, the left wing. In the end 72% of the electorate voted, a high for recent elections.

Much of the energy was focused on one man, Benjamin Netanyahu: Save him or toss him. The right leaning Jerusalem Post supported no one, and came out on election-day with a long editorial urging people not to vote for Bibi.

Arabs are a significant minority (20%); they have long had the potential for a major role in the coalition governments. But they have never coordinated among themselves and thus dissipated their impact. This time they seemed to act as a block. Though they said they would not join a government because one group among them refuses to be in a government that runs an occupation, they did say they would “vote with” a government that took seriously the economic improvement of Israeli Arabs and negotiations with the Palestinians. With Bibi’s win we will not know if this time the Arabs – who finished with the third largest number of parliament seats - could keep it together to be players on the national stage, or if the Jewish parties could find it in their political hearts to be seen collaborating with “the Arabs.” But this fragile first time solidarity might be an important clue about the future.

Bibi’s win was a surprise to both sides. Most call it a substantial victory. Some point out that he won that victory with 23% of the vote.  Some point out that both the left and the right came out with about the same number of seats as in the last election. Bibi thus won by taking seats from other right wing parties. He did it by screaming in the last four days prior to the election that  “hordes of Arabs are voting.” In addition to playing on fears that the democracy would actually work, it also played on eliding Arab citizens of Israel with Arabs living in the Occupied Territories with Arabs in Syria, Egypt, etc. with the Arabs of ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. This is racism for sure, but the fears it builds on and generates are exaggerations not hallucinations. This is, in the old phrase, a dangerous neighborhood, dangerous for the Jews, dangerous for the Palestinians, and dangerous for just about anyone who lives there.

Tel Aviv really is different. It voted overwhelmingly to get rid of Bibi. After the election, the hotel clerk, the barber, the taxi drivers, the woman at the car rental, the newspaper seller, and of course my leftie friends at Neve Shalom were all in shock and mourning. In the glorious weather a walk on the tayelet (the wonderfully designed walkway along the Mediterranean) gave me an endless flow of conversational snippets to the same effect. They ranted at Bibi (“racist,” “slime”), at those who voted for him (“morons,” “fascists”), and at the country (“we get what we deserve,” “we are on a suicide path”). All of this was amplified by the hundreds of coffee houses and restaurants, tables spilling onto the sidewalk, bursting with patrons and vivacity. A friend just back from 18 months in Berlin complained that Israelis are “just too noisy.” Noisy for sure, but I felt it as exuberant energy.

On my way home I attended the J Street Annual Meeting in DC. I expected a wake. What I got were:

  • Very thoughtful panels on Iran, European anti-Semitism, and voting patterns throughout Israel: by income group, religion, and geography.
  • Endless post-election analyses.
  • The cheer leading needed by any advocacy group: “we can’t afford to let desperation win; we just have to try harder.”
  • And, in place of strategies for how to do better the next time, or what to do under what might a long (four year) Netanyahu administration, constant references to the need for “international pressure.”

This meant two things. Boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) which hold promise of actually influencing Israeli policy and which J St pretty clearly can’t touch (“too divisive in the Jewish community,” “too linked to blatantly anti-Semitic/anti-Israel political actors), and international organizations (the UN, the International Criminal Court), which might make an impact though are more likely to generate a lot of noise leading to nothing. As usual, ideas of pressure on the Palestinians were vague or non-existent. There was nearly no discussion of J St’s favorite enemy, AIPAC.

Bibi is a world-stage player on the issue of the agreement with Iran. So, his visit to Congress aside, I was surprised how little the topic came up in conversation or in the press. In one way I agree with Bibi: if a nuclear deal is made, it does indeed have the potential to change nearly everything in the region. Not so much because Iran will or won’t be closer to a nuclear weapon, but because it may signify a move by Iran from neighborhood bully focused on a regional religious war, to a world-stage player. There are many roles they could play on that stage, and some of them would be competitive with Israel. But, as with so much else in a region of so many interacting players and forces, predicting the impact of such a change is well beyond human capacity. We are left with our hopes and our fears, and we all know who wins in that contest. If we needed reminding, the election did that.

March 29, 2015