Why Bibi won: Israel unwilling to pay the price of hope

March 19, 2015
Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu attends cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem, March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool

I understand why some Israelis, intending to go vote for Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union, went in and voted for Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud at the last minute.

Yesterday I was wondering, really, how I would vote if I were Israeli — knowing what I know and having lived through what I lived through in Jerusalem during the peace process in the late 1990s.

A Bibi voter is, perhaps, a liberal whose city has been bus-bombed. Or maybe, better yet, a liberal who is watching Islamic State videos.

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu delivers a statement in Jerusalem

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Jerusalem, March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Uri Lenz

The last time that peace between Israelis and Palestinians was a serious solution to what many Israelis refer to as the situation, the streets of Jerusalem were not safe. As Israel moved to normalize relations with the Palestinians, extremists on both sides of the green line started fomenting campaigns of violence for which average citizens on both sides paid in blood. That was a time of hope, and it was very difficult.

I guess it all depends on what peace really is. On how you define it.

Is the occupation peace? Is peace a time when your streets are safe but you continue to build walls to isolate yourself from your neighbor and to control his movements and to bomb the living daylights out of him when it suits? A time when the future down through the generations looks dim, but the present seems  secure?

Or is peace a time when your own streets are not safe? When the road to good intentions is paved with hell? Is peace a time when the future for your sons and daughters may promise stability and growth, but the bus they’re on might not get there?

The known is better for most voters than the unknown, security today better than peace in a distant tomorrow. The pragmatist in Israel today deals only with reality — and votes for Bibi. The idealist deals with dangerous hope — and votes for … Bibi, when the voting machine brings her back to reality.

Because of this, though, Israel is not the place most of its founders had dreamed of.

PikiWiki_Israel_1172_Kibutz_51

Kibutz Gan-Shmuel in 1951. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

The Israel of the Zionist movement and the earliest days of the state was the Israel of kibbutzim and chalootzim (early pioneers) seen in posters of the day. It wasn’t a place where God was a big deal. It was human. The idealized new Israelis were brave, tall men and women, pioneers in shorts and loose shirts who stood on (ostensibly) empty hills with their hoes, ready — with grit, determination and idealism — to build a new country. They wanted to cause water to fall on arid earth, to create a land of milk and honey and also to welcome the Jewish victims of Europe’s latest convulsions. Except for a few tiny, riderless camels on the distant horizon, nothing in these posters suggests an Arab presence.

This was the romantic, progressive country foretold in the 1958 book and 1960 movie Exodus, A place imagined as brilliant, forward-looking, Western-inspired, intrepid, secular, it was to be an Enlightenment adventure that would tend toward the good of all mankind.

When I was living and working in Jerusalem during the late 1990s, there was still something potential about Israel. Israel and the Palestinians were in the middle of what then was quaintly called, without much irony, the peace process.

Remember? It still seemed as though the country were in the process of becoming. Peace Now was not yet a risible name for an organization.

Back then we imagined that Israel was a nation of rational people living in a Western democracy. They could not fail to see that their own best interest, as well as that of the Palestinians, would be served by peace — and two states. What could have been more obvious?

Herzog addresses young voters in Tel Aviv

Isaac Herzog, co-leader of the center-left Zionist Union, addresses young voters at Tel Aviv University February 8, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The situation was unfolding toward its inevitable, inexorable goal, we thought: peace in the Middle East. Bombs might go off but, nonetheless, progress toward normalization was unstoppable.

That’s not to say that Israel during the peace process was romantic and exciting.

It was a much more complicated and realistic state than the ideal that Exodus had hinted at. It was less and less egalitarian, less socialist. Millionaires lived in windswept houses on the Mediterranean coast and many Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and Thai transients lived in poverty. The kibbutzim had fallen on hard times and were abandoning the communal model.

From around the globe, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews (then entirely exempt from army service) were flooding to Jerusalem and had built and were building — over generations — a large and powerful fundamentalist voting bloc that was anathema, culturally, to the Zionists who had fought for independence in the 1940s.

God was becoming a major player in Israeli politics. While those religious families lived in near-penury in Jerusalem, wealthy and secular Silicon Wadi was about to emerge in Tel Aviv.

Israelis were stressed out. The costs of occupation were obvious in people’s tense faces and in their notorious lack of politesse. I remember laughing at myself because only a Jerusalemite could breathe a sigh of relief the way I did when I visited my family in Manhattan.

Compared to Jerusalem, New York seemed laid back. A very tough, war-hardened man was prime minister. Yitzhak Rabin, known as “Bone-Breaker” because of his early attitudes about handling the Palestinians, was leading the country toward peace. He was letting us continue to believe that Israel was sane.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a rally supporting the United Torah Judaism party near Tel Aviv

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a rally supporting the United Torah Judaism party in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Then a religious Israeli extremist killed Rabin. What seemed in those days like a blip in an arrow-straight timeline, an anomaly of some kind, is now an event that itself reads as inevitable and logical. Of course a moderate consensus builder was assassinated by an extremist.

As conservative Israelis like to say about their neighbors: Welcome to the Middle East. We don’t live in Scandinavia, they like to say.

But Israel itself, it turns out, is also very much a part of the contemporary Middle East. Not because of “the neighborhood,” but internally. A fundamentalist killed the prime minister, just to begin. In spite of this (and because of it), Jewish fundamentalism is on the rise politically and demographically.

The secular population is frightened about the future. The country is its own ghetto, surrounded by walls and barriers. It’s a weird place now whose culture seems, more and more, to have been invented in reaction to its enemies, rather than created by its founders.

Historically, the way to a better world has never been painless. But it’s easier to say that a future peace is better than a present security when you’re sitting on the other side of the globe, as I am now.

In the end, I think, many Israeli voters this week just lost courage. Though so many are tired of Netanyahu’s racially tinged, repetitive, reactionary fear-mongering, no one wanted to vote for Bougie and then lose a child in the first bus-bombing after the peace process starts up again.

In the aftermath of this dispiriting election, Israel will continue to be a harsh, militaristic place without hope — but with a great beach and lots of start-ups. That’s how Likud has transformed the country under Netanyahu’s stewardship.

The Jewish dream of Zionism was always a nightmare for the Palestinian population of the region. The way it has now played out finds the Israelis themselves in a troubled sleep from which they don’t seem able to awaken.

A sleep troubled by God, and monsters.

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It seems that Reuters has a vast number of left wing bloggers/analysts willing to blame Israel for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Arab countries are killing fields with Arabs killing each other. It’s becoming really hard to take Reuters as objective news agency when there are no op pieces criticizing numerous Arab dictatorial regimes with appalling human rights records, but somehow Israel and its democratically elected officials are surprisingly often criticized by the writers of these articles. One could argue that both Palestinian Authority and Hamas are occupying powers and not representing Palestinians because they are refusing to hold elections since 2006. So Israel is expected to reach an agreement with people who have no mandate to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians.

Posted by Potemkin | Report as abusive

potemkin: Point made re: Arab dictators. However, during the post-Rabin era, Israel has consistently maintained an antagonistic stance towards the Palestinians. Palestinian land continues to be grabbed, Palestinians continue to be evicted and Jewish settlements continue to expand. This action by Israel undermines all efforts to bring harmony to the ME, and belies Israel’s claims to being a just nation, seeking peace with its neighbours.
Israel enjoys special preferred status in Washington, see:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/john-mearsh eimer/the-israel-lobby
US tax dollars have been appropriated in support of robbery from, and oppression of, Palestinians for many decades now. And you think the Israeli actions are all okay, Palestinians are terrorist crazies, and the media is biased?
I say Israel has chosen poorly in reelecting Netanyahu.

Posted by mind_emergent | Report as abusive

The article though well written, is incredibly simplistic and very biased,
the fact that you spent some time in Israel has clearly not allowed you to have much perspective to the actual situation, and writing in retrospective regrading current events is really plain wrong and non-trust worthy, the region changed over time and facts of the nineties drifted to major regional and global changes,
this blog is simply not the truth but a perspective of an individual with a very specific agenda.

Posted by ronsevet | Report as abusive

It seems Reuters management has turned off its comments for selected articles. I refer to today’s stories on Hillary Clinton as one example. Why is this?

Posted by RobertHartley | Report as abusive

Well written piece, seems pretty fair.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

mind_emergent, yes, media is biased. You are the proof of that because Western media narrative for decades is: “because of Israel’s occupation there is no harmony in the Middle East”. That can’t be far more from the truth. Arab world is in chaos and that’s completely unrelated to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People in most Arab countries are now far more afraid of Iran and ISIS, two disruptive forces which are creating chaos in the Middle East. There are millions of people around the world who suffered and continue to suffer a lot more than Palestinians, yet the media is somehow obsessed with Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most journalists today are leftists, especially in Europe and US. They don’t really like their governments and tend to project that on US allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. So, you can be a sadistic dictator responsible for killings of millions, if you are the enemy of the United States, Western media will still pay a lot more attention to Israel (American ally) doing something “bad” to Palestinians. Another example: Iran and Saudi Arabia both have pretty much the same appalling record on human rights, but there is a lot more reporting on state of human rights in Saudi Arabia (American ally). Coincidence? I think not.

Posted by Potemkin | Report as abusive

It’s not hard to believe, while reading through Amy’s revisionist history that she was uncomfortable in Israel and happy to be ‘home’ again in New York. Her ever word seems completely foreign to the pragmatism and realpolitik considered the norm in country. It’s not hard to sniff out a sabra from a tourist. It’s clear that Amy was merely the latter. Little wonder why Israelis are finally sick of letting ‘the world’ tell us how to manage our country. And that, in the grand scheme, is why Likud made such an impressive showing in this last election. It’s not that we’re all so deeply in love with Likud. We’re just sick of naive ‘Westerners’ trying to tell us how to live.

Posted by JDavidRosen | Report as abusive

Do you all know what the word ‘opinion’ means?

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive

When a majority of the populous a bordering Muslim nation volts greatly in favor of killing Jihadist who will break a peace treaty then and them is there a credible Muslim partner to a peace treaty. If you do not want eliminate the killers on your side after you sign the treaty, you are not credible peace partner

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Bombs don’t just go off, buses don’t just blow up, walls aren’t put up for decoration – this articles author, along with the anti-Israeli left, ignore this completely. Imagine if those who wanted above all else to eliminate you, were your peace negotiation partners? You would be a fool to let your guard down until there was a mutual desire for peace. There is no mutual intention for peace. The Arab Mulsims want to destroy Israel, any peace they seek is a tactic for their ultimate goal of annihilation.

Posted by Rjaa1984 | Report as abusive

How can there be hope for any peace between non-Muslim nations bordering Muslim nations where the school systems are run by clergy teaching Jihad (religious war), where different sects of Muslims kill each other? To credible signer of a peace treaty a nation must be willing to kill their own breakers of that treaty.

Small nations unless they are driven a doctrine of religious war will make a show appearing to want peace at any price (even if they know there is no credible peace partner). But that is just window dressing for international public opinion. Leaders of the nation facing Jihad knows there little to gain by big costs for the unattainable peace. They know they are in a kill or be killed situation.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

The underlying problem is the determination of radical Islamists, led by Hamas, and funded and supported by Iran and many other Muslim groups to totally obliterate Israel. This stand has continued since the State of Israel came into existence in 1948. There cannot be a meaningful peace process in the face of this. One cannot negotiate with organizations determined to wipe you off the map. The Muslim world must confront and stop these radicals and their extremist ideologies first. In the meantime, both the moderate Muslims and the moderate Israelis will continue to suffer. President Obama can learn something about how to do this from the current leadership in Egypt, who are attempting this very confrontation without Obama’s support. It is no easy task, and runs counter to our Western values of democracy. Ask the Egyptians.

Posted by oracle123 | Report as abusive

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a regional issue. It will never be solved with the USA pouring billions of tax dollars into both sides. This has removed the incentives of necessity which makes the best partners in negotiation.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

How refreshing [and rare] to read an opinion piece about “the situation” in Israel that shows intelligence, insight, and a complete absence of those idiotic talking points that both “sides” plaster all over the internet.

It was a special treat to NOT have to read another apologium explaining the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. And delightful to read an article that did not blame everything on Obama.

More Amy please! [And less of everybody else!]

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

potemkin: This piece has none of the deficiencies you attribute to Reuters bloggers. The inescapable conclusion? You are spamming the site with thoughtless propaganda.

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

I expect the author spent much more time analyzing the votes than Israelis did themselves.

Fact is most people are sheeple, merely reacting to the latest fear tactic that slightly more intelligent people have been using to dupe people for thousands of years.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive