Binyamin Netanyahu is probably the most deficient prime minister in Israel’s history. His blunders and vices have been laid bare in great abundance during his nine years in power. When he embarked on his most recent campaign for re-election, even his own supporters and constituents could not hide their disgust at his egomaniacal behavior and his wife’s embarrassing public conduct.
Beyond Netanyahu’s noxious personal characteristics, Israel has consolidated its position as one of the OECD’s most unequal countries under his rule. Netanyahu, the most fanatic neo-liberal leader in Israel’s history, asked the country’s penurious middle class and poor to re-elect him on a record of high living costs, unaffordable housing, and a 21% poverty rate. Yet re-elect him they did.
Nor could Netanyahu find any respectable security experts to vouch for his return to power. Some 180 generals and war heroes, chief among them Meir Dagan, one of the most revered former heads of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, came together to oppose the re-election of a man they described as a threat to Israel’s security.
But one does not have to be a security icon to see how Netanyahu has burned Israel’s bridges with the international community, particularly the United States, Israel’s most indispensable ally and benefactor. Not only did he openly seek to sabotage President Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran by aligning himself with Obama’s Republican opponents; two days before the election, he suddenly reneged on his commitment to the two-state solution, the cornerstone of the international community’s vision for achieving peace in the Middle East.
Given all of this, why did Israeli voters reward Netanyahu with a third consecutive term as prime minister (indeed, with his most comfortable margin of victory since his first election in 1996)? Quite simply, the vast majority of Israelis agree with Netanyahu in a fundamental respect: A small country surrounded by enemies, in a chaotic region of failing states and vicious non-state actors like Hamas, Hezbollah, and now the Islamic State, cannot afford to run elections on socioeconomic platforms as if it were a peaceful West European duchy.
The pathetic attempt by Netanyahu’s opponents to shift the campaign to the spiraling cost of living and prohibitive housing prices was easily defeated by that compelling message. One must, after all, ensure life, before working on the cost of living.
Like their prime minister, this ever-growing constituency does not trust Arabs, including those who are their fellow citizens. Liberal Israelis were shocked by Netanyahu’s warning on Election Day of “Arabs voting in droves, bussed in by the left.” But to his constituents, emulating the racist politics of Europe’s far right was a legitimate exhortation to turn out.
Nor were they scandalized when Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians, having turned down the peace proposals of left-leaning governments as well as the most comprehensive US peace proposal, the so-called Clinton parameters, appear to such voters as not really interested in peace.
They also agree with Netanyahu that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, and the subsequent rise of Hamas there, proves that every piece of land that Israel relinquishes is destined to turn into a base for launching missiles against the country.
There is, however, another reason for Netanyahu’s victory. The left failed to recognize that Israeli elections are not strictly political affairs; they are an expression of an ongoing Kulturkampf in an ethnically kaleidoscopic society. Israeli elections are in some ways a tribal affair; people vote on the basis of memories, insults, religious sensibilities, and group grievances.
The Israeli right’s current political dominance is fed by a widespread yearning for Jewish roots, a deep-seated fear of Arabs, and an uncompromising mistrust of a “world,” the so-called international community, with which Jews have a centuries-old dispute. The left’s yearning for peace is seen as naive, if not an exercise in political lunacy (and in either case an unpardonable betrayal of Jewish identity).
Netanyahu positioned himself as a magnet for the fears and complexes of a broad array of aggrieved voters, including Russian immigrants, Orthodox Jews, most traditionalist Israelis, and religious settlers. Whether motivated by tribal animosities, an ideological rejection of the peace process, or cultural estrangement from Israel’s liberal elites, anyone who feels alienated – ethnically, culturally, or socially – joined Netanyahu to defeat those on the left who had usurped Jewish history and betrayed Eretz Israel.
Achieving a two-state solution would be a formidable task even if Israel had not explicitly voted against it. Indeed, the hope that Netanyahu’s opponents could achieve a breakthrough is misplaced. The Palestinians, after all, never accepted any of the left’s peace proposals over the years, and the current fragmentation of Palestinian politics – defined by a weak and ineffective PLO and a Hamas obsessed with an irrational and self-defeating war option – does not give room for much optimism.
The Israeli left certainly cannot be expected, after years in opposition, to crack the code of Israel’s labyrinthine politics and lead the country toward a peace agreement with Palestine. If the Palestinians are to avoid the sad destiny of the Kurds, the world’s largest stateless nation, and if Israel is to extricate itself from its suicidal march to an apartheid state, both parties need the world to save them from themselves. But does the world have the will, and the wisdom, to act?
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015. www.project-syndicate.org