(David M. Weinberg)
Take a deep breath, everybody, and put some cynical filters in your ears.
Israel is not on the edge of a precipice.
The country is not going to soar or crash in any way, no matter what the March election result is. Israelis are not faced with a choice between good and evil.
What we’re facing, rather, is just another muddy election in a convoluted Israeli political system where negative campaigning and personal animosities are at a peak.
It must be said: Israel is stronger, more stable and saner than it may look over the next 95 days of campaigning.
It’s important to say this, because desperate politicians, such as Tzipi Livni, are already revving up hysterical campaigns that portray Israel as a country in danger of going down the drain; a country threatened by dark illiberal forces; a country where “religious extremists” and “ugly nationalists” seek to “turn back the clock,” and to “impose,” “intimidate” and “dictate” their “intolerant” views on a beleaguered society.
The choice before the electorate, Livni has arrogantly and outrageously declared, is “between Zionism and extremism,” no less. Livni and her latest boyfriend, “Bugie” Herzog, are, of course, the voice of pure, rational, laudable Zionism; while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fronts for ominously surging, retrogressive extremists who supposedly are on the march.
Already you can hear plenty of nonsense about this race being a turning point in the battle for Israel’s soul; about a spirit of “rage, resentment and xenophobia” that is running through Israel; about this being a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness; about Netanyahu driving Israel backward to fundamentalism, and caring only about his personal political survival.
On the other side of the political map, you can hear wild exaggerations about the Left wanting to gut the Jewish character of Israel, steer Israel toward diplomatic suicide, and bring back stifling socialism.
And in between, there are a bunch of newbie economic crusaders and saviors, who promise to magically and overnight bring down the cost-of-living for middle class Israelis while simultaneously boosting the military, balancing the budget, and integrating the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox.
All of this is nonsense.
The overwrought rhetoric and fanciful promises are claptrap, because the contours of Israeli diplomatic, economic and military policy are relatively constricted by the realities of the times – including regional instability, the fickleness and fecklessness of Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, difficult economic forecasts and the vagaries of coalition politics. The actual differences in policy between a Netanyahu-led coalition government and, say, a Herzog-led coalition government, are likely to be more cosmetic than real.
The election campaign, rather, is more a personality contest than anything else. It’s a referendum on Netanyahu’s appeal versus that of the newest Israeli messiah, Moshe Kahlon. It’s a plebiscite on the puffedup (and mostly empty) political résumés of people like Yair Lapid. It’s a chance to pronounce on the preening ambitions and inflated self-image of Tzipi Livni – a political vagabond who has just switched political frameworks for the fourth time in 10 years. It’s a poll on the suitability of Naftali Bennett for higher office.
Yet the opposition to Netanyahu seems determined to raise the rhetorical stakes; to draw apocalyptic lines in the sand; to present this race as a grand, historic tipping point in Israel’s history; as a sink or swim moment for the Jewish People.
To me, this hyperbole is very problematic for a number of reasons. First, as I say, it is simply inaccurate. It sets up a false dichotomy between Netanyahu and everybody else; between purported “extremists” and those who have self-appropriated the term “Zionist.” Second, it creates a dynamic of hatred that is dangerous.
Third, the overheated bombast is bound to reverberate beyond Israel’s borders, and undermine perceptions of Israel as a stable and decent democratic polity.
When the political opposition to the government, in order to win a vote, spuriously maligns the dominant political leader and his political party as fanatic and fundamentalist – language usually reserved for the Iranians – the State of Israel suffers long-term damage. What’s good for fund-raising and electioneering is not necessarily good for Israel or for world Jewry. The end (replacing the government) does not justify the means (falsely depicting half of Israel as extremist).
The danger in this campaign is alienation.
Who in their right mind wants to be associated with a country as retrogressive and thuggish as the place Livni describes? And what happens if the “good guys” don’t succeed in stopping the alleged hordes of Jewish ayatollahs? What if Netanyahu wins again and a Jewish Nation State law is passed; what if the Orthodox maintain their control over matters of religion and state; and what if Israel moves to strengthen its hold on Jerusalem and the settlement blocs? Does Israel become an illegitimate reality? By painting the situation in dire and apocalyptic terms, Israel’s rash politicians are threatening the very legitimacy of Israel.
They are cutting away the limb – love for, and identification with, Israel – upon which all world Jewish unity is based. They are destabilizing the foundations on which Israel’s diplomatic relations are based.
I say to them: Stick to the facts and the issues. Offer us realistic policy prescriptions.
Avoid besmirching Israel or significant sectors of Israeli society. Beware campaign themes that are corrosive to this embattled state’s strategic objectives and international image. Take some of the absolutist self-assurance out of your speeches.
Speak moderately and be a little humble.
None of you is such a great savior, that crushing and delegitimizing your opponents is justified.
Always ask yourselves – what are the political and social models of Israel’s future that will allow us to continue to love the country even if it doesn’t sign onto your very particular, partisan vision?