During the lead-up to Israel’s national elections, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog announced that he wanted to be the next Levi Eshkol. The proclamation was a brave one: Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, is remembered unjustly for his stammering speech on May 28, 1967, when, struggling to read the handwritten corrections in the text, he appeared weak in his objection against launching a preemptive war against the hostile Arab states.
“Ostensibly, he was a pale prime minister, stuttering, devoid of charisma,” Herzog told Ari Shavit of Haaretz in early March. But in fact, he contended, it was Eshkol who readied the IDF for victory in the Six Day War; who brought Revisionist Zionists back into the fold by ordering that Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s remains be interred in Israel; who stared down the international community and enabled the Dimona nuclear plant; who canceled the martial law imposed on the Arab citizens of the state; and, though Herzog didn’t mention it, who led the strategic pivot away from France and toward the United States.
But the Israeli public on Tuesday delivered an emphatic truth, yet again, to the Labor Party-led Zionist Union: it does not vote from its pocket and it does not, at this time, trust a dovish civilian leader with its life in this hellish region.
Labor has won a total of two elections since Likud first rose to power in 1977. The first time, in 1992, it was under retired Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF chief of staff during the Six Day War, who told the public, in his slow, smoky growl, “I shall navigate.” And the second time, in 1999, was when another former chief of staff, Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, trounced his former subordinate, Benjamin Netanyahu.
There have been attempts to champion social justice, with Shelly Yachimovich, who won the Labor Party chairmanship in the wake of the 2011 social protests, leading an economics-based social campaign in national elections in 2013. The result was a dismal 15-seat showing in the Knesset. And there have been attempts to right the historic wrong of ethnic exclusion, by electing the Morocco-born Amir Peretz. But that led to only slightly better results and no notable demographic shift among Labor supporters.
Labor has won a total of two elections since Likud first rose to power in 1977 — under Rabin and Barak, both former chiefs of staff
This election, retired army generals and former heads of the clandestine services did their best to puncture Netanyahu’s security credentials. They hurled every possible accusation at him: That he lost the battle against Iran. That he failed against Hamas. That he alienated Israel’s most important ally.
Former Mossad commander Meir Dagan, a student of the Ariel Sharon school of gruff realism, who has been weakened by several years of sickness and a liver transplant, said that, as “one who raised his kids here and is now raising grandchildren here, as one who believes with all his heart in the Zionist dream – I feel a threat to the continuation of that dream.”
These are astonishing words. At one point in time, it seems, they would have stopped people in their tracks. Why did they not work?
Maj. Gen. (ret) Amnon Reshef, the head of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former senior officers that has come out strongly against Netanyahu’s policies, said that “rhetoricians” on the right took advantage of a people that has known “thousands of years of persecution.”
He refused to say that a left-wing bloc led by someone like the newly retired chief of the IDF General Staff Benny Gantz would be able to assuage the existential fears of many Israelis – which he said were not unfounded – but stated that focusing on housing and the price of chocolate pudding was a mistake. He said he would have taken Netanyahu to task for saying that, if the Zionist Union was elected, the only way to reach Judaism’s holiest site would be by helicopter or armored personnel carrier.
But another dynamic may be at work. Generals tend toward action. It is at the heart of their existence.
Brig Gen. Asher Levy, who served in the War of Independence, said that “the central problem with Netanyahu is that he does not initiate. He is always reacting.” That sense of stasis nearly led to a military coup during the tense weeks of late May 1967, when then Maj. Gen. Avraham Yaffe accused Eshkol, who refused to launch a war despite the provocations of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, of “marching us toward a Holocaust.”
The Israeli public did not want to risk action. It wanted to shut the hatches and wait out the storm
In recent years, action is what the generals, from left and right, have brought to the table. Barak promised a withdrawal from Lebanon and, 10 months after entering office, executed the move. He sat with Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara, just five months after his election, and attempted to cut a deal trading the Golan Heights for peace.
Sharon, who replaced Barak in 2001, smothered the Second Intifada and then promptly sought to put president George W. Bush’s peace plans “in formaldehyde.” In August 2005, he unilaterally withdrew all of Israel’s civilian and military presence from Gaza. He would likely have done the same to all Israeli areas east of the security barrier had he not been felled by a stroke.
In the mercilessly militant Middle East of today — where ISIS has staked out territory to Israel’s south, al-Qaeda to Israel’s northeast, and Hezbollah and Iran across the entire north — the Israeli public did not want to risk action. It wanted to shut the hatches and wait out the storm. Maybe, like the biblical Noah, to send out the occasional dove, but not to explore off the ship. And that, with the negation of the Palestinian state during the late days of the campaign, is precisely what Netanyahu offered.