An election full of sound and fury

An election full of sound and fury

As ideological differences between Israeli parties are eroded, politicians revisit age-old culture wars to rally voters

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Postcards made by an Israeli artist reading 'Nausea 2015,' a play on the Hebrew word for 'elections,' and featuring composite portraits of the various party leaders, can be seen in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2015 (photo credit: Danielle Shitrit/FLASH90)
Postcards made by an Israeli artist reading 'Nausea 2015,' a play on the Hebrew word for 'elections,' and featuring composite portraits of the various party leaders, can be seen in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2015 (photo credit: Danielle Shitrit/FLASH90)

Ideological divides have ceased to drive Israeli politics.

The difference between the economic outlooks of left and right, broadly defined, can be quantified in percentage changes to some taxes, state subsidies and benefit schemes. The two camps even share their economists: In 2011, the Likud-led government appointed economist Manuel Trajtenberg to head its commission on lowering the cost of living; now the competing Zionist Union is fielding him as a candidate for finance minister.

That similarity extends to the diplomatic sphere. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he accepts Palestinian statehood in principle but warns it cannot now be accomplished safely, while Labor’s Isaac Herzog insists such a state is in Israel’s strategic interest, but promises not to make any move that compromises the country’s security. As long as any Israeli withdrawal seems likely to result in a recurrence of the south Lebanese or Gazan experience, the practical divergence between these two stated positions is tough to discern.

So with little in the way of substantive policy differences to distinguish the two camps, the 2015 elections have focused on personalities. “It’s us or them,” declares one of the major themes in Likud’s campaign ads, with “us” printed in patriotic blue and “them” in threatening red. “It’s us or him,” reads the Zionist Union’s most popular campaign poster in response, with “us” in the exact same shade of blue and “him” in dark, menacing gray. Even the campaigns’ creative directors can’t seem to venture too far apart from each other.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (left), with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (left), with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Why, then, is an election between such like-minded opponents so saturated with vitriol and undisguised animus? Likud, the party that surrendered both Sinai and Gaza, has produced banners calling the center-left Zionist Union “defeatist” and “anti-Zionist.” Meanwhile, the Zionist Union’s campaign ads paint a bleak picture of Israel under Likud as a nation wracked by poverty and war, as though Israel under the Labor Party, or more recent governments in which Herzog’s partner, Tzipi Livni, was a senior member, saw less poverty or fewer wars.

The race is bitter and animated, but it isn’t over policy. Lacking substantive disagreements, the sides have fallen back on older, more primal narratives. What began as a straightforward referendum on the incumbent – that, at least, was how Netanyahu framed it in December when he announced new elections — has metamorphosed in the minds of the candidates and their campaigns into the latest round of Israel’s original, primordial culture war.

‘The Mapainik reality’

“Here are housed my childhood memories,” a nostalgic President Reuven Rivlin told an audience at Jerusalem’s Ahdut Israel synagogue last Thursday night. “Groups that did not find their place in the Mapainik reality established this synagogue and gave it the slightly ironic name ‘The Unity of Israel [Synagogue],’ as if to say, ‘We will honor every Jew for who they are, of every sort.’”

Mapai leaders: Golda Meir shakes hands with Israel's first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, after signing the Declaration of Independence. David Ben-Gurion is on the left (Frank Shershel/ GPO)
Mapai leaders: Golda Meir shakes hands with Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, after signing the Declaration of Independence. David Ben-Gurion is on the left (Frank Shershel/ GPO)

Mapai, a Hebrew acronym for the “Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel,” dominated national politics for the first three decades after Israel declared its independence in 1948. Headed by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the party held de facto control of the top echelons of government bureaucracies, public and private companies and even the army for 29 long years, until the “revolution” of 1977 brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power for the first time.

Those years of effective left-wing dominion over every element of national life, from Hebrew letters and the universities to public policy and the economy, remain to this day, for the older generation of right-wing politicians, a traumatic memory and a powerful marker of right-wing political identity.

The Ahdut Israel Synagogue was founded by former fighters of the right-wing pre-state Jewish militias Lehi and Etzel. Thursday’s gathering marked the dedication of a new Torah scroll that commemorated two Lehi commanders, Yair Stern and Yitzhak Shamir, the former Likud prime minister.

As Channel 2 journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir wrote after the event, the evening drew a diverse yet united audience — one brought together by a shared narrative of marginalization.

Alongside the elderly, largely secular veterans of those underground militias, “religious-Zionist youth from the neighborhood, wearing ‘Bennett’ kipot [small, modernist skullcaps of the sort worn by Jewish Home party leader and high-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett], their eyes shining, came in multitudes. In recent years, they have revived this old synagogue,” Rahav-Meir related. “And tonight they lend a hand to the elderly underground fighters who lean on them as they climb the steep steps of the synagogue.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 22, 2014 (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, September 22, 2014 (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

It was a gathering of the excluded, and the theme, set by the country’s president himself, a longtime Likud lawmaker and son of a staunch Likud family, was the memory of that exclusion.

No hard political news was generated at the small synagogue last week. But its absence from the news cycle does not make its message any less powerful. It is in such commemorations – for the right over the pre-state militias and decades of marginalization at the hands of Mapai; for the left over murdered prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — that the political class recalls and reaffirms its most deeply held commitments and identities.

These identities are felt most keenly during an election. It is not surprising, then, that it was in the midst of an election, in early February, that Netanyahu attempted to fire left-wing judges from the selection committee for the Israel Prize for Literature, the country’s highest literary honor. Netanyahu was excoriated in the media and finally reversed the decision when Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein warned that it might be illegal to fire judges on official state panels for their political views.

Netanyahu’s statement after the row gave some insight into what might drive a sitting prime minister to so egregiously interfere in such a prestigious prize:

“Over the years, [judges] were appointed to the selection committee who were increasingly extremist in their positions, including anti-Zionist [judges]…and too few authentic representatives of broader parts of the nation. Too often, it has seemed as though the extremist members of the committee give out the prize to their friends…. Those who are not identified with their [political] line, those who don’t belong to the clique, found it very difficult to become members of the prize committee, or to receive the prize. This situation, in which a small and closed group with extremist views passes the baton from hand to hand and safeguards its control over the awarding of the Israel Prize must be changed, because the Israel Prize belongs to all the people of Israel…and must represent all parts of the nation.”

The entire episode was an obvious piece of election theater. But that doesn’t mean every word in the prime minister’s statement wasn’t sincere. Netanyahu’s father Benzion, a renowned historian identified with Begin’s Herut party, Likud’s precursor, was denied the Israel Prize year after year despite reaching the age of 102 – in Netanyahu’s view, because of his politics. Having been born in 1949, Netanyahu’s own political coming of age took place in the 1970s, when the right’s battle for its place in the sun was at its height. That epoch is a defining part of his political identity.

And as the election heats up, Netanyahu and Rivlin aren’t the only aging Israelis who feel the old fault lines stirring in their hearts.

Amos Oz in Jerusalem, May 3, 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Amos Oz in Jerusalem, May 3, 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The author Amos Oz, a strident advocate for the left who is rightly regarded as something akin to Israel’s Hemingway, gave voice earlier this month to the other side of that old feud. Speaking to a Meretz party campaign gathering, he explained why Netanyahu’s call for diversity among Israel Prize judges was a bad idea.

“Yesterday I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu explain why he fired a few judges of the Israel Prize for Literature. He had an interesting explanation. He said, ‘There are many communities in Israeli society who are not represented in the judges committees of the Israel Prize.’ That sounds very democratic. There are in Israel about 70% of Israelis who don’t read literature. Maybe they read Israel Hayom [a right-wing pro-Netanyahu tabloid], but they don’t read literature. Should 70% of the judges committee of the Israel Prize be made up of judges who don’t read literature, for democratic reasons?”

Oz’s comments are remarkable. Netanyahu’s claim that the right and its supporters, many of whom are poor and Sephardic, are unfairly excluded from the nation’s literary elite is met by the angry retort, from one of Israel’s greatest authors, that democratizing that elite amounts to dumbing it down.

Oz continued: “The truth is that [Netanyahu] does not want to replace the judges committee. He wants to replace the authors. He wants to replace the judges [of the judiciary]. He’d like to replace the neighbors [i.e., Palestinians], if that were possible. He wants to replace all those who don’t agree with him. He’d want to replace the newspapers, he’d want to replace the media.”

While Netanyahu rails against the generations-old exclusion of his camp, Oz’s response came from the very heart of a frustrated left-wing elite. It is the right that now controls the state and our national institutions, Oz argued. And this right, he warned, is using its old rhetoric of victimization to inflict the very same exclusion on others.

The Deri-Liberman strategy

The return to identity politics is not limited to Likud or the Zionist Union; it has also become the preferred strategy of smaller, struggling parties at the political margins.

Yisrael Beytenu is languishing. A Channel 10 poll on February 19 gave the party just five seats, down from its current 13, and a Project 61 average of the last six polls as of February 20 gave it six. Over the weekend, party leader Avigdor Liberman told Channel 2 he believed he could win 10 seats on Election Day, a sharp drop from the 16 he pronounced as his goal at the party’s campaign launch last month.

After two years of declining popularity, a poor showing in the October 2013 municipal elections, and the unveiling in December of a massive corruption probe that ensnared some of the party’s top political managers, Beytenu is scrambling to survive.

That’s the political context for its decision to focus a significant part of its campaign on its most devoted base, the older generations of Russian-speaking immigrants who were the party’s founding constituency.

While its formal campaign is a straightforward reiteration of past positions, primarily its plan to exchange land and population with a future Palestinian state along ethnic lines, earlier this month Liberman made an unconventional campaign promise.

“In Spain they decided to make the study of chess part of the mandatory curriculum in schools,” he noted. “This is a wise and important decision that will open children’s minds and teach them one of the most important lessons in life: to see and know how to plan several steps ahead. In the next Knesset I will work to legislate such a law here, and to add mandatory chess classes in Israel’s schools.”

The party’s list of campaign promises is not long. The institution of a mandatory chess curriculum made the cut because it is a marker of identity, a defining and beloved sport for an older generation of Russian-speaking immigrants who still identify with their roots in the old country.

At the other edge of Israeli identity politics, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri faces similar troubles. With a constituency splintered by the founding of the rival Yachad by former party leader Eli Yishai, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party has fallen from 11 seats in the current Knesset to just six in recent polls.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri in an election campaign video for his party. (screen capture: YouTube/Shas Official)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri in an election campaign video for his party. (screen capture: YouTube/Shas Official)

Deri’s response is also two-tiered. The general campaign targets the mainstream electorate. “You are not transparent,” Shas’s banners declare to millions of working-class and poor Israelis. Online videos promise new “wealth taxes” on expensive consumer goods and large inheritances in order to fund programs and subsidies for the poor.

But there is another campaign, a more subtle and unabashedly sectoral one, that saw Deri change his name on Facebook and in campaign literature, adding his distinctively Moroccan middle name, Makhlouf.

In the latest campaign video, he explains the change. “The ‘transparent’ are the Mizrahim [Middle-Eastern Jews] who can’t penetrate the arrogance ceiling, who see that there aren’t enough Mizrahi judges, Mizrahi professors. Today, only in prisons there are more Mizrahim than Ashkenazim [European Jews]! The transparent are those Mizrahim who society has embarrassed into changing their family names, changing Shukrun to Sharon, Dahan to Dan, Sabag to Segev, Abutbul to Avital, Siboni to Regev! … The cultural heroes of the Eastern communities — our rabbis, our poets, our writers, our singers — won’t remain transparent, not in textbooks and not on shekel bills. Our children won’t be car mechanics!”

With his refurbished name and appearances at gatherings of aging activists from the “Black Panthers” Mizrahi protest movement of the 1970s, Deri is making Shas’s most explicit appeal since the ‘90s to the sense of marginalization felt by Mizrahi Israelis.

Both campaigns, by Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, target older voters. Young Russian speakers have all but integrated into Hebrew-speaking Israel and tend to vote for mainstream parties. Young Mizrahi Jews are increasingly indistinguishable from their Ashkenazi counterparts, partly because growing intermarriage between the two communities, especially in the larger cities, has made it increasingly hard to find Mizrahi Israelis who are not also Ashkenazi Israelis. But these changes have not happened to the older generations of Eastern and Russian-speaking Jews, who, the parties hope, can still be counted on to vote according to their identities. The election’s most troubled political campaigns, like their larger counterparts on left and right, are turning in their hour of need to these old crucibles of identity, the old ties forged in marginalization.

The tenacity of exclusion

In mid-December, two young Israeli activists, Nimrod Dweck and Itamar Weizman, founded the V15 organization that devoted itself to unseating Netanyahu on March 17. Under Israel’s strict campaign finance laws, the group, which receives funding from overseas, primarily from left-leaning American Jews, cannot advocate for a particular party or candidate. So Dweck and Weizman developed a strategy not seen before in Israeli election campaigns.

The strategy: locate areas where voters are likely to oppose Netanyahu, and send activists door-to-door simply urging residents of those areas to vote.

Posters reading "We are changing the rulers", referring to a change in government in the upcoming Israeli elections, seen at the campaign offices of the grassroots group V15 in Jerusalem on February 9, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Posters reading “We are changing the rulers”, referring to a change in government in the upcoming Israeli elections, seen at the campaign offices of the grassroots group V15 in Jerusalem on February 9, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“We tried to understand the demographic profile of the voter and through that to determine the areas where our base [activists] can work,” Dweck explained in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel. “We correlated that data with past voting results, both national and municipal.”

When they finished mapping the geographic distribution of over 1.5 million centrist or left-wing Israeli voters, “I was horrified,” Dweck recalled with a self-deprecating laugh.

He had imagined their idealistic get-out-the-vote effort would focus on “the outlying areas, development towns, poor neighborhoods, places that seemed fitting to me, ideologically.”

But the campaign’s research discovered that support for the political center-left is concentrated in “large cities mainly, Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Kfar Saba, Raanana, Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Haifa, Zichron, those kinds of places.”

The left is concentrated precisely where Israeli conventional wisdom suggests, while the right is stronger in the geographic and social peripheries, just as it was in Begin’s day. Much has changed over the past five decades, but some of the most basic patterns of Israeli political identity have remained intact.

So when the Likud campaign declares the race to be between “us or them,” between patriots and “anti-Zionists,” the explicit personal attack against Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni is only half the story. There is a larger “them” in the right’s political imagination, nebulous, shifting, but undeniably there. Despite ruling Israel for 13 of the past 19 years, with Netanyahu himself serving as premier for nine of those, Likud leaders still appeal to the not-yet-forgotten memory of exclusion by that adversary.

Similarly, when the Jewish Home party bases its entire election campaign on the slogan “We don’t apologize anymore,” it too is speaking to this older culture war, the sense that the religious right’s narrative has been shunted aside for too long by the disenfranchising elitism of the left.

These identity politics are less helpful to the left. The party perhaps most clearly identified with socialist politics and a robust welfare state is Meretz, yet Meretz is also the party with arguably the least appeal to the very poor and disenfranchised who loom so large in its ideological narrative. Meretz struggles to rise above six Knesset seats — not because voters disapprove of its policies, but because they cannot identify with its cultural provenance. Right or wrong, the party is widely perceived as too secular, too centered on Tel Aviv’s northern suburbs, too Ashkenazi, and in general too well-ensconced atop what Deri aptly termed “the arrogance ceiling” to appeal to the social and economic strata that could turn it into a more formidable political force.

In the end, it was parties such as Shas and Yisrael Beytenu that managed to place the needs and interests of their marginalized constituencies squarely on the national agenda. Their weakening in recent years can, perhaps, be seen as a signal that these constituencies are slowly integrating into mainstream Israeli society. Similarly, the rise over the past few elections of strong centrist parties suggests that the bitter left-right feuds that characterized Israeli public life in the past may be haltingly but perceptibly receding from memory.

If so, the next generation of Israeli leaders may prove less inclined toward the vitriol and animosity that characterizes the current generation. For now, the 2015 election campaign is proof enough that the old politics of identity and exclusion are far from dead, that absent any discernible ideological differences between left and right, they are the closest thing to substantive polemic that Israel’s present-day politics can produce.

read more: