Middle Israel: How deeply divided is Israel 2019?

The election unveiled a broad consensus on multiple planes – except one

May 2, 2019 22:30
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at swearing in of 21st Knesset

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at swearing in of 21st Knesset. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Israelis, goes the conventional wisdom, are split down the middle.

With each of the two Benjamins winning 30% of the electorate, and with both men and their parties refusing to cohabitate in one coalition, a sense of schism is now rife.

The impression was nurtured by Benjamin Netanyahu when he said, while launching the Likud’s campaign, that its power “comes from the people,” insinuating his opponent represents the socially aloof elites.

Netanyahu also mapped an ideological chasm, when he said Gantz’s finance minister will be former Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn, who, if given a chance, would ruin the economy.

The union leader was never his party’s candidate for anything, and his record was about defending the workers, not the elites, but inventing such a candidacy and decrying its presumed implication worked well for inspiring a sense of economic threat and political schism.

On foreign affairs, too, Netanyahu created the impression that an abyss yawned between the Likud and Blue and White, saying that “the Left” preached national weakness, having warned repeatedly of an approaching “diplomatic tsunami” which never came.

Fortunately, these portrayals are not reality but its caricatures. If anything, the election unveiled a broad consensus on all major issues, except one.

THE FIRST big statement the voter made, albeit indirectly, was regarding the Palestinian problem.

By dismembering the Labor Party, whose six seats are 50 less than Golda Meir’s 50 years ago, the Israeli mainstream buried the Oslo legacy along with its pallbearers.

Yes, Israelis remain divided over whether ruling two million Palestinians is moral and desirable, but faith in the two-state formula, once harbored by about half the public – is now shared by less than a quarter of the Knesset.

In the previous elections voters still gave the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog 24 seats, and another 18 to Meretz and to the Joint List.

Now that formation has plummeted from 42 to 20 lawmakers, and even the man who was its nominal leader, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay, tried his best as the election approached to avoid discussing the two-state subject in particular, and the Oslo legacy in general.

At the same time, the electorate that this camp lost flocked to Blue and White, a ticket that included, prominently, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, a kibbutznik turned Likudnik who originally believed in the Oslo process, then concluded we had been duped, and ultimately thought Israel should have settled a million more Israelis in the West Bank.

It was but the flip side of the Left’s own unfolding retreat from the two-state solution, underscored by novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s call to gradually offer the West Bank’s Palestinians Israeli residency and citizenship, as part of a Palestinian-Israeli confederation of regionally elected lawmakers.

Between them, Ya’alon’s and Yehoshua’s journeys reflect mainstream Israel’s loss of faith in the Palestinian leadership’s desire, or at least ability, to deliver the two-state solution.

This disillusionment – fed by terrorism and its glorification and underpinned by the rejections of Israel’s peace proposals in 2000 and 2008 – was voiced unequivocally by voters who elected 83% of the incoming Knesset.

This is the new consensus vis-a-vis the political spectrum’s left end. Equally unequivocal was the mainstream electorate’s message to the spectrum’s opposite end.

WITH GAZA torching Israeli farmlands while spewing rockets and kindling border-side rioting, two politicians offered the Israeli voter a militant alternative to Netanyahu’s restraint.

“A government that does not deter is not a right-wing government,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked last November, in a thinly veiled criticism of Netanyahu, while demanding that her colleague Education Minister Naftali Bennett be made defense minister.

The statement was issued shortly after the other critic of Netanyahu’s Gaza policy, Avigdor Liberman, resigned as defense minister in protest of the government’s ceasefire deal last fall, which arguably recognized Hamas’s rule, and at any rate prolonged it rather than bring it down.

Neither Bennett nor Liberman ever specified just what they would have done differently, though Bennett did say cryptically his “plan” did “not necessarily” entail Gaza’s invasion.

Still, the voter was given a choice to vote for either of these men and thus potentially make the IDF storm Gaza, silence its guns, bring it to its knees, replace its leadership and bring quiet, if not peace, to Israel’s sizzling South.

The voter rejected this adventurist choice outright.

Not only did Bennett and Liberman garner together hardly 7% of the vote, the restraint they opposed and Netanyahu represented was implemented along the years with the full participation of Blue and White’s leaders: Ya’alon was Netanyahu’s defense minister, Gantz was Netanyahu’s IDF chief of staff, and Yair Lapid was Netanyahu’s finance minister and a member of his security cabinet during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014.

Last month a combined 2,266,251 Israelis voted for what this bipartisan foursome represented vis-à-vis Gaza.

Lastly, there was also no economic difference between the two major parties.

Netanyahu’s Thatcherism is fully espoused by Lapid, and Nissenkorn’s mild unionism smoothly matches the mild populism of Moshe Kahlon, the outgoing and (likely) incoming finance minister, who was negotiating Nissenkorn’s joining his Kulanu Party when Gantz offered Nissenkorn a better deal.

Only one issue splits the broad Center that emerged from this election: the law.

On this front a chasm really yawns between those who think our judiciary is impartial, moral and just, and those who think Netanyahu is unimpeachable.

And so, the question we have come to face is this:

If indicted, will the man who played first violin in the Labor Party’s requiem have the dignity to step aside, or will he, like an emperor above his burning capital, continue fiddling until the fire spreads from Labor to Likud, and from socialism and the Oslo legacy to the rule of law in our hard-won Jewish state?


The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.

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