Center Field: Is Blue and White tough enough for Bibi’s barbell politics?

Unfortunately, the age of Twitterdumb has accelerated our degeneration into barbell politics – with a strong, hard, Left and Right sharing little but contempt for the flat middle.

By
June 4, 2019 21:13
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after the first elections exit polls

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after the first elections exit polls. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Healthy democratic politics approximates a bell curve, with most voters and leaders bulging in the middle, leaving some extremists at either end.

Unfortunately, the age of Twitterdumb has accelerated our degeneration into barbell politics – with a strong, hard, Left and Right sharing little but contempt for the flat middle.

Similarly, while a healthy media should mirror what’s happening in society, the modern media is like the hobgoblin of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In that 1844 story, the Hobgoblin – or Troll – uses an evil mirror that makes people look ugly and mean. When the mirror shatters, the slivers settle in many people’s eyes – perverting their perspectives.

Both barbell politics and evil eyes torment the Blue and White Party – and all of us – as Israel staggers toward a second round of elections. How does a party of patriotic values, with a positive moderate vision, survive barbell politics – when being centrist, temperate and reasonable looks wimpy and flat? And how can this party inspire voters with constructive ideas when the media, Twitterdumb and Israel’s dominant politician, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mass-produce slivers of ugliness – which Netanyahu practically shoves in people’s eyes?

This do-over election offers yet another referendum on Netanyahu, who should never be underestimated. There are two Bibis; both are formidable. Statesman-Bibi runs on an impressive record.

He partly did his job – keeping the country safe and many (not all!) people prosperous. Opponents lose credibility by denying it – but might win by leaning into it, then circumnavigating it. Alas,

Demagogue-Bibi – or Hobgoblin-Bibi – has trolled Israeli democracy, spreading hatred, fomenting division and threatening our national character with his shady character, while winning with dirty tricks when necessary.

Somehow, that combination has charmed the quarter of the electorate that sticks by him blindly – many confuse such barbaric barbellianism with strong leadership. Blue and White must induce Bibi fatigue in them – and Bibi just spent eight weeks exhausting everyone. Bibi’s opponents should roll tapes showing Netanyahu panicking as the Knesset dissolving, blasting Avigdor Liberman as “the Left,” then ask: What happens to our security when Mr. Security becomes insecure?

Rivals need graphics detailing the legal-bribes Netanyahu promised coalition partners to earn himself immunity, asking: How much must Bibi’s corruption defense cost us? And opponents should use stirring photos speaking to the 82% of Israelis who are proud of Israel, to challenge voters: What happens when the joint prime minister/defense minister stops defending our democracy, and threatens it instead?

To have a shot at winning, the Blue and White Party must boost Benny Gantz’s image, message effectively and get out the darned vote.

The image-building must center around Gantz, building him as the party leader most ready to lead the nation. Committees don’t win elections – commanding candidates do.

The last election didn’t sell Gantz enough. No one learned about heroic moments where he showed the right stuff in battle, as a leader. This time, he must be energetic, not laconic; commanding, not accommodating; and dominant, not deferential to his three partners.

Effective messaging will mock Bibi but respect potential Likud-bolters. It will invite the fed-up and the fence-sitters to try something new. It will repudiate the Kahanists unequivocally, while defending democracy equally passionately.

IN APRIL, voters cared most about security, the economy/economic equity, corruption and managing the difficult choice between Gantz and Netanyahu.

The elephant in the room now – or better, the clouds in the ballot box – centers on the religious issues. Avigdor Liberman cleaned Bibi’s clock – and totally eclipsed Gantz after April 9 – by upending the coalition talks over the ultra-Orthodox draft issue. But does it play in Petah Tikva? The polling didn’t suggest it – although maybe that will change thanks to Liberman, and with Bezalel Smotrich upping the ante by dreaming of imposing Torah law and returning to King David’s judicial system.

“I don’t want to be in a party whose strategy is based on hate,” says my good friend Prof. Alon Tal, who chairs Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy and joined Blue and White from its inception. In the many home meetings Tal addressed nationwide last spring, he sensed that voters responded enthusiastically when he described his party as one “that seeks to unite Israelis, not divide us; that reminds us of what brings us together, not what tears us apart.”

Tal is realistic, not expecting massive defections from the Right “camp” to Left. But he is optimistic because of Blue and White’s third great challenge – getting out the vote. “We won 35 seats last election,” Tal notes. “That gives us lots of money to blitz voters. We need to aim for 90% voter turnout among our people. Israelis from Silicon Valley and elsewhere should fly home. First-time voters need to step up. We must create a sense of urgency among our voters on September 17, because if everyone who likes us actually votes, we will win.”

Tal’s analysis is correct. Voting “in droves,” to use a Bibi-ism, is good for democracies. Last time, the ultra-Orthodox voted in droves. Next time, the muscular moderates should vote in droves. If Blue and White mobilizes the silent majority – those who don’t believe that anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu is a leftist, those who won’t auction democracy off to the highest bidder and those who won’t tolerate Kahanists in Knesset – it can win. Perhaps then, the evil slivers in many eyes will vanish – and Israel will show the world how to build the centrist, decent bell curve politics all democracies need, not the divisive, angry, barbell politics too many democracies have.

The writer was recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” and is the author of the newly released
The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.



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