Politics: Will the force be with Netanyahu?

‘Star Wars’ offers lessons to be learned for Israel’s politicians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and an image from ‘Star Wars' (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and an image from ‘Star Wars'
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Americans from New York to Los Angeles waited in line for days for tickets to the new Star Wars movie, and Londoners queued up for several blocks, some of them in costume.
But in a galaxy far, far away called Jerusalem, there were plenty of tickets available with no wait for The Force Awakens, which premiered at midnight late Wednesday night.
That is what happens when you live where even the best movie cannot match the excitement of the nightly news on TV.
Americans and Brits could consider seeing the movie as an escape from life. But here, a battle against evil by desert dwellers is merely more of the same reality involved in being Israeli.
Israelis are raised with a heightened sense of good and evil. In the current wave of violence, it is clear to Israelis – if not much of the rest of the world – who is good and who is on the Dark Side.
Nevertheless, the Star Wars movies have much to teach Israelis about how to deal with the challenges they face. For instance, in the fourth Star Wars movie (but first chronologically) 1999’s The Phantom Menace, wise Yoda warns Anakin Skywalker that he sensed in him much fear.
“Fear is the path to the dark side,” Yoda said. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Polls in Israel show that Israelis do indeed live in fear of getting harmed by knife-wielding or car-ramming terrorists. Californians, Londoners and Parisians are becoming increasingly afraid as well, following terrorist attacks in their cities.
Are Israelis also angry, hating and suffering? Let’s start with anger.
The United Nations Human Development Index released this week found that only residents of Switzerland, Denmark and Iceland registered more satisfaction with their lives than Israelis. On a scale of 0-10, those countries scored 7.5, compared to 7.4 for Israel, which tied with Norway and Finland and scored higher than the US and Canada and well ahead of the United Kingdom and France.
That study would indicate that although they kvetch a lot, Israelis aren’t too angry. But those who know Israelis only through the news might get a different impression based on what happened here this week.
Israelis were mad at Israel’s fifth-largest circulation newspaper, Haaretz, for hosting an event in New York in which the Israeli flag was removed for a speech by failed Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
They were angry at President Reuven Rivlin for speaking at the event before the flag incident occurred but knowing full well that it would also be addressed by representatives of Breaking the Silence, a European- and its critics say also Palestinian-funded organization that makes the IDF look bad around the world.
Some of the anger boiled over at the Knesset Wednesday when opposition leader Isaac Herzog challenged Netanyahu to condemn attacks on the president by ordinary Israelis and the right-leaning cable Channel 20. The prime minister responded by daring Herzog to condemn Breaking the Silence.
Neither Netanyahu’s nor Herzog’s condemnations satisfied the other. Herzog and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid later battled on Twitter, with Lapid saying that Herzog should have condemned Breaking the Silence stronger, and Herzog reminding Lapid that he works at the Knesset and he should come there some time to know what is really going on.
There was also anger this week at Vice Premier Silvan Shalom for staying in office despite sexual harassment allegations from as many as seven women and a backlash against those calling for him to resign due to anonymous and unsubstantiated charges in the media.
Did any of that well-documented anger in the newspapers lead to hate? The closest it came to that was a battle between Breaking the Silence and right-wing organization Im Tirtzu, which started a campaign singling out four leftist activist leaders as examples of “foreign agents” and accusing them of assisting the terrorist enemy.
Besides the victims of this week’s terrorist attacks, the only examples of suffering in the news this week came in stories related to the annual reports on poverty. The reports found that poor Israelis skipped meals, did not purchase needed medicine, and even got divorced to obtain extra benefits because they did not have enough to get by.
Netanyahu took pains this week to explain at the Knesset how the economy has gotten better since he has been in power and that poor people have benefited from his leadership. But everything he said got overshadowed by his fight with Herzog, the charges against Shalom and the questioning of supermodel Bar Refaeli.
Will Netanyahu suffer politically from the poverty reports that made him look bad? Probably not, because history has proven that even when there are serious socioeconomic problems, Israelis vote on security.
Polls on security over the last two months have found consistently that 75 percent of Israelis are unhappy with the way Netanyahu is handling the wave of violence. That number is only surprising because when there have been past waves of violence and wars, Israelis have united behind their leaders.
It is called the rally ‘round the flag effect, and it impacts politics around the world. It is why the highest-ever showing for an American president in a Gallup poll was achieved by George W. Bush in September 2001, when he hit 90% approval after the September 11 attacks.
Similarly in Israel, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister who would hit a record low approval rating of 3% in May 2007, hit 85% approval at the start of the July 2006 Second Lebanon War following the kidnapping of two soldiers on the Lebanese border.
Netanyahu has not enjoyed a similar rally ‘round the flag effect. But luckily for him, there is still no alternative who could threaten his leadership.
Labor Party leaders bickered this week about whether their next chairmanship race should be postponed. So far, no security figures who could pose a serious threat to Netanyahu have announced their willingness to enter the fray. None of them will jump the gun before a date for the race is set.
If there is a serious challenger to Netanyahu, the focus will once again shift to his poor relations with Rivlin, who will decide who forms the next government, barring the unlikely passage of significant changes to the electoral system.
Rivlin chose Netanyahu to form the government despite their differences, because his Likud won so many more seats than its closest competitor. But if the next race is closer, will Rivlin be able to overcome his negative feelings for Netanyahu? That is a question best left for Yoda to answer.
“It is difficult to see,” he told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
“Always in motion is the future.”