Middle Israel: The anti-messianic axis

Bibi and Shelly can stun their parties’ challengers by teaming up to change the system

Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Poor Bibi. Just when his electoral strategy began to work, it fell apart. What began with the elegant removal of yesterday’s great threat to him from the Right – a burly, bearded champion of pork-eaters – soon gave way to a new threat from another corner of the Right – a slender commando, hi-tech hero and champion of cholent-eaters.
And poor Shelly. After having cleverly shed her party’s peace-in-our-time lingo, she is being hammered by Meretz in the morning and by Tzipi Livni in the evening.
Yes, the leaders of the two big parties have only themselves to blame for what at this point seems like their loss of altitude.
LABOR’S LEADER fell victim to hubris, having ignored Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s wise advice the morning after her impressive victory in the primaries to surround herself with a team of high-profile experts who would compensate for what she lacks in experience and expertise.
Alas, as has happened to so many self-important people here before her, most memorably Ehud Barak when he led her party, Shelly turned herself into Labor’s only face and voice, leaving no room for others. That might have worked well had she been larger than life. But Shelly isn’t larger than life. In fact, the whole beauty of her message has been its appeal to the ordinary citizen’s ordinary problems. And ordinary people’s ordinary problems are never larger than life; they are life itself.
It would therefore have made sense for Shelly to assemble a shadow government of sorts where the public would hear more voices and see more faces, and where the party leader would appear not as a soloist, but as a team leader. Having failed to do this, she showed the swing vote not only a one-issue ticket but also a one-woman show. Apparently, many people aren’t into that.
BIBI’S MISTAKE is different, as he already went through hubris last century and this time around has avoided its temptations. One might agree or disagree with their records, but Netanyahu’s key ministers have dedicated themselves to their assignments and he has delegated them enough authority to lead their party’s campaigning each in his field.
Similarly, Netanyahu cannot be blamed for lacking an agenda. His views on most issues, from the Palestinians and Iran to illegal workers, taxation and spending, are clear and public.
His mistake was in failing to probe his own allies’ mind-set and confront it.
Had Netanyahu engaged in serious dialogue with the modern-Orthodox portion of his electorate, he would have known that the threat they pose is potent. Had he spent an occasional evening with rabbis of the sort that staff the yeshivot that feed Naftali Bennett and his party’s growing following, he would have acknowledged that they are messianic in a way that is deeply disagreeable to him and dangerous to Zionism.
Bibi assumed Liberman’s following was mostly secular and Russian-speaking, and that once he struck the deal with him, his right flank would be secure. Well, it wasn’t. Many of Liberman’s voters were crocheted kippa-wearers who liked his bravado and cared little for the kind of religious issues that observant politicians celebrate. Now that Liberman is within the Likud, this electorate sought the next nationalist adventurer, even while Likud’s Knesset list already sports Moshe Feiglin, a declared messianic whose political journey Netanyahu tried in the past to derail.
Faced with this challenge, Netanyahu should have publicly attacked not this or that pronouncement that his new rival from the Right did or did not say, but the very idea of political messianism which the latter espouses.
A secular man head to toe, Netanyahu should have said sincerely and publicly what he anyhow thinks: that God will not be with us the day we abandon our sanity and that annexing 60 percent of the West Bank, as Bennett demands, would be as reckless as Shabtai Zvi’s promise of redemption and as catastrophic as Rabbi Akiva’s war on Rome.
This kind of sobriety and sincerity people would have respected, and it would also have put the Jewish Home’s Don Quixote where he belongs – on the defensive.
PARADOXICALLY, Shelly’s challenge is largely similar, albeit inverted. Having lost her ticket’s momentum since Tzipi Livni’s last-minute entry into the fray, Shelly now faces daily attacks by the former foreign minister, who claims to have “almost” finalized a deal with Abu Mazen back in 2008. If only she had.
Middle Israelis think Livni is either delusional or disingenuous when she says this, even after President Peres joined her. Indeed, in their refusal to call a spade a spade and in their insistence that “we have a partner,” Livni et al.
are as messianic as Bennett et al. are on their side of the spectrum, because they, too, deny reality and escape to wishful thinking.
Labor should therefore come forth and say what its leaders really think; namely, that they and the rest of Middle Israel were right to insist we shouldn’t rule the Palestinians and that they were wrong to assume the Palestinians were ready for peace. That’s the truth, and saying it frankly and publicly would complement the kind of anti-messianic statement Netanyahu would make if he were to restore his party’s centrist foundations.
Sadly, neither Bibi nor Shelly will make these statements. That is why – come January 23 – they will wake up sharing between them less than half the Knesset, whereas in 1996, when Bibi first won the premiership, Likud and Labor had a combined 66 seats, and in the previous election, when Rabin defeated Shamir, the two won a combined 76 seats and a decade earlier Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin sported between them 95 seats.
It follows that history will soon be calling on Likud and Labor to set aside their differences on other issues and jointly present a bill for direct and personal elections of most lawmakers.
They will likely be joined in this by Yair Lapid, and this way will have a majority for the only scheme that can secure our political system’s balance, stability and sobriety..
District elections would produce two or three very big parties and thus restore their role as political pivots while the tail parties will lose the ability to wag the dog. Once restored to the margins where they came from, our messiahs from Right and Left will be able to voice their advice without risking its being heeded.
The writer is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. www.MiddleIsrael.com