The myth of the ‘right-wing’ Netanyahu

He’s not right-wing in his views, instincts or location on the political map. So how is he right-wing?

Netanyahu accepts role of PM from Peres 370 (photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
Netanyahu accepts role of PM from Peres 370
(photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
If there’s one myth the recent election should definitively lay to rest (but undoubtedly won’t), it’s that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is “hardline” or “right-wing.”
In truth, his stated positions have long been to the left of those espoused by the Left’s idol, Yitzhak Rabin. For instance, Netanyahu endorses a Palestinian state; Rabin envisioned an “entity which is less than a state.” Netanyahu also imposed Israel’s first-ever freeze on settlement construction in 2009; Rabin vowed “not to hinder building for natural growth” in the settlements.
Simple math similarly refutes the “right-wing” label. Writing in the Times of Israel before the election, Gil Reich aptly compared the world’s distorted view of Israel’s political map to the famous New Yorker’s map of the world, with a huge New York and a tiny rest of the globe (his accompanying graphic makes the point better than words can). In Israel’s case, the “right wing” is deemed to encompass well over half the Jewish public; the remaining minority is then arbitrarily divided into “center” and “center-left” (in the international media’s parlance, there is no Israeli “left wing”).
Yet even after the election’s vaunted “shift to the center,” Netanyahu remains smack in the middle of the Israeli electorate. What the media terms the “right-wing” bloc (comprising Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism) won 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the last election. Since Netanyahu is generally considered to represent his own slate’s left flank, that puts him exactly in the center of the total electorate – with 59 MKs to his left and 60 to his right – and slightly left of center among the Jewish electorate’s 109 MKs.
Moreover, from 40 to 50 percent of voters for the 19-seat party to his immediate left – Yair Lapid’s “centrist” Yesh Atid – define themselves as leaning right politically. So about nine seats to Netanyahu’s left also consider themselves part of the media’s “right-wing bloc.”
In short, the media has arbitrarily redefined the entire center of Israel’s political map as “right-wing” – with such success that Israelis have even adopted this terminology to define themselves, producing the bizarre spectacle of voters to the left of the electoral midpoint describing themselves as “rightist.” But in real life, the center of the map is still the center. And that’s where Netanyahu is.
Reich correctly noted that the media’s definition is both self-referential and self-serving. It’s self-referential because journalists arbitrarily define “center” not as the actual center of the map, but as where they think the center should be (most likely, he suggested, wherever would make them slightly left of center). It’s self-serving because it’s meant to further their own political goals: Since most voters don’t want to be “right-wing extremists,” this definition could nudge them leftward; additionally, portraying Israeli leaders as right-wing extremists unrepresentative of the “mainstream” (i.e. the left) makes it easier for foreign leaders and pundits to pressure them “while declaring support for the real Israel.”
Ironically, this tactic seems to have backfired on the first front: Instead, it’s made people like Lapid’s eminently centrist voters unashamed to call themselves “rightists,” by convincing them that diplomatic positions they view as sane and mainstream are actually “right-wing.” That’s one reason the “right” keeps winning elections.
But it undoubtedly has worked on the second front: Much of the world – including many Diaspora Jews – really believes Netanyahu is a “hardline right-winger” heading a “hardline right-wing” government.
Indeed, this narrative is so entrenched that the world simply ignored one of the most salient facts about the election – the fact that, for the second election in a row, Netanyahu managed over the course of his campaign to drive several seats worth of voters from Likud to parties on its right. That constitutes the third reason why terming him “right-wing” is ridiculous: Anyone who was actually “right-wing,” or even moderately right of center, wouldn’t be so clueless about how genuine right-of-center voters think and feel.
In the 2009 election, polls taken immediately after the Likud primary showed Likud winning 36 seats. Two months later, on Election Day, it won 27. Almost all the lost seats went to parties on its right. The reason was simple: While the primary generally rewarded opponents of the disengagement from Gaza and punished supporters, Netanyahu, in a disgracefully anti-democratic move, retroactively reordered his slate’s reserved slots to partially reverse these results and make the slate more “centrist.” Right-of-center voters, who applauded the original slate, responded by deserting in droves. As one friend said at the time, “How can I vote for someone who’s made it so clear that he doesn’t want people like me in his party?”
But rather than learning from this mistake, Netanyahu repeated it during the latest campaign. Granted, he refrained from tampering with the slate. But he relentlessly attacked the main party to his right, Bayit Yehudi, as “extremist” and “sexist,” and even threatened to exclude it from his government after party leader Naftali Bennett said that if ordered to evacuate settlers during army reserve duty, he would ask his commander to exempt him.
For right-of-center voters – who generally don’t consider themselves either “extremist” or “sexist,” and believe one should feel anguish over evicting fellow Jews from their homes even if, like me, you oppose disobeying orders (which Bennett never actually advocated; requesting an exemption isn’t the same as disobeying an order) – the message was once again clear: Netanyahu still didn’t want them in his party. And they reacted accordingly: From a height of 39 seats in the polls just after Likud’s primary, Netanyahu’s slate fell to 31 on Election Day. Many of these lost votes went to Bayit Yehudi, which won 12 seats, up from five in the last Knesset (three of its own plus two from the half of National Union that merged with it this election).
In short, Netanyahu isn’t right-wing by any conceivable standard: not in his positions, not in his location on Israel’s political map, and not in his gut instincts. Yet he’s nevertheless maligned worldwide as a “hardline right-winger” – all because the media refuse to let the facts interfere with their self-serving story.    The writer is a journalist and commentator.