Watching right-wingers of conscience sweat out this compressed Knesset campaign, I’m feeling their cringe. All but the fanatics are orphaned. Do they vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, the one-man-obstacle to a vast right-wing majority, who keeps torturing us with more elections because he keeps failing to win a stable coalition? Do they vote for Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose anti-Arab demagoguery makes Netanyahu and his flame-throwing, my-way-or-the-highway devotees look reasonable? Or do they vote for Ayelet Shaked and risk wasting their votes, as polls show her party failing to cross the vote threshold?
Who to vote for?
Voting is often painful. Thoughtful voters rarely endorse any politician unreservedly, without deviating somewhat from the party’s platform. But while reasonable citizens in healthy democracies juggle-vote, balancing good and bad, you go for the best. Cringe-voting is no fun – overlooking glaring flaws, holding your nose and just hoping for the best.
Netanyahu’s Likud voters will earn 2022’s Cognitive Dissonance Award. I advise left-wingers to offer Thanksgiving prayers for Netanyahu – without him, the Right would be enjoying a massive majority for years already, running the table. And I keep asking right-wingers why they aren’t furious at Netanyahu for demeaning our great state with his petty corruption and for failing to know when it’s time to retire, thereby blocking them from power.
Ultimately, rants against prosecutors’ alleged persecution of Netanyahu, make me cringe. Sidestepping questions of Netanyahu’s legal guilt, do Israelis really want a premier who is so sticky-fingered, needy and numb to the example he sets for kids at school, people at work, and leaders in positions of great responsibility and great temptation?
It’s shocking how many honorable people rationalize Netanyahu’s gift-grabbing and tit-for-tat back-scratching by demonizing Israel’s justice system. If the system was so corrupt, why didn’t Netanyahu fix it along with so many other problems he neglected? And their timeline is topsy-turvy. No investigatory power made Netanyahu act dishonorably. Judges will decide whether his corruption violated the law but voters can still say enough, especially because Netanyahu’s political career is so past its expiration date, it’s been reeking for years.
More recently, Netanyahu’s behavior in opposition has been unpardonable. He could have scored points and reassured Israelis by acting graciously. Instead, Netanyahu looked small by acting small, petulantly shunning prime minister Naftali Bennett while denying that he first sought to unite with the same Arabs he then demonized so maliciously. Even his ally, Bezalel Smotrich, called him the liar of all liars for this denial, scoffing, “He didn’t want to go with Ra’am? Oh boy, did he want to.”
Such childish flimflammery earned Netanyahu high placement on the sadly-ever-growing list of unpatriotic fake patriots: Western conservatives who don’t conserve institutions and faux-nationalists who undermine their nation.
Netanyahu's latest insult to voters’ collective intelligence came when he refused to share a stage with Itamar Ben-Gvir. I only wish he boycotted bigots on principle, as a younger Netanyahu might have. I wish Netanyahu proclaimed that in our democratic Jewish state with 20% Arabs, targeting fellow citizens, demeaning them and making them feel like “we” seek to expel “them,” puts you beyond the pale.
And even if Netanyahu enjoys the vote-baiting anti-Arab demagoguery, as someone who aspires to lead Israel again, he should have condemned Ben-Gvir’s latest gun-wielding stunt in Sheikh Jarrah.
I get it. Ben-Gvir is more slippery than Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir flirts, stirring the pot without fully replicating Kahane’s Kool-Aid. Ultimately, Kahane was less dangerous because he was so blatant, while Ben-Gvir is more insidious. Kahane oozed anti-Arab enmity, while Ben-Gvir dog whistles, singing songs that sound superficially like patriotic defenses of Jews. People criticize him for hanging a picture of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein in his home “but he took it down years ago,” Ben-Gvirots – his automatons – say. In fact, “years ago” was actually 2020.
Putting the past aside, evaluate his recent behavior. The photo of Ben-Gvir wielding a pistol, while standing behind a rifle-toting security guard who looked twice his height, is revealing. What kind of a person whips out his gun in a volatile situation just for show, riling the crowd, when his life was not endangered? Had he served in the army, perhaps Ben-Gvir would have learned about the sanctity of arms?
Such irresponsible gun-slinging alone should stop every law-abiding citizen from voting for Ben-Gvir’s party. And it should convince any patriotic leader to mock his ambition to become public security minister. Israel doesn’t need a Master of Demagogic Volatility.
Instead, Netanyahu dodged a photo-op on stage with Ben-Gvir last week and said this week he certainly can be a minister. Back in 2021, Netanyahu declared him unfit.
On Election Day, I may juggle-vote but I won’t cringe. Although I criticize some positions each has taken, I would proudly vote for three politicians, although only two are running: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, and Naftali Bennett – remember him? Religious Zionists should note how much more religious-friendly Gantz is than Netanyahu suggests, while Ethical Zionists might consider rewarding Lapid for his selflessness in deferring to Bennett last year.
Together, they all demonstrated that patriotism, compromise, cooperation, honesty and constructive Zionism still drive at least some Israeli politicians. Together, they proved that Israel is bigger than Netanyahu, not addicted to any one leader; that this democratic Jewish state can have stability, security and prosperity, and finally, a budget, even under a broad, push-me-pull-you right-to-left Arab-Jewish unity government. And together, they reassure us that whatever happens on Election Day, Israel will survive and thrive.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People. (www.theljp.org).