It is crucial to vote in Israeli elections, but in this current one, it’s not because the contenders’ perspectives are so very different, as has been the case in past elections. The latter saw figures such as Shimon Peres, who believed in a shared future with the Palestinians, go head to head with those of the opposing camp, who were skeptical of peace gestures, and devoted to the defense of the newborn and coveted Jewish state.
Today, especially after the years of the Second Intifada, the failure of the disengagement in Gaza in 2005 and a string of wars with Hamas, it is a commonly shared idea among Israelis that a Palestinian state would be nothing other than a base for Iranian-funded terrorism. The basic programs of the two leading contenders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, are far from being different—so much so that if one listen to the campaign, which in Israel is broadcasted several times per day on TV, the subject is always and however solely one: Netanyahu, Netanyahu and again Netanyahu.
His name is followed by 1,000 accusations and sneers, repeated at every moment by his opponents. What has not been said: corrupt, egocentric, cynical, dangerous and fundamentally undemocratic. However, there just aren’t any political alternatives on the horizon. No one but Meretz, which formed a pact and will run on the same list with a transformed Ehud Barak, has returned to proclaiming the old mantra of “two states for two people,” and about abandoning Judea and Samaria. No one is suggesting that Jerusalem should be divided or shows a particular interest in considering Palestinians as an interlocutor willing to compromise. Too much terrorism, too much extreme declarations by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, followed by the financing and institutional praising of the shahid (“martyr”), and, above all, by now the evident link between the looming threat that the Islamic Republic of Iran and those showing up on its borders: Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the south, Hezbollah in the north.
Netanyahu is certainly the main guardian of the security of Israel. An Israeli citizen can easily praise the fact that he has reopened the Iranian question after the crazy agreement made by the Obama administration; brought the United States to recognize Jerusalem as its capital and the Golan Heights as part of Israel; avoided another war in Gaza; and has opened never seen before diplomatic relations with countries in the Arab world and in Africa. Yet despite Netanyahu’s ability to maintain peace and deterrence, and the brilliant state of the economy, science, technology and culture in Israel, today’s slogan has become: “Get rid of Bibi!”
There are many simplified reasons why he must be defeated, but in the end, there is a global cultural message that has invested all the chattering classes. His profile, in the eyes of the European Union, the United Nations and U.S. Democrats—in short, international cultural society led by the left from Hollywood to Rome—is annoyingly tied to someone they don’t like. The globalist, environmentalist, feminist, LGBT, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and white elite is against Bibi, and has exported to Israel their point of view preparing to equate the idea of him as a dictator, an oppressor, against democracy and human rights. It doesn’t matter that in Israel, there’s no trace of a right turn: Netanyahu is a right-wing imperialist. He talks about the Jewish state, speaks loud and though, threatens and attacks the Islamic regime in Iran—all things that to those with globalist ears find obnoxious.
On the right, his thrust towards the new Constitution establishing that Israel is the Jewish state and not “of all citizens” are attacked, even if the rights of all minorities are guaranteed; Israeli democracy is so strong that the country goes to elections twice in two months while a media barrage constantly strikes its prime minister, who responds solely with the lightning rod of its arguments, but still he is accused of wanting to control information. His attitude has been compared to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who puts the journalists in jail. Netanyahu might lose because there is an anxiety about the country’s identity at play around the roulette wheel of normalization, of drinking at the glass of egalitarian modernization, marginalizing the religious element that has truly become exaggerated. Israel’s socialist DNA is also in play, so likeable and loved in the image of Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, but these figures would never have given up an inch of land let alone Jerusalem without clear concessions. They would have shielded Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley in a way that the people who hate Netanyahu prefer to forget. They would have claimed every settlement that is necessary to its defense, despite the world’s disapproval.
But 50 percent here harbor the desire to re-enter the globalist and international universe of which Peres was a champion (Rabin was much less a dreamer and even less a member of the “jet set”), in which the “nation state” is a bad term; where we should gloss over Islamic hate and respond to anyone that discusses it that they are guilty of Islamophobia; and say that anti-Semitism is mostly a right-wing phenomenon, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Most of the West thinks this way.
Israel is a miracle. It allows disabled people to undertake military service; it sends rescue squads throughout the world; it hosts Palestinians, Syrians and children from Gaza in its hospitals—all of this is indeed a sign of an amazing concept of its role in the world. Netanyahu has kept the famous “Village in the Jungle,” with incredible technological capabilities, a frowning mask towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, a humane army and a philanthropic society.
Some days ago, I asked my hairdresser his opinion regarding these elections. Here, I must brag a bit: Motti (not his real name) is at the heart of the Jerusalemite elite, as well as the world’s Jewish bourgeoisie. He is a man who knows how to speak, deal and flirt. Cautiously, and not knowing my own opinion, he answered with what must be said in such circles, which is the following: Let’s hope that Bibi’s era will finally end in the upcoming days, and then murmured words such as “peace”, “corruption,” “Trump” and a little more of vocabulary pertaining to the ongoing campaign—balanced, politically correct talk. A whole echelon of ladies, journalists and political elites, former generals and a very conspicuous cadre of musicians, psychoanalysts and academics bear the banner of the sensation that the words “right wing” are synonymous with ignorance, vulgarity and the fruit market (at the “Shuk Hacarmel in Tel Aviv,” they are all voting for Bibi!) and populism. They may not be against Bibi, but defending him has come to be a socially difficult task.
The anti-Bibi sentiment has moved here from Europe and the United States, and the war has grown between populists and anti-populists without understanding that Netanyahu cannot fit that role. His family, military and political history tell us another story, as his role is the offspring of an Israeli identity that is strong, defensive, national and secular. Quoting the theories of Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar and political theorist Yoram Hazony, Bibi’s nationalism is of the kind that is born from national loyalty, and thus self-limiting. He is not a dictator, even though he is a leonine leader who has been in power 13 years. Benjamin Netanyahu is not a dictator; he is a leonine leader who has been in power for 13 years. He has been here a long time, but he is “right-wing,” which to many has become akin to a mortal sin.
He has ruled well. If, as can naturally happen, he loses, it will be a substitution of DNA, of Israel’s cultural sap. Abbas has said he wants nothing more.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translated by Amy Rosenthal.