I wrote the following for the latest newsletter of the World Union of Meretz, from the J Street Conference in Washington, DC. Representatives of all of the Israeli opposition gathered there, meeting together with its counterparts from American Jewry, who clearly represent the majority of American Jews.
The final polls allowed on Friday the 13th, four days before election day, had given the Zionist Union (Labor & Hatnua) led by Herzog and Livni a lead of 24 to 20 seats, with an even chance to lead the next government. Netanyahu then went into emergency mode, using every demagogic trick in the book to turn the results around.
He warned the leadership of the settlers that “the left” was on the verge of winning, and would begin to evacuate settlements, so they mobilized en masse, coming in thousands to Likud strongholds in the outlying and development towns to get out the vote. Mobilizing the extreme right to abandon Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-right Yachad party (led by Shas refugee Eli Yishai in alliance with Kahanist Baruch Marzel), Netanyahu renounced his support for a two-state solution, and on election day warned that Israeli Arabs were voting in droves, being “bussed in by Jewish left-wingers” supported by foreign money.
This last claim was ridiculous, since Israeli Arab citizens were simply walking to the polling booths, exercising their democratic right to vote, and energized by the fact that the four Arab parties had united in a Joint Arab List to ensure that they would pass the minimum voter threshold that had been raised to try to prevent them from entering the Knesset.
In addition, the right pounced on the mistake by artist Yair Garbuz at a mass rally a week earlier at Rabin Square in support of a change in government, when he declared that the country was being taken over by people who believe in religious amulets and kiss mezuzot, rather than rational thinking, a statement which was perceived, understandably, as being disrespectful to the beliefs of many of the Sephardi and religious voters who had traditionally supported the Likud and were considering voting against Netanyahu.
The result, as we all now know, was the Likud received 30 seats, and the Zionist Union only 24, thus enabling a right-wing government to be formed, presumably with a coalition of parties consisting of the Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu, the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael, and the more centrist party led by breakaway Likud Sephardi leader Moshe Kachlon.
Although President Rivlin probably will advocate behind the scenes for a national unity government led by Likud and the Zionist Union, and there are people in Labor who might long for such an arrangement, this is unlikely to happen. In the current circumstances, the best scenario is that a right-wing government will be left to stew in its own juices, facing growing international criticism and isolation because of a lack of diplomatic initiative towards a resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, while trying to increase demonization of the left and trying to pass anti-democratic laws.
That right-wing government will be confronted by a large and hopefully vibrant opposition, led by the Zionist Union, Meretz, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) and the Joint Arab List.
Meretz managed to hold its own in the elections, and although its representation went down from 6 to 5 Members of Knesset, due to the change in electoral procedures, it received the same amount of votes as in the last 2013 elections, about 170,000, representing a strong left Zionist camp. Another 25,000-50, 000 Meretz voters probably voted for the Zionist Union in the hope that it would become larger than the Likud, and some voted for the Joint Arab List to express encouragement for the phenomenon.
Clearly, we on the center-left, have to do some serious strategic reevaluations and planning towards the next elections. We cannot just rely on our own strongholds, but have to reach out to all of the other sectors of society who feel in many ways alientated from the center-left. The Likud pays attention to them, and we did not reach out sufficiently to them. This includes the 20% of the population that comes from the former Soviet Union, the Mizrachi/Sephardi Jews who live in the development towns and the poorer neighborhoods, and also the religious and ultra-Orthodox, who view the left as “anti-religious”, and are not inherently against peace.
I personally think that it was a mistake to focus so much of the campaign on “Anti-Bibi”, us or him, making Netanyahu the center of the elections. We should have focused primarily on a campaign of hope for the future, with content for what that means. Also, it is a mistake to focus primarily on socio-economic issues, when Bibi presses the buttons of fear about peace and security, which is the primary issue that people vote on.
We should use the powerful statements by such senior security figures as former Mossad head Meir Dagan and former General Security Services head Yuval Diskin, that if we don’t end the occupation and achieve a two-state solution in the near future, we will be rapidly heading down the road to an apartheid reality, and to growing isolation and condemnation of Israel. And we have to explain why a two-state solution and Israeli-Palestinian peace is still possible, and also doable, which it is. And with all due respect to Isaac Herzog, who would make an excellent prime minister, perhaps we also need a more charismatic leader with greater security credentials.
The message from J Street is that we should not and cannot despair, we have a lot of work to do, and that we all remain committed to continuing the struggle for a democratic, progressive, humanistic Israel, which Jews around the world can be proud of: a state for all its citizens, living in peace with its neighbors, including a Palestinian state based on the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.