Scaremongering pays off in Israeli ballot boxes

Granting Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term in office makes little sense

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg - Yossi Mekelberg
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The realities of the Israeli political system are perplexing in the best of times, however, election times and their results can leave one flabbergasted. Last week’s elections left many, me included, wondering what drives the Israeli voters to put their fate in the hands of a prime minister who has failed them miserably on all fronts, time and again.

Granting Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term in office despite the fact he isolates the country internationally and is on the course of collision with the country’s main allies, makes little sense. Trusting the economy with a prime minister whose government’s policies pushed more people under the poverty line and the economy on the verge of recession is nothing short of self-defeating.

The famed 19th-century American President Abraham Lincoln is attributed the political maxim that “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” The current Israeli prime minister has succeeded for a very long time in fooling enough people to stay in power, and no one in Israel’s short political history has done this with as much success as Netanyahu has.

For a fourth election campaign, Netanyahu the scaremonger spread fear and employed what can only be described as racist language against the Palestinian citizens of Israel and slung vile national-chauvinist accusations against his political opponents to consolidate enough electoral vote for him to stay in power.

These elections, as the ones before, demonstrated that Netanyahu is way more competent in winning elections than in running a country

Yossi Mekelburg

Some of the surprised reactions to the election results stem from a combination of public opinion polls, which in hindsight provided an inaccurate picture, and a rational expectation that governments are judged by their record and contenders to power based on their campaign promises. An obviously failing and divided government, challenged by a resurgent left-leaning dovish opposition, injected hope for an imminent and meaningful change. Even exit polls got the results wrong, hence when the real results were revealed, only one big winner emerged and it was Benjamin.

The rest became a side show. Considering that the Likud only lost one seat, in comparison to the 2013 election when they joined forces with Lieberman’s party, the results of this election reflected an unwavering hard-core support for the party and especially its leader.

Despite disappointment over the loss by the Zionist Camp, led by Itzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, they actually increased their power and it is in their hands to establish themselves as a pro-active and constructive opposition. If the party resists any temptation to join a coalition with the Likud, it can develop into a credible alternative to a Netanyahu government.

In line with expectations

Together with the Joint Arab List, which in line with expectations increased Arab-Israeli representation in the Knesset to thirteen seats, and the Meretz party, there is potential for a powerful core of opposition. Such an opposition could carry the torch of peace with the Palestinians, create a society which is based on social justice and effectively scrutinize the government.

However, all eyes are now on the mini-miracle that Netanyahu performed in winning these elections. His record in office shows next to no achievements, actually the country is in a worse condition than when he became prime minister for his second term in 2009. He fought against a very hostile media during the elections and a general sense of public malaise.

Much of his opponents’ campaign can be summed up in “Just not Bibi.” Yet, the day after the elections he emerged as the sole contender to form the next government. It is too simplistic to attribute the election results to the phenomenon known in politics as last minute “returning home.” Netanyahu scared and emotionally blackmailed his voters to “return home.”

Reading the last public opinion polls published before the elections, triggered him to release all the brakes. Only two weeks after attempting to play, rather shamelessly, a world statesmen in front of the U.S. Congress, his true nature as a politician that stops at nothing to win elections came out.

If accusing his political opponents on the left of being sponsored by and serving foreign elements was not deplorable enough, he sunk even lower on polling day. In order to rally support for the Likud party, he posted a video clip on Facebook in which he warned Right wing voters that “Arabs were going to the polls in droves” and that if they did not want a government led by the Labor party they should rush to the polling stations and vote for him.

Unforgivably racist

Not only was his statement factually false, it was also unforgivably racist in character, garnished with military terminology equating the vote of the Arab minority in Israel to a military assault. So much for the equality of Arab Israelis within the Jewish state. There is little doubt that these scare tactics regrettably worked. I am afraid that there is no clear cut answer to why this approach is so successful in Israeli political life. However, increasingly I resort to the conclusion, that even after sixty-seven years of independence, many Israelis have not rid of themselves of divisive norms and fear of the other, which characterised them in the diaspora. Even worse, the situation is also exacerbated with unmitigated nationalism. Despite building a state with military might and exceptional economic and cultural achievements, a large part of Israelis see themselves as eternal victims who constantly live under threat.

They are almost incapable of seeing that treating the entire Arab community in Israel, with no evidence, as a fifth column and oppressing the Palestinians in the occupied territories makes them more victimisers than victims and creates a source of hostility towards them. I say this without ignoring that there are some people in the region that are not ready to accept Israel as an integral part of the region. Yet, is it the case that the Zionist movement succeeded in taking the Jews out of the diaspora, but failed in uprooting the Diaspora out of the Jews?

For the next few weeks the Israeli political system will enter into the customary horse-trading negotiations of forming a new government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is almost certain to be asked by the Israeli President Rivlin to perform this task. Whatever coalition emerges, there are many fences at home and abroad that are in a desperate need of mending as a result of a Netanyahu’s policies in his previous governments, and which were exacerbated by his careless election campaign.

It remains for Netanyahu to perform another of his U-turns to convince anyone that he is ready to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution, after promising his voters that this solution is no longer relevant. His relationship with President Obama is strained to a breaking point and seems to be beyond repair.

Moreover, he will have to mend fences with all the citizens of Israel, whose loyalty he has questioned. These elections, as the ones before, demonstrated that Netanyahu is way more competent in winning elections than in running a country. I wish I could believe that his fourth term in office will deviate from this pattern.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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