Part Three of a Theme: What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election.
The Dead Heat That Wasn’t.
My local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, arrived at our door around 6:00 AM with the latest news from Israel under the headline: “Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union Must Now Get To Work To Try To Form A Coalition Government.” The article begins: “Israel appeared to be headed for weeks of political wrangling Tuesday night after exit polls indicated that the two leading parties were in a dead heat following the parliamentary election.”
In the morning, CTV’s Paul Workman, a reporter whose tendentious coverage of Israeli and Middle East politics has been drawing complaint from Honest Reporting for many years, snarled as he summed up Netanyahu’s electoral victory: “Using scare tactics and alarming language to win right-wing voters … [he had] turned around a losing campaign … infuriat[ing] American and European leaders… [and turning Israel away from] the promise of change offered by Herzog.”
As every student of recent Israeli elections knows, parity in results for the Likud and Labor, as seemed to be the case at midnight, meant in reality that Likud had won. This is because Israel governments are always coalitions and most of the smaller parties are firmly located on the conservative and/or nationalist-patriotic side of public issues, and will not cooperate with Labor.
Indeed, when the final count appeared two days later, it was found that Netanyahu’s party, Likud¸ had in fact surpassed Labor: there will be 30 mandates (of the 120) for Likud; Zionist Union (which consists of Labor plus the rump of Kadima, now led by Tzipi Livni) had 24; the Joint Arab List who are honor-bound not to cooperate with Government, have 13; Yesh Atid (a newly-invented party which had come out second last time around in 2013 and had swiftly become a partner in Government of Netanyahu) had 11. Clearly, there were more than enough mandates held by Netanyahu’s former allies among the lesser parties to give him the 61 seats necessary to form a government; and if any of these proved recalcitrant there were more than enough office-hungry newcomers – including newly-minted Kulanu with ten.
By historical standards, therefore, this was no dead heat but a runaway victory —a fourth term as Prime Minster for Netanyahu, one that will make him Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
The Israeli Voters Did Not “Turn Ugly” – Even Though Our Media Did.
There was some speculation afterwards about why the exit polls were so off the mark – explanations that turned on certain technicalities in reporting. But without doubt the larger explanation goes to wishful-thinking-bugs that were getting into the reportage from the major American and European media. For weeks, leading correspondents for all the major networks had been talking up Yitzhak Herzog’s public relations successes, as he elaborated on the prospect of a bright new day for Israel’s economy and revival of the only-apparently-defunct Peace Process.
Opinion elites seemed determined not to accept the notion that Netanyahu could have won. In a quickly-written editorial, “An Israeli Election Turns Ugly,” the New York Times noted that “While Mr. Netanyahu ended up with more seats, it is Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who will decide which leader gets to cobble together the next coalition government.” But quickly forgetting what they have just written, the editors then changed direction: “The process could take six weeks, and religious parties are likely to hold the key to victory [emphasis added], an asset for Mr. Netanyahu … [But] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outright rejection of a Palestinian state and his racist rant against Israeli Arab voters on Tuesday showed that he has forfeited any claim to representing all Israelis.”
It must be galling for Israelis to hear again and again – as they have done since they held their first Knesset election in March 1949 — that they have got it wrong, that they do not understand what they are doing. To make such a judgment implies the possession of a perspective from which the New York Times — to take only the most blatant example – simply knows better than the Israelis themselves what they want.
It has to be kept in mind at all times that the reasons for the exceptional interest that our media have shown in Israeli elections cannot be separated from the fact that only the Israelis hold elections – that is, elections whose results are allowed to stand. No western media outlet maintains anywhere else in the Middle East a bureau of reporters and pays them handsomely and picks up regularly their expenses in order to keep abreast of political trends that will overturn government at the next election. That is simply because there will not be any next election.
The Larger Loyalties of Opinion Elites.
For all their protestation to the contrary, academically-trained reporters and commentators have a higher loyalty than that of reporting facts. A clue to this reality is in the obsessive reference in all recent reporting to the awful reality (as the New York Times puts it) that “religious parties are likely to hold the key to victory, an asset for Mr. Netanyahu.”
We have to keep constantly in mind that all journalists today – like all teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, et cetera – have been to college. This is one of very few generalizations that we can safely make about them. And the second followeth from the first: they have all taken Sociology 101. While most college graduates imagine themselves as believers in and defenders of democracy, their higher loyalty is to mankind’s better future – the blueprint to which they hold in their hands. It is the future anticipated in the “secularization hypothesis.” The hardcore assumption in this teaching is that injustice, inequity, prejudice and unfairness of all kinds follows from perpetuation of loyalties to traditional wisdom that cannot stand the test of truth and science. It is, therefore, their task to remove religion from civilized expression. The first stage in this work (now virtually accomplished) is to belittle religion in all entertainment media through mockery; then follows the work of undermining residual allegiance through constant exposure of the hypocrisies of religious leaders – their sexual misdeeds and venality. Finally, consensus can be achieved among politicians for legislation and judicial decisions that deny religion any place in schooling, professional training, and in the courts.
But I must get a grip on myself! Our topic is Israeli politics. And I have opened with this conundrum: Why were opinion elites in our part of the world so angry about the outcome of that election that they couldn’t read the numbers? This, I believe, comes down to their unhappiness that once again the Israeli voting public has ignored the advice of the best minds and once again Israeli government is about to fall under “a right-wing coalition” – or, to put it another way, “religious parties are likely to hold the key to victory.”
Some Semantic Considerations.
There is a familiar semantic shell-and-pea trick that is being worked here: the Right-Wing is simply identified with the Religious Wing. Thomas L. Freidman, who reports for the New York Times direct from Mount Olympus, describes what happened on March 17: “The fact is a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign.”
Where the religious motive for politics can be detected, it is the duty of all thinkers to assist in tearing it up as a bad weed. When it comes to Israeli politics, what makes it easy to perform this trick is the circumstance that Israel provides a proportional representation system, resulting in a variety of parties founded upon a variety of issues that have the highest priority in the public’s mind. In the first Knesset, formed on March 8, 1949 there were 12 parties In the Nineteenth Knesset there were twelve parties, not to mention the thirty registered parties that did not have seats. Over the years a significant number of parties have been formed carrying the banner of certain ethnic segments who have come into the land as immigrants at various periods since Independence; and there is an equally large number of parties whose raison d’etre is to accomplish certain purposes associated with the religious life of the nation. These two sorts of parties overlap to some degree. But most outside commentators lump them together as the Religious Right.
A two-party or three-party setup such as ours is built to deal realistically with the fact that there are only two sides to every door – inside and outside. In this model, our first priorities, whatever they may be and however valid and beautiful the truths embodied in them, must be folded into bundles with the first priorities of other voters. The individual voter must go with whichever party has agreed prior to the election to a policy to support the party that seems to him likely to save the largest amount of the beautiful truth – about education, about family values, about religion, about the range of foreign policy matters, etc –that are the matters closest to his heart.
There is no reason to imagine that Jewish voters (or “Jews” in general) are more “religious” than are American voters (or “Americans” in general.) Nor is it necessary to believe that Israelis are more devoted to Judaism than Americans are to Christianity. It is a long-standing irritant with Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, as well as with many who do not identify with “observant” Judaism that most commentators use the term “Religious” as equivalent to “observant” and even in careless way with “haredi” — strictly Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox in plain English.
Still, it is the blatant fact that Israeli politics presents voters with the choice to express religious belonging at the polls that our secular commentators cannot stomach. It reminds them painfully of the religious motivations operating, just as effectively but less conspicuously in our own political life. The thought occurs: if America’s or Canada’s Religious Right could be located in a single neck, how much more easily could it be cut off!