For the Left, No Hope Means No Votes

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay speaks to supporters following his victory in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The two prevailing predictions in Israeli politics are that elections will be held in early 2019, and that Benjamin Netanyahu will be prime minister again when the votes are counted.

Naturally, a zillion things could prove these forecasts wrong, especially the second one. For instance, the police and attorney general could wrap up the three or four endless corruption probes (depending on how you count) against Netanyahu and indict him, though it would seem like Godot strolling onstage in the middle of the play about him. A new party and candidate could emerge, and sweep the election. Who knows?

Yet the reasons behind these predictions are solid, and say a lot about politics in Israel and beyond: Personality does matter, and the people who do politics best are experienced politicians. Most basic: The right will always do anger better.

The mostly likely pretext for new elections is that Netanyahu's coalition breaks up over a new conscription bill that could force more ultra-Orthodox men to serve. The real reason for an early vote is built into the system. By law, elections must be held no later than November 2019. Netanyahu's six-party coalition has been unstable since its first day. Early in a term, though, coalition members make compromises because they prefer power to early elections. When there's just a year left in the term, each party wants to show voters what sets it apart from a dozen others. Compromises vanish and coalitions collapse. Israeli governments entering their last year regularly fall a few months early, often over a contrived conflict.

Netanyahu has been in power nine straight years, plus another three in the late 1990s. The most generous judgment history could make of his record is mediocrity: perpetually strained foreign relations; decaying schools and health care; housing prices out of reach of young people; and the constant state of no-peace. Mediocrity helps explain why he hasn't inspired an outpouring of resistance in the way that Donald Trump has. Netanyahu chips away at democracy slowly, he has not made misogyny into his platform, he does not appear mentally deficient or blatantly psychopathic. 

Mediocrity, though, wouldn't be enough to keep him in power if he faced a real opposition. He doesn't.

Historically, the Likud's major rival was the Labor Party. Right now, Labor is polling at 10 percent or less of the vote, under half of what it received while losing the 2015 election. Labor's latest decline can fairly be attributed to party leader Avi Gabbai, chosen in a party vote in summer 2017. Labor members, tired of losing elections, thought they'd do better with a businessman who had been in politics for two years and in Labor for six months.

Since then Gabbai has proven (surprise) that business does not train you for politics. He has devoted much of his energy to trying to build top-down, command-based rule in Labor—trying to turn it into a corporation. To attract Likud voters, he has tried triangulation—for instance, by saying that a peace deal should not require evacuating West Bank settlers. Were he more politically savvy, he would know that every Labor bid to be a kinder, gentler Likud fails. Voters preferred the genuine Likud over knock-offs.

Labor's deeper problem is 70 years in the making. It was the party that founded Israel and gradually showed symptoms of Founding Party Syndrome: cronyism, corruption, and lack of a new program after achieving independence. When it lost power for the first time in 1977, it should have reinvented itself. Instead, then-party leader Shimon Peres trusted voters to see how bad the Likud was and come home.

Since then, Labor has had one-and-a-half successes: In 1992 with Yitzhak Rabin, and 1999 when Ehud Barak became prime minister but lacked a parliamentary base. Both were former military chiefs of staff. Their victories reinforced the idea that ex-generals are destined for political success. Actually the army, like business, is a terrible school for politics. Rabin's first term in the 1970s was a train wreck. It took him 15 years more in politics to learn the art.

The Great New Hope this year is ex-Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Outside of his military resume, his only qualification is that his positions are so vague that he has been mentioned as possibly running either with the Likud or Labor. Most likely he will create a new party, which will further fragment the anti-Netanyahu camp and thereby help keep the Likud in power. 

Underlying the search for new face is one half of a truth.

The candidate does matter. In America another liberal would not have done as well as Barack Obama, and another Know-Nothing rightist might not have done as well as Donald Trump. In Israel, Rabin won in 1992 because he inspired trust in a large number of Israelis, in ways that Peres never managed to do. 

The other half of the story, though, is that the person has to stand for something. The something consists both of a program and an emotion that the candidate both radiates and arouses in voters. FDR glowed with the confidence that a person could stand again after falling. Trump channeled bitterness and bigotry and told his voters it was OK to feel those things. Obama made people feel they could dare to hope. Hard as it is to remember in our poisoned moment, hope can motivate people to vote.

The Israeli right has always brought forth Israeli Jews' fears—of Arabs, of a world supposedly always against us, and more recently of refugees. The right says that peace will always be an illusion, that no one can be trusted. 

The left will never manage to out-scare the Likud. Yet often even its talk of peace is based on fear, as when it promotes a two-state agreement as total separation from Palestinians, as “we're here and they're there.”

For a left-wing candidate and party to challenge Netanyahu successfully, they'll need to unlock the feeling that Israelis would like to have but keep locked up: the hope that life could be better here. That our children will have better schools, that young people will be able to buy homes. Most of all that sometimes war can end. To the standard claim of the right that there is no partner for peace, the left's answer must be framed in terms of confidence that we can make the offer of peace real enough to bring the other side to the table and to agreement. 

The right will always be better at conjuring up fear and fury. Hope is courageous, and can win. Nothing else will. 

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