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Israeli public preps for elections: Just 'don't mention the war!'

Election season has begun, and the Israeli public desperately wants one thing: escapism. 

Last night, after the Israeli election was set for September 4, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that I thought summed up the public mood, which the main “opposition” candidates have been and will be catering to. The T-shirt showed a comically wide-eyed, frightened John Cleese and his classic line from Fawlty Towers: “Don’t mention the war!”

Perfect. The prime minister has the whole world scared to death that he’s going to bomb Iran, every poll shows that a great majority of Israelis don’t want him to do it – but it’s not an issue in Israeli politics and it almost certainly won’t be in the campaign. People don’t want to talk about it or hear about it. They sit silently as Netanyahu drips the fear of another Holocaust into their brains, softening them up for the war he’s waiting for the opportunity to start, then they go on about their business, a little more tenderized than before.  Except for the marginal left and a couple of rogue ex-Mossad and ex-Shin Bet chiefs, nobody challenges this “duty” of every Jew and every non-anti-Semitic gentile to choose war over a nuclear Iran.

Look at how the opposition and the public have reacted since ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin accused Netanyahu and Barak last Friday of being “messianics” who can’t be trusted to deal reasonably with Iran. None of the three candidates purporting to offer a centrist alternative to Bibi – neither Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich nor Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) – grabbed the flag Diskin raised. His words, like those of Meir Dagan before him, caused a huge storm in the media, even overseas – but didn’t have the tiniest effect on the Likud and right wing’s control of the political arena. A Haaretz-Dialog poll published yesterday showed Netanyahu being more popular than Mofaz, Yacimovich and Lapid combined. It also showed him enjoying 2-1 public support against Diskin and his accusations.

In their hearts, Israelis would prefer that their government not start a war with Iran, but if somebody, such as the prime minister, tells them he’s going to do it anyway, they’ll go along. When push comes to shove, they’ll support it. The Israeli public is so weak, so intimidated by anybody who might stand up and accuse them of cowardice and treason if they don’t nod their heads to the proposal of the day for screwing the Arabs. They’re putty in the hands of a guy like Netanyahu.

The “opposition” leaders know this, so they run from any issue in which they would have to position themselves to the left of Bibi (since right-of-Bibi is, of course, already overcrowded). They don’t challenge him on Iran, they don’t challenge him on the occupation, they don’t have anything to say about what most everyone else in the world thinks of when they hear the word “Israel” – war-mongering, trampling on Palestinians, militant Jewish fanaticism. These are the things that define Israel, the whole world knows it, and you won’t hear about any of this in this election campaign.

What will you hear about? Drafting the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and high prices. These are the hot-button issues in the country today, this is what people want to hear about, this is what it’s safe for both voters and politicians to scream and yell about – because it’s not right wing and it’s not left wing, it’s consensus, nobody will call you a coward or a traitor, everybody agrees, the goddamn haredim should serve the country like everybody else and these prices are too goddamn high.

Again, perfect. This is what Israelis really want, this is what Netanyahu, Mofaz, Yacimovich and Lapid are going to promise to deliver – and everybody knows everyone’s jerking each other off because nobody’s going to draft the Haredim – they won’t go and nobody’s going to make them go – and nobody’s going to lower prices, either, because this country’s economy is a piggish capitalist one and Netanyahu, who everybody knows will win the election, is the last guy on earth who wants to change that.

So the issues shaping up as the central ones of the campaign are not just trivial, they’re not  issues at all because in Israel 2012, nothing can or will be done about them.

As for the real issues, it’s not that there’s an elephant in the room that everyone’s pretending not to see, it’s that there are several elephants – war with Iran, the occupation, war with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and/or Turkey, the rise of McCarthyism, the dread that Israel doesn’t have a future – which will continue to go unmentioned in polite, mainstream company during this supposed season of decision.

Boy, what a vibrant democracy we live in.


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    1. I tend to think that the public is content to let Bibi rule the roost because they assume that the US is calling the shots anyway, despite the entertaining spectacle of the US very visibly and audibly complaining the it’s the other way round. Of course, Bibi is aligned to US Republican rather than US Democrat policies, but Democrats, like centre-left parties everywhere, have very little control over foreign policy, which is set by a permanent core of war hawks, oil men and armaments kings. In any case, there are coordinating bodies which reach right across the political party divide in the US and elsewhere, such as the CFR, and some say Bibi is really nothing but a CFR pet. I found this capsule expression of the theory on an obscure website I shall not specify:

      “Netanyahu was spotted at MIT in 1973 and the grooming began there when he was in his early twenties. After graduating, he received a high-paying job at Boston Consulting. His boss was Ira Magaziner (CFR). But he quit the job in 1979, returned to Israel, starting selling furniture at the Rim company, then organized an anti-terror convention. Inexplicably, the CFR sent a team of their biggest guns including George Bush Sr, Richard Perle and George Shultz to this unknown 27-year-old’s get-together. Once the convention was over, Netanyahu returned to work selling home furniture for three years until 1982, when Washington Ambassador Moshe Arens invited him to be his deputy. He claimed the choice was indirectly made by those who came to his convention and “were impressed with his performance.” That means Bush and Shultz pressed Arens to bring Bibi to Washington. From there, they pushed his career higher. In 1985, Shultz chaired another anti-terror convention in Washington supposedly organized by Netanyahu. By the time Bibi was UN Ambassador, Schultz visited him every time he was in New York, and that was often.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      Evidently your not a big fan of elections but here is the thing. I didn’t like Obama winning in 2008 but that’s the way it went. If you think that there are issues that aren’t being raised the fault lies not with the people but with the opposition parties. And if the candidates are weak then they should put up stronger ones.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Zecharia Plavin

      Dear Larry, you are absolutely right. Your words are courageous and honest truth.
      We are not am-khofshi be-artzenu anymore, afraid of being shamed by extremists.

      We have disgracefully deteriorated because of our eager belief that dark corners of jewish tribalism are our true identity, whatever the liberals say. This dark tribalist stuff was pushed by Begin, Sharon and Netanyahu as a true essence of our identity (Golda and Olmert spoke in the same spirit too), in place of humanist idea of liberal zionist statehood. So we find ourselves in a train fast moving to abyss. People do not wish to protest attacking Iran not only of shame to be called cowards, but out of deep identity malaise.

      Benyamin Netanyahu succeeded in making us his entangled followers because he inherited the identity of hating the world (inhabited by amalek)and we dutifully took this for impersonation of “true jewish identity”, to be preserved by all means, also at the cost of collective disaster (with a foreign passport and close to airport personally).

      We have to get out of this trap. We have to change accent in our identity. It is vital.
      KOL HAKAVOD TO YOU, dear Larry.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Iman

      The debates about Haredim in the military and women singing in front of religious soldiers is ironic. I’d expect that if there’s one place in the world where observant Jews can live freely and in accordance with their faith, it would be the “Jewish state”.

      Reply to Comment
    5. annie

      larry defner you are HOT HOT HOT HOT!
      you said it all, triple zing.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Kolumn9

      Very well written article. My only issue is that I think your criticism of the opposition parties is unfairly harsh. They run on inconsequential issues not because they are not concerned with the same issues that you are but because even if they don’t like what Bibi does they have no viable constructive alternative approaches. Also, I don’t agree with your pessimism on the whole Haredi drafting situation. If the Haredim were not collecting money from the government that supported their lifestyle it would crash and burn. They know this as well as they know that the rest of society wants to draft them and that the current situation is simply unsustainable. I feel that given a reasonable approach they would compromise.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Richard Witty

      The Israeli elections will be much more complex than you mention, especially if the issues get raised in a the context of assertive electorable efforts. (By that I mean that if the important questions are laid out in a manner that is not too complex, but nevertheless distinct).

      That means you, or someone that you are friends with has to take up the Quilotian/or breakthrough effort.

      Fanatic positions will not suffice. They have to have a pragmatic strategic path, not just a stated ethical requirement.

      The dismissal of the liberal/center left is an expected result of this phase of history of the two-state.

      That is that a prerequisite to successful and plausible negotiations, Palestine must be unified (Fatah and Hamas and street – less so). Then there is a single negotiating entity. (Not all that different than the 20 year jockeying between the Congress – Gandhi, and Indian nationalist – Bose, parties in the 30’s and 40’s. Eventually, Congress achieved dominance and the nationalist parties acquiesced.)

      But, when the left appears to support the unification of Hamas and Fatah, they inevitably have to proceed through the gauntlet of being accused of disloyalty.

      Its only an impractical strategy if abandoned. If determined, it will succeed.

      That is one of the great tragedies of the renunciation of the two-state approach by some progressives, that in adopting a single state strategy, they abandon the unity of Palestinian communities, in the name of solidarity.

      They mistake tactic for strategy, and imagine that they are moving forward, when the winds blow all back to nothing (leaving room for the right’s determined strategic intention.)

      Anyone see the video of the discussion between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart (on the tablet website)?

      Gordis invoked fear and rejection of the Palestinians (“they are unwilling to negotiate”) as the only juice in the glass.

      The question was of tribalism, to which both Gordis and Beinart agreed was the range of conversation.

      Gordis described the significance of tribalism in the terms of what we have to defend against ONLY (one definition of tribalism that is of the nature of military scope of leadership.)

      Beinart’s thesis, though he didn’t articulate it distinctly, is that what we are comprehensively (secure, free AND ethically coherent AND kind) is the measure of leadership of a tribe.

      Is the good neighbor (the mensch) the one that only defends against possible attacks, or is the good neighbor the one that is simultaneously secure, unintrusive, communicative, cooperative?

      That is the argument.

      That and the question of whether one’s responsibility is to react, or to actively create good relationships with those that are willing.

      And then, to coherently describe that there are those that are genuinely willing among Palestinians to live as good neighbors to good neighbors. (This is where the farther left in supporting isolation – BDS – ironically destroys all that is really possible.)

      The language of warning (only, sadly), is the same message of Israel to both Iran and to Palestinians.

      How does one change consciousness? By kindness, by path, by coherency, by suggesting what it means to be a mensch that is different than the defensive.

      Reply to Comment
    8. annie

      ok, i am not in israel so i cannot hear the buzz on the street but here’s something i think, for the most part, is being ignored in the discourse over the elections.
      the first i heard about calling for early election was from haaretz last week over the settlement issue. i think it was the retroactive legalization of the outposts.
      then there was the uplanda demolition set for may first but instead the court met 2 days earlier and delayed it for two months. that same day it was announced there was speculation about early elections but no mention of the settlement issue.
      but look at this:”“Barak should do likewise and acknowledge the residents’ rights to remain in their homes.”

      On Saturday, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon (Likud) said Barak’s “private political agenda” threatened the “dissolution of the government.”

      Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz (Likud), who was a guest in Beit El’s endangered Ulpana neighborhood on Friday, accused Barak of using the defense ministry as political tool against Jewish residents of the Samaria, Binyamin and Judea regions.

      Ministers have reportedly informed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) that if the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El is destroyed, his coalition will follow.”
      now realisticlly, what seems like a bigger issue in terms of realpolitik? and can you imagine what a hullaballu it would have been if the announcement of dissolving the government had been accompanied by the annexation of area c? i think there are some very fundamental issues/demands of the fanatics/settlers behind the wheel here. and i don’t think it’s just a matter of whether they serve in the military. if the settlements were to threaten the relationship of the government and the courts? that would be arockin the ‘democracy’.

      Reply to Comment