Bibi, You Are No Ben-Gurion

Categories: Letters From Leadership

By Kenneth Bob, Ameinu President


In 1988, when Dan Quayle compared himself to John Kennedy in a Vice Presidential debate, the Democratic nominee, Lloyd Bentson famously responded, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”


I am reminded of that exchange when I reflect on the results of the Israelis election. People who follow Israeli politics know that Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has been very focused on becoming the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history, and it appears that in July, 2019 he will pass David Ben-Gurion for that honor.


Now, I did not know Ben-Gurion personally, but I can lay claim to a certain organizational connection. In 1915, while based in NY, he established the HeChalutz movement, one of the American Labor Zionist predecessors of Ameinu.


Believe me, Bibi is no Ben-Gurion. I say that not from a partisan political point of view, although that is true as well.


In his time, Ben-Gurion was criticized by his colleagues on the left for trumpeting the notion of “mamlachtiut,” which is difficult to translate into English but one common understanding is putting the national interest above political or ideological objectives. In Bibi’s case, the central motivation for his pronouncements and actions often are seemingly not national or even political in nature, but of pure personal interest.


As one senior Israeli politician told me recently, Bibi is always in campaign mode and is a world class expert in that regard. Highly visible meetings with the presidents of the U.S. and Russia timed for the last weeks before the election are two examples. His incitement against Arab citizens brings out his base to vote, and his statement about annexing West Bank settlements takes voters from his right wing partners.


The result is that he will lead a right-wing government in which, based on this political survival focus, he will likely acquiesce to demands by both the extreme Kahanist elements as well as the Ultra-Orthodox parties in order to buy some level of legislative protection against expected formal indictments within the next 6-12 months.


Netanyahu’s personal agenda is important to consider when analyzing the election results and future developments. A week after the elections, here are some areas to watch as the various parties move forward.


Will Blue & White Last?

Israeli political history is littered with centrist parties that flamed out after a term or two in the Knesset. Notable examples are the Democratic Movement for Change that helped put Menachem Begin in power in 1977, Shinui in 2003 and Kadima of Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert from 2005-2015.  Now we have Blue & White, with an impressive 35 seats in their first Knesset run.


The party has only been in existence for two months and the top five people on the Knesset list represent left of center, center and right of center points of view, including the current chair of the Histadrut trade union for a little socialist seasoning. Can Benny Gantz lead them as a united party with a coherent voice or will it quickly splinter into smaller groupings, joining the trash heap of failed centrist efforts?


Where Does the Left Go From Here?

There is no question that the Israeli left took a beating last Tuesday, especially the Labor Party, which was poorly led and completely cannibalized by Blue & White, dropping from 18 to six seats.  There needs to be some serious thinking within both Labor and Meretz in terms of next steps, both separately and perhaps together.


Labor in particular is confronted with the following dilemma: Do they aspire to return to be a party that can defeat the Likud in the post-Bibi era, or do they instead see themselves as part of a new effort to build a Jewish-Arab party that will occupy a broader space on the left? To address the first option, whether one expects Blue & White to sustain itself to the next election is part of the calculation. And if they splinter, could an alliance with one of the remaining pieces be possible.  When considering the second option, serious thought must be given to whether to attempt to engage with existing Arab parties or seek new partners in the community, possibly among municipal office holders. One promising data point in this regard; a rise from 17% to 31% of the Arab voters supported Zionist parties, including an estimated 40,000 votes for Meretz alone.


What is Next Politically for the Israeli Arab Community?

The difference between 2015 and 2019 is indeed the tale of two elections. Thanks in part to a well-funded Get Out the Vote effort in the Arab community in which Ameinu was involved and partially due to the establishment of the Joint List of all of the Arab parties, the voter turnout in 2015 was 64%, an increase of over 9% from two years earlier. Last week the drop was even worse than expected, with reports of a 49% turnout, the lowest in recent memory. There are any number of reasons being cited: Alienation caused by the passage of the Nation State Bill, Bibi‘s anti-Arab incitement that began on day one of the election campaign, unhappiness with the breakup of the Joint List, a boycott called by certain elements in the community and the election day intimidation by the Likud with their polling place not-so-hidden camera gambit.


This community makes up 16% of the electorate, which translates roughly to 19 seats in the Knesset if Arabs voted at the same level, over 70%, as the Jewish voters. In municipal elections, voting levels in Arab cities reaches 80% and higher.  For meaningful change to take place on this front, the Zionist parties have to accept, if not fully embrace, that they will have non-Zionist Arab coalition partners just as Bibi has non-Zionist ultra-orthodox partners. In a pre-election poll, 80% of Arab voters said that they want their politicians to be part of a future government. It is time for both Jewish and Arab leaders to figure out the best formula for true political cooperation.


Bottom Line – Is There Hope?

There are political analysts who have categorically stated that the Israeli electorate is moving to the right and becoming more religious, leaving no room for a center lead government in the future. They point not only to the re-election of Netanyahu but also his more extreme positions, along with those of his coalition partners.


However, Blue & White, while still be in its early stages of existence, constitutes an alliance of left, right and center views, including both ultra-orthodox and Druze female members of Knesset, all in one party. Such an entity, if it proves itself in the opposition, could be an attractive leader of a replacement coalition in the not-so-far-off post-Bibi era. If coupled with a new, attractive Jewish-Arab party to the left, such a development could even pry away ultra-orthodox parties from their Likud partners. Those parties sat in Labor governments in the past, and share many views on domestic and economic issues.


Creative thinking and grassroots efforts could yield a different government in the not so distant future.

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