How did Benjamin Netanyahu do it? How could a prime minister facing near-certain indictment in three corruption cases — a man who provokes exhaustion, despair and anger among so many Israelis — win yet another national election?
Naturally, there are a lot of reasons. But the clue to one very basic reason can be found in a campaign video that Netanyahu shared on Twitter on the day before the vote — and in comparing the still-preliminary results of Tuesday’s election with those from the previous election in 2015.
The numbers show that the parties that have promised to support Netanyahu received 65 of 120 seats in the Knesset. The same parties earned 67 seats last time, though one of them — the small Kulanu party — kept a distance from Netanyahu in 2015. For all practical purposes, there’s been virtually no change in the size of the crowds inside the two big Israeli political tents, one labeled “Netanyahu,” the other one “anyone but Netanyahu.” Trying to set up a small tent between them has gone out of fashion.
Now let’s look at that video he tweeted. The text above the video says, “Vote Likud and stop a government of the left! Our answer is at the voting booth.” The clip itself shows a cross-section of Israelis — men and women, ranging from their 20s to old age, of different complexions. They all look downcast.
Over their images, the audio and captions reproduce denigrating comments that prominent Israelis identified with the left have made about the right, reaching back to the most famous one, by an entertainer at a Labor election rally in 1981. He labeled Likud voters with a derogatory term for Jews from North Africa, and says that in the army, “they serve in the sentry box” — the military task with the least prestige — “if they go to the army at all.” In the cultural context of universal military service, it means they’re poor material, shirkers, not real Israelis.
Then, from a 2015 campaign rally comes an infamous remark by a Tel Aviv poet, who says that the country is run by a “small group of delusional people” with primitive religious views — words that were widely taken as insult against everyone on the right, especially those whose families came from North Africa or the Middle East. The clip’s most recent insults come from this campaign.
Then the music shifts. The same people appear again, smiling, at voting booths, casting ballots for the Likud. There are no mentions of the economy, defense or territory. It portrays voting for the Likud as standing up straight against your detractors.
It was one election video of many, but it portrayed a divide in Israeli politics that goes back to the country’s early years — a divide that Netanyahu’s opponents failed to overcome.
In very broad strokes: The people who established the state of Israel in 1948 were mostly Jews from Europe, mostly secularists and mostly from the political parties of the left. In the early years, waves of Jewish refugees arrived, from the displaced-person camps of Europe and from Muslim countries. Many of the founders looked down on them, on their culture, on their lack of the “correct” ideology. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa sometimes faced pressure to give up religious observance. Government efforts to spread the population throughout the country put many of them in poor, outlying towns.
Menachem Begin, a former prime minister and founder of the party that became the Likud, was an outsider for different reasons. The founders saw him as a quasi-fascist and former terrorist, unworthy of being a partner in any government. His injured, furious honor became his personality. It resonated with the all those who felt left out and disrespected.
The line between left and right was partly ideological. But it was also partly between the tribe that implicitly felt the country belonged to them, and the tribe that explicitly felt excluded. Ideology has faded, particularly on the left. The emotional divide has faded less.
It’s a bit paradoxical. The right has been in power for most of the last 42 years. But the other tribe dominates the elites of the economy, cultural life and academia. So the Likud is a long-ruling party that talks like insurgent populists. Netanyahu, aficionado of pricey cigars, the wealthy son of a professor, has outdone Begin at stoking bitterness.
Netanyahu’s main challenger, the former general Benny Gantz, made every effort to attract Likud voters. He insisted he was neither right nor left, but spoke in the hawkish tone of the right. But his manner of speech, his biography, his style subliminally identified him as part of the tribe of the founders. In the end, the election rearranged the division of parliamentary seats within each of the two big tents, but left Netanyahu’s majority intact.
In real terms, the consequences of Netanyahu staying in power are likely to be disastrous. The glimmer of hope is that any potential indictments against him may force early elections.
But for those elections to produce different results, the left has to do more than attack Netanyahu and more even than to simply present better policies. It has to tackle the long-overdue task of facing the old reasons for resentments and create a much more inclusive feeling of what it means to be Israeli.