Given the relentless mainstream media onslaught demonizing Bibi Netanyahu—and "Bibi's Israel"—as anti-peace, anti-democratic, anti-women, and downright "suicidal" and dangerous, many Americans and especially many American Jews are dismayed to see Netanyahu's consistent lead in the public opinion polls. "How can Israelis vote for that man?" one friend asked. "Bibi's Israel is not my Israel," another one said. Beyond my allergy to defining any complex, dynamic, contradictory, democratic country by any one individual, it is worth exploring Netanyahu's continuing dominance of Israeli politics. I will not vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, especially since his Likud party overlooked Avigdor Lieberman’s legal troubles and moral turpitude in creating Likud-Beteinu. But I understand why many Israelis will vote for Netanyahu, including many who, according to a recent poll, endorse a two-state solution. Ultimately, in a world of difficult choices wherein politics is the art of the possible, Bibi is the status quo king, the politician delivering that which appears attainable.
A vote for Bibi is not a Herzlian dream-infused vote. It is not a Jabotinskyite moral statement. And it is not a Peresian leap of faith. It is a sigh-filled, world-weary vote. It is a best-of-bad-alternatives vote. It is a things-could-be-a-lot-worse defensive vote. And it is a post-traumatic-stress vote, a vote encouraged by the Palestinian political culture of demonization, Hamas calls for Israel’s extermination, Iran’s threatening rush toward nuclearization, world public opinion’s enabling of delegitimization, and the growing progressive chorus of repudiation.
In the 1980s, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury offered a tour of Ronald Reagan’s brain. The cartoon reporter Roland Hedley III discovered an overactive “hypothalamus, the deep dark coils of human aggression,” “many” frayed nerves in “the left hemisphere of Reagan’s cerebrum, traditionally …the home of logic, analysis and critical thinking,” and “The Fornix, Reagan’s memory vault, storehouse of images of an idyllic America. With 5 cent Cokes, Burma Shave signs, and hard-working White people.” A similar tour of the Bibi Voters’ brains would not find such an overactive hypothalamus, which regulates basic bodily functions including appetite, thirst and sleep—these voters have a reasonable, natural, appetite for quiet, a thirst for normalcy, and are willing to sleepwalk through some of the knottiest problems facing them. They have some frayed nerves in the left hemisphere of the cerebrum and in the Medulla Oblongata which controls automatic functions, instincts. They fear big, bold peace-making moves, and are running on instinct because they feel burned by their neighbors and the world. And that is because their Fornix, their memory vault, is a storehouse of images of past oppression and more recent aggression, with Ashkenazi memories of European anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, and Sephardi memories of the dhimmi status and periodic riots that were a natural part of life under Islamic rule, culminating in the Great Expulsion of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab lands. These long-term Jewish memories mix with more recent, short-term Israeli memories of Yasir Arafat turning from negotiations back to terror, and Israeli peacemaking attempts from Oslo to the Gaza withdrawal yielding waves of suicide bombers and salvos of Qassam rocket fire—within Israel’s internationally accepted “Green line” borders, not just in the disputed territories.
Bibi Netanyahu’s bid for re-election rests with these voters on three solid foundations. First, he is one of the key architects of Israel’s current economic prosperity—and impressive stability when the American economy crashed in 2008. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saddled Netanyahu with the Treasury Ministry, knowing that if the economy tanked, Bibi would be blamed, yet if the economy soared, there would be enough credit to go around for Sharon and Netanyahu. The social protests showed that the privatization plan Bibi implemented needs tweaking, and most Israelis want a more humane, equitable, economic and social order. But most Israelis are enjoying a level of consumption that seemed inconceivable just twenty years ago. Few are willing to give up their cars or their computers to return to the sourpuss semi-socialism that preceded Israel’s emergences as the world’s miraculous Start-up Nation.
The stability Bibi delivered economically and even socially—the protests were peaceful and constructive, no threat to the mass Israeli shopping spree—has been paralleled politically and militarily. Even many Bibi critics who would never vote for him admire his handiwork during the recent Gaza conflagration with Hamas. Unlike Ehud Olmert, a bolder but more irresponsible gambler who wagered on two limited wars and a sweeping peace offer, Bibi played the Gaza conflict cautiously. The result was a subtle triumph: Israel degraded Hamas’s weaponry, tunnels, and military infrastructure dramatically without getting mired in a mess with no exit strategy. Bibi played it cool, and showed that Israelis do not always win the military battles but lose the diplomatic skirmishes afterwards.
Yes, stability easily becomes stasis, then stagnation. But while most critics are prognosticating pessimistically and prematurely declaring the two-state solution doomed, Bibi voters appreciate the quiet after the traumas of 2000 to 2005. Most can support both a two-state solution and Bibi because they believe in enjoying some quiet in order to progress on the Palestinian question. If in the future a Palestinian state emerges, Bibi’s period will be seen as an essential transition phase, a time when even the right-wing prime minister normalized talking about a two-state solution, and, conditions on the ground stabilized, the political spectrum narrowed, while the consensus around leaving the Palestinians to run their own affairs built slowly, gradually, admittedly reluctantly, but possibly inexorably.
The Netanyahu voter is also grading Bibi on a curve. Bibi may be called “Empty” among Israeli politics’ Seven Dwarves, 2013, for not living up to his rhetoric and promises. But that might beat: Avi(gdor Lieberman), who is “Sleazy” – enough said; Shelly (Yachimovich), who is “Naieve-y” for dilly-dallying before articulating Labor’s foreign policy, as if Israel does not live in a tough neighborhood; Naftali (Bennett), who is “Smoothy,” for luring young secular voters into his national religious camp; Eli (Yishai), who is “Greedy” for defining Shas most as a grabby stipend-demanding machine; Tzippi (Livni), who is “Flighty” for abruptly resigning from politics and as abruptly returning; and Yair-i (Lapid), who is “Happy” although possibly a tad dopey, both celebrity pol and son-of-even-greater-celebrity pol.
So, yes, I wish Bibi voters developed their Occiptal Lobes more—which control vision, because we need more faith, hope and long-term strategy. And I wish Bibi voters stimulated their Corpus Callosum, the neural bridge connecting the two hemispheres, because we need less polarization and more unity. But I understand—what may be the key word in understanding Israel’s Election 2013—their shikulim—their balances, their considerations. In a complicated world, in a hostile region, sticking with the guy who has already delivered more than three years of stability and relative quiet may be the most logical, reasonable, reassuring and ultimately radical, peace-making, epoch-changing step to take.