Elections in Israel
Bennett's Emergence—And Obama's?
Bernard Avishai on the emergence of the right-wing Israeli politician Naftali Bennett.
There is a lot of talk about Israeli ultra-rightists gaining ground in Tuesday’s election, also about the emergence of the hardest-liner-du-jour, Naftali Bennett, and his "Jewish Home" party, built on the residuals of the old Gush Emunim settlers’ movement. But you read between the lines of David Remnick's trenchant new piece, or just watch Bennett emerge, and you realize they don't make "ultras" the way they used to. Which means—why not go out on a limb here?—that Israeli voters may hold more surprises for us, and for Jewish Homists, than most pundits imagine.
I have covered every Israeli election since 1973, back when Gush Emunim got off the ground. By 1975, mobs of fiery-eyed acolytes of Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and Hebron-based settlements screamed "Jew-boy" at the shuttling Henry Kissinger—much the way Alex Jones screamed at Piers Morgan the other night. You understood that ultra-rightist meant an aggressive ideology: a conception of right grounded in Torah revelation, after the younger Rabbi Kook; a sense of Jewish history as divine self-justification against Christian persecution; an ideal of Zionist settlement as messianic and ongoing, a kind of complement to Halacha, indeed, a commitment to a Jewish state of Halacha. Arabs were current tokens for ancient biblical figures on the landscape, Edomites, if not Amalakites. (Look them up.)
To get Bennett, however, you have to get, not Alex Jones, but Paul Ryan: a man who seems curiously younger than his years, though his words imply world-weariness; his eyes conveying sincerity, fidelity, a trace of piety, but nothing so harsh as to preclude soft rock—also, perhaps, that glint of deviousness when he is delivering a smile for a campaign poster, his little "tell" only reinforcing your belief in his incorruptibility, like the enthusiastic kid-brother who, lacking a killer-instinct, can't stop his mouth from smiling when delivering a punchline—the kind of guy, in fact, who would organize a cousins club. The psychologist William James knew the breed. He called such people, with devastating irony, "healthy-minded."
You see, what is most disturbing about the Bennett phenomenon is his lack of imagination. His illusion is that he has no illusions. He reads biographies, he dreams of great men—a vicarious pleasure, presumably. For he stands for nothing but the defense of either received wisdom or the political (i.e., geographical) landscape he was born into.
Ryan came of age with Reagan’s disciples and tax-cuts. Bennett came of age with Begin’s disciples and settlements. He didn’t want to be a politician. He wanted to be in the army. “I… asked if anyone would volunteer to clean the washrooms,” Bennett’s elementary school teacher recalls; “He was the first. He was a nice boy… knowing how to behave in the right places. He didn’t excel in school. You could never say he was a star.” What is monstrous about Bennett now is not his mind but the forty-six-year-old status quo this forty-year-old man sweetly, bravely reflects.
The median age of Jewish Israelis is now thirty. That means a near majority will have done the army between, say, 1993 and now, from the beginning of Oslo to the worst of the Al-Aqsa Intifada to the Gaza violence—also from the origins of Netscape to the globalization of Teva Pharmaceuticals. You will have never lived in an Israel where the nightly weather maps did not present a kind of Revisionist Zionist dream-palace, satellite pictures in which temperatures are listed for Ariel and Mt. Hermon as casually as for Haifa; where Ramallah and Nablus are neatly effaced.
Even if you were a child of the last wave of immigration, from the former Soviet Union, you would now be part of a youngish Hebrew world of smart jobs, small children, TV satire, Shabbat with the family, and the odd meal out; as with all democratic electorates, there are simplified histories, dumb prejudices, and personality contests:
History? Holocaust. Land? Ours. Faith? Rabbis. Values? Army. Moslems? Killers. Palestinians? Fuck 'em. America? Standing ovations. Europe? Anti-Semites. UN? Hypocrites. Leftists? Arrogant. Settlers? Zionists. Education? Teach the above. Bibi? Our bastard. Obama? (I'll get back to this.)
Israeli politics, in other words, is no longer the tribal affair we once reported on, which has become the stuff of those TV satires: brainy-pedigreed Ashkenazis, Mizrahi lumpen, Russian Putinists, sponging Orthodox messianists, and Arab nostalgic la-la-landers. Yes, there are still pockets of ideological and identity politics: poor Moroccan Orthodox for Shas, Hebrew University professors for Meretz. (Guilty as charged.)
But for half of the electorate, young people—political swingers, as it were—choices reflect a flickering of impressions and half thought-through syllogisms: “We have no partner; Abbas can’t be trusted; anyway, Hamas is getting stronger; the problem is not our settlements; they always hated us; Olmert offered everything and they said no; it's not theft if they're trying to kill you"—you get the idea.
This is the “consensus” Likud peddles, AIPAC amplifies, Adelson bankrolls—and Bennett—this hybrid of yeshiva "learning," California hip, and Raanana’s "modern" orthodoxy—is perfecting the sale of. You hear this creepiness everywhere, even from (increasingly young) journalists in key radio and television newscasts, who ask cynical questions or just don’t have the depth to follow-up when Likud ministers snow them. Nobody wants to appear a fool, drawing outside the lines.
So young people want some fresh face to tell them what they already think and yet seem to be proposing something new, preferably with numbers attached, so they can assume somebody else has sweated the details. Bennett has made a cool four to five million on his "exit." He speaks of annexing Area C, 60 percent of the West Bank, and offering its "55,000 Palestinians" citizenship, which is about as realistic a solution to the present danger as the Ryan budget (or, for that matter, Herman Cain's 9-9-9). They're buying it, at least for now.
Which brings me back to Obama. The thing about Likud’s consensus is that, though not much more than skin deep, it can’t be changed from within. It is hard enough to fight xenophobia, or advance the hope of reciprocal decency, among young people who’ve experienced national conflict, punctuated by terror, their whole adult lives. It is doubly hard when strength in defense of nothing fancier than what-is means “keeping” world-historical goodies like Jerusalem's Old City and avoiding armed confrontations with, well, the likes of Bennett.
No, the peace camp, from Livni left, needs an even bigger fear to peddle than those of the market leaders. There is the “neighborhood” and Iran. But there is also the fear of being unable to remain a part of the West. The peace camp needs to make young people believe—Livni, to her credit, is hammering away at almost by herself in this election—that isolation, along with associated economic misery, is around the corner; that, as Ehud Olmert has chipped-in from the sidelines (also in conversation with Daily Beast's Dan Ephron), the Israeli budget is headed for a crash owing to military adventurism with Iran and the opportunity cost of the conflict is unbearable.
Anyway, there is no way of making the threat of global isolation real for young Israelis until the U.S. seems poised to join the globe. More and more since 2008, Obama has been dismissed by Likud politicians as a kind of passing irritation, the result of Americans and Nobel committees over-indulging on political correctness—anyway, something that a strong dose of Bibi has taken care of. Young Israelis have not really digested Obama's reelection yet any more than Fox News.
Bennett's story, therefore, is a lagging indicator. Yes, we all know Obama’s real opinion of Netanyahu and Likud-world, which Peter Beinart and Jeffrey Goldberg have ferretted out in recent weeks. We don’t know what, if anything, of this opinion might yet get translated into American foreign policy.
In recent days there have been febrile rumors of Obama coming to Jerusalem this summer to celebrate Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday, with Tony Blair- and European-endorsed principles for a settlement in tow. There is stronger than usual language from Washington about E-1. The appointment of Chuck Hagel, with Chuck Schumer falling in line, has led the news here. Gaza is quiet; and Morsi seems to be doing what he can to placate Washington. King Abdullah of Jordan speaks of a renewed peace effort. The last poll Haaretz is legally allowed to run before Tuesday shows the center-left closing the gap, 63-57 seats, with a sixth of the electorate undecided.
I am not suggesting Netanyahu will lose; but something in the air is subtly changing, probably too little and too late. Still, if Tuesday produces any kind of upset, including the center-left exceeding current expectations, it will attest to the stealth power of the American presidency to utterly transform the Israeli political landscape. One can only hope Obama is paying attention, not to Bennett’s emergence, but to his own.