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How Nearly Everyone Got the Election So Wrong

Looking at the prevailing narratives about Israel

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Early in an otherwise compelling and exhaustive look at The Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in last week’s New Yorker, David Remnick framed Bennett’s story and the Israeli election this way:

The Israeli elections will be held on January 22nd. Netanyahu is almost sure to keep his position. But that is not the central story of this political moment. Naftali Bennett is. His party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), represents the merger and reinvigoration of two older religious parties, and it is rapidly gaining ground. Many expect a third-place finish, behind Labor, which would be a remarkable achievement; second place is not inconceivable.

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead.

Just weeks earlier, J Street Prez Jeremy Ben-Ami, after lamenting–in great detail on the Washington Post opinion page–the “meteoric” rise of Bennett and the Israeli right, also threw some serious shade at the right’s so-called enablers:

This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country who refuse to question Israel’s policies as the two-state solution slips through our fingers.

This idea–proven false yesterday–didn’t come out of thin air, polling showed Bennett’s “meteoric” rise as a serious trend. But it was a trend that many of us got caught up in and from which we divined much false wisdom.

Part of this seems to be rooted in the fact that we–at our own peril–ignore Israel’s complexity in favor of its crudeness and worry aloud about its supposed infatuation with hari-kari instead of its impressive knack for self-preservation. There are still plenty of reasons why yesterday’s election will not allay the fears of many who are rightly skeptical of the future considering the depth of the challenges facing Israel (check back with us later for that). Others will no doubt argue that yesterday’s election represents a step toward the abyss.

But for now, the real disconnect seems to be the way in the narrative is being presented. (I’m sure I’ve got some declamatory sentences that I’d like to unwrite.)

It’s only natural that if you ask an Israeli settler what the most important issue is, he or she will probably tell you that it’s the settlement enterprise. The fact that 96% of Israelis are not settlers remains very easily forgotten when settlers seemingly get 96% of our attention. The same goes for the obsession with Israel’s enemies. These are huge factors, but not the only factors.

New Poll Puts Jewish Home as Second-Largest Party [Times of Israel]
Preserving the Two-State Solution [WaPo]
The Party Faithful [TNY]
Quick Israeli Reactions [Atlantic]

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Cool_Romeo says:

As a great Jewish poet once said, a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.

Ben Ami, and to a lesser extent Remnick, makes his living by emphasizing the narrative that only brilliant Americans can save those rightward lurching Israelis. What do you expect them to say?

    oaklandj says:

    If you think that’s what J Street is about, then that poet’s wise words apply to you, too.

      Cool_Romeo says:

      They say they know what is in Israel’s best interests and want to push Israel in that direction.

      Others, like myself, recognize that Israelis are among the world’s most active participants in their own democracy and government, are well informed, and must live more directly with the consequences of their own decisions. As a result, I am happy to leave it up to the Israelis to determine what is best for them.

        oaklandj says:

        Leaving it up to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine what’s best for them is what got us where we are today. Conflicts resolve when there’s a mediator; if you wouldn’t want the US to be the mediator, which country would you prefer?

          Cool_Romeo says:

          I don’t mind the US being a mediator and neither do the Israelis. They have consistently expressed interest in negotiations.

          oaklandj says:

          Expressing interest in negotiations but setting conditions that are impossible to meet is a passive-aggressive way of expressing the *lack* of interest in negotiations. Something both Palestinians and, recently, Israelis, have both done.

ginzy1 says:

Let me give a much more concise explanation of the Israeli elections. More than anything else, Israelis rejected the economic / social messianism of Labor’s Yechimovich (yes I know she got 15 seats but be patient), the political / security / diplomatic messianism of Tzippy Livni / HaTenu’ah & the remnants of Kadima, and the extreme right wing messianism of Otzma L’Yisrael.

With all due respect to Remnick (which in sum is very little) he understands squat about Bennet and HaBayit HaYehudi. For the most part (yes, there are exceptions in the list) HaBayit HaYehudi will be cautiously pragmatic with a touch of idealism and eyes wide open regarding security issues. It is Remnick who is the delusional ideologue.

Yechimovich set the tone for Labor’s campaign by focusing exclusively on the economic / social issues from her perspective as a self-described “social democrat” (defined as a European style welfare statist) but her rhetoric was soaked with the rabid anti-capitalistic demagoguery of her Communist roots (she was raised in a Communist voting household and she herself was known to be a Hadash (which includes the remnants of the Stalinist wing of the ICP) voter in the 1990s. This resulted in Labor falling from the mid-20’s at the outset of the campaign to the 15 seats they got. And in typical Labor fashion, her head is now on the chopping block (the Hebrew phrase is that the knives are drawn) and she knows it.

Lapid by contrast is a lot closer economically to Bibi and Bennett. All three want to boost the middle class not by the redistributionist rhetoric with which Yechimovich foamed at the mouth, but by getting rid of crony capitalism, and excessive concentration of economic power in a few families, both of which are products of the Labor party’s heritage of statist control of the economy. All want to reduce housing costs by increasing supply.

The Israeli election should be a wake-up call to those who blindly believe what they read in the Western MSM about Israel even in the allegedly august & ostensibly omniscient NY Times or New Yorker or The Atlantic or The New Republic or NPR or the BBC or …. Ha’aretz

If you really want to understand Israel, learn Hebrew and read a variety of Israeli publications on line. And keep in mind a very fundamental law of nature:

Political correctness is inversely proportional to factual correctness.

You can fill in the rest of the equation yourself.


Jerusalem / Efrat

mishamb says:

I think it’s easy to understand why so many got the results of this election so wrong: reporting on Israel stinks. This is certainly true for Western media and also for the English-language Israeli media the Western reporters depend on for their stories.

Both rely heavily on comments from government sources, often unnamed, and on institutional sources from academia, think tanks and NGOs. Rarely does the reporting venture into the markets and towns where most Israelis live and work. If a real person does somehow manage to slip into a story, they are typically on the ideological fringe.

When polls are used, they are used in a superficial way to bolster per-existing prejudices. This is exacerbated by the reality that most journalists don’t actually understand polls (I’ve been a journalist for 20 years) and so don’t know what they are looking at or what to make of a poll.

The “Times of Israel” was a notable exception in this election. In one story, it actually to a more in-depth look. If you put prejudices away and read that story, the outlines of these election results where there. There were a large number of undecided voters and most of them planned to vote for center left parties. What TOI didn’t do, but what’s important to make polls useful, is then to go back and re-contact those polled to flesh out their opinions.

Instead of good journalism, we get lazy journalism about Israel and stories that reflect the writers hopes and fears. Sullivan dreams of a theocratic Israel because such a state would justify the hate he already holds for it and its Jewish citizens. Remnick, as others here noted, believes that only U.S. Jews can save Israel from itself, so his stories must show Israel needs saving. Reporting on Israel then, tells us much more about the reporter and his or her fears and prejudices than it tells us about Israel.


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How Nearly Everyone Got the Election So Wrong

Looking at the prevailing narratives about Israel

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