Israel’s center-left must restore concept of truth

Even if Blue and White leader Benny Gantz manages to establish a governing coalition, he has a long way to go toward conquering the hearts of a divided Israeli public.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, delivers a statement before his party faction meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 19, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

meretz, likud, israeli politics, israeli elections, benny gantz, benjamin netanyahu

Sep 19, 2019

The woman in the red dress holding up her elderly mother with one hand while the other clutched her cell phone was clearly uneasy. She was next in line for ballot box 1.1 at the community center of Even Yehuda, a town of 14,000 in the Sharon region north of Tel Aviv. “Help me,” she pleaded. “I have to go in in a minute and I don’t know who to vote for,” she told the person on the phone. The guard was politely urging her to end her conversation and go in to vote. “OK, OK,” she said, shrugging. “I wanted to vote for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu but my daughters are making me vote for [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz.”

An outsider overhearing the conversation would have thought that he had walked into the midst of elections for the country’s premiership or presidency. It’s Netanyahu or Benny. It’s a choice between the corrupt guy everyone knows and the new guy with an unblemished record but lack of political experience.

The fruit vendor at the market in the nearby town of Netanya, trying to convince his friend to “give Gantz a chance,” asked, “What do you prefer, an unripe peach or a rotten one?” A young woman selecting fruit at the stall piped up, “Unripe, of course. It can ripen. The rotten one goes in the garbage.”

The virtual tie in the Sept. 17 election results between the right-wing bloc and the center-left parties is not an expression of ideological differences between advocates of the greater Land of Israel and the peace camp. No one talked about the occupation during the campaign. Those in line to cast their ballots were not heard arguing for or against the government’s economic policies. Even the chilling report that surfaced days before the election about Netanyahu’s decision to launch war on Gaza without consulting the country’s top defense echelons or convening the security cabinet, a move foiled at the last minute by the attorney general, did not shock voters.

The lies Netanyahu spread about his opponents, such as the claim that Gantz, a former army chief of staff, had leaked a false story that Israel allegedly planted listening devices around the White House resonated loudly. His people disseminated the lies far and wide on social media. As Eva Illouz wrote in Haaretz on Sept. 12, lying has become so commonplace that few seem to care anymore. The example she used was the lie Netanyahu spread that Jerusalem's grand mufti was the one who convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews. George Orwell wrote in 1943 that “Nazi theory … specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. … If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened." The British writer who went on to compose “1984” added, “This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”

The men and women who voted for center-left Blue and White or one of the smaller parties to its left presumably viewed Netanyahu’s inciting, frightening messages of recent months with greater skepticism than did ultra-Orthodox and right-wing voters. Adding those who voted for Yisrael Beitenu, led by Netanyahu’s nemesis Avigdor Liberman, to those who did not buy into Netanyahu’s lies, Sept. 17 could well prove a historic turning point. If a center-left government led by Gantz and his party co-chair Yair Lapid is eventually formed, it will face some hard work to rehabilitate the standing of the truth, wean the public off its addiction to Netanyahu and, above all, heal the rifts that Netanyahu created among Israelis.

The differences between the electoral districts of Even Yehuda, divided along ethnic and religious lines, give away the weak points of the center-left. When comparing the votes cast at ballot box 1.1 to the distribution of votes at other polling places in the small town, it's hard to believe that they are all located in the same small area.

Some 33% of the 419 voters at the community center voted for Netanyahu’s Likud and some 39% for Blue and White, a gap of only 6%. Labor-Gesher, Yisrael Beitenu, Yamina, the Democratic Camp and the ultra-Orthodox parties had to make do with the crumbs. The Joint List did not get a single vote. When the votes for the entire town were in, Blue and White had won a 52.74% majority compared with only 20% for the Likud, a gap of 30%, five times that in ballot box 1.1. In the March 2015 elections, the leftist bloc headed by the Zionist Camp left Netanyahu’s supporters far behind. At ballot box 1.1., on the other hand, the Likud won.

Even Yehuda was a remote neighborhood in the north of the Sharon District until it was discovered by middle-class Israelis seeking to own a detached house with a yard. The town’s social-economic index climbed in 2015, above sought-after towns closer to Tel Aviv such as Hod Hasharon, Givatayim and Kiryat Ono. Still, Netanyahu managed to secure the support of Even Yehuda’s longtime residents. His incitement against the left, his campaign of ethnic incitement and his deepening alliance with the ultra-Orthodox did the job.

Otzma Yehudit on the radical right did not pass the Knesset entry threshold, wasting the votes in favor of that party. On the other hand, Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu apparently got nine seats and is likely to propose Gantz for the formation of the next government. If Gantz ends up in the premiership, and if he would like to stay there more than one term, he will have to find a way into the hearts of Even Yehuda and win over the support of these more traditional and religious residents, so that the voters of ballot box 1.1 will believe next time around that Israel could do without Netanyahu and the Likud.

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