Israeli public preps for elections: Just ‘don’t mention the war!’

Election season has begun, and the Israeli public desperately wants one thing: escapism. 

Last night, after the Israeli election was set for September 4, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that I thought summed up the public mood, which the main “opposition” candidates have been and will be catering to. The T-shirt showed a comically wide-eyed, frightened John Cleese and his classic line from Fawlty Towers: “Don’t mention the war!”

Perfect. The prime minister has the whole world scared to death that he’s going to bomb Iran, every poll shows that a great majority of Israelis don’t want him to do it – but it’s not an issue in Israeli politics and it almost certainly won’t be in the campaign. People don’t want to talk about it or hear about it. They sit silently as Netanyahu drips the fear of another Holocaust into their brains, softening them up for the war he’s waiting for the opportunity to start, then they go on about their business, a little more tenderized than before.  Except for the marginal left and a couple of rogue ex-Mossad and ex-Shin Bet chiefs, nobody challenges this “duty” of every Jew and every non-anti-Semitic gentile to choose war over a nuclear Iran.

Look at how the opposition and the public have reacted since ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin accused Netanyahu and Barak last Friday of being “messianics” who can’t be trusted to deal reasonably with Iran. None of the three candidates purporting to offer a centrist alternative to Bibi – neither Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich nor Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) – grabbed the flag Diskin raised. His words, like those of Meir Dagan before him, caused a huge storm in the media, even overseas – but didn’t have the tiniest effect on the Likud and right wing’s control of the political arena. A Haaretz-Dialog poll published yesterday showed Netanyahu being more popular than Mofaz, Yacimovich and Lapid combined. It also showed him enjoying 2-1 public support against Diskin and his accusations.

In their hearts, Israelis would prefer that their government not start a war with Iran, but if somebody, such as the prime minister, tells them he’s going to do it anyway, they’ll go along. When push comes to shove, they’ll support it. The Israeli public is so weak, so intimidated by anybody who might stand up and accuse them of cowardice and treason if they don’t nod their heads to the proposal of the day for screwing the Arabs. They’re putty in the hands of a guy like Netanyahu.

The “opposition” leaders know this, so they run from any issue in which they would have to position themselves to the left of Bibi (since right-of-Bibi is, of course, already overcrowded). They don’t challenge him on Iran, they don’t challenge him on the occupation, they don’t have anything to say about what most everyone else in the world thinks of when they hear the word “Israel” – war-mongering, trampling on Palestinians, militant Jewish fanaticism. These are the things that define Israel, the whole world knows it, and you won’t hear about any of this in this election campaign.

What will you hear about? Drafting the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and high prices. These are the hot-button issues in the country today, this is what people want to hear about, this is what it’s safe for both voters and politicians to scream and yell about – because it’s not right wing and it’s not left wing, it’s consensus, nobody will call you a coward or a traitor, everybody agrees, the goddamn haredim should serve the country like everybody else and these prices are too goddamn high.

Again, perfect. This is what Israelis really want, this is what Netanyahu, Mofaz, Yacimovich and Lapid are going to promise to deliver – and everybody knows everyone’s jerking each other off because nobody’s going to draft the Haredim – they won’t go and nobody’s going to make them go – and nobody’s going to lower prices, either, because this country’s economy is a piggish capitalist one and Netanyahu, who everybody knows will win the election, is the last guy on earth who wants to change that.

So the issues shaping up as the central ones of the campaign are not just trivial, they’re not  issues at all because in Israel 2012, nothing can or will be done about them.

As for the real issues, it’s not that there’s an elephant in the room that everyone’s pretending not to see, it’s that there are several elephants – war with Iran, the occupation, war with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and/or Turkey, the rise of McCarthyism, the dread that Israel doesn’t have a future – which will continue to go unmentioned in polite, mainstream company during this supposed season of decision.

Boy, what a vibrant democracy we live in.