The silent majority of complacency: Israel’s right-wing voters

They’re not overtly racist, violent or angry. They’re not worried by the prospect of another intifada or war. They’re not singing about the economy, but they’re not crying either. More than anything, they see no alternative to Netanyahu. They’re the right-wing mainstream.

The 20-kilometer road from “Israel proper” to the West Bank settlement of Ariel used to be narrow and slightly risky, running past a few Palestinian villages where teenagers might want to throw a rock at a passing car with yellow Israeli plates. But no more; now there’s a wide, sleek, protected highway that doesn’t pass anywhere near a Palestinian village, and on whose lanes not a single green Palestinian license plate can be seen. No, the status quo is not static.

Ariel itself seems much bigger than I remember, with wide boulevards swooping up and down the rim of the hilly city. City? It looks like a city, but there are only 20,000 people living here. This must be the biggest town of 20,000 in the world.

The billboards give an idea of how people here will be voting on Tuesday.

“It’s us or them – only Likud, only Netanyahu.”

“We’re through apologizing – Jewish Home – Bennett.”

“Tachlis (Bottom line), Liberman – Capital punishment for terrorists – Umm el-Fahm to Palestine.”

“Yahad – the Torah-true Right.”

On the second-to-last Friday afternoon before the election, at a local shopping center, Nadav Oshri, 67, a pensioner who worked in hospital maintenance and has lived here since 1980, tells me he’s voting Likud as always. He agrees with the central message of Likud and Jewish Home that the right wing’s rival, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union slate, is “leftist” and “anti-Zionist,” pointing out that they want to divide the land with the Palestinians.

Why does he prefer Likud over Jewish Home? “First, I’m not a religious Jew, I’m traditional. And I like things to be done in a way that people will accept. I don’t like Bennett’s aggressiveness.”

Bella Olshansky, 53, a librarian married to a factory worker, Russian immigrants who’ve been living in Ariel for 19 years, tells me, “Bibi is weak – push him and he’ll give in.” What about Liberman? “We don’t need separate parties for the Russians or any other group.” Though secular, Olshansky is voting for Bennett. “I want somebody from the hard right. We moved to Ariel because of ideology, not for the lower price of housing, or not only for that.”

Then she says something I heard repeatedly from the people I interviewed in Ariel, Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University – “normal” settlers, the non-professional middle class, Russian immigrants, elderly Mizrahim and the moderate national religious, the silent majority behind the right wing’s lock on power:

“God forbid the Left takes over.”

A view of the settlement of Ariel. (Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man)
A view of the settlement of Ariel. (Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man)

No alternative

The 20-odd right-wing voters I interviewed were not, thankfully, the intimidating fascists one might assume them to be from the public appearances and campaign ads of the politicians they’re voting for. These people aren’t loud or angry in their opinions, they don’t bring up any hatred of Arabs or leftists, either. While they all agreed that Herzog and Livni are leftists (which says more about their own politics than that of Herzog and Livni), they also said they weren’t impressed by the scare-mongering that characterized Likud and Jewish Home’s campaigns.

Instead, the sense I got from these members of the silent majority was of complacency. They’re not particularly worried or threatened by the prospect of another intifada or war, and certainly not by that of an upheaval in the election. They’re not singing about the economy, but they’re not crying, either. They laugh off Obama and the warnings of a schism with the United States. And they have no patience whatsoever for the scandals over Netanyahu’s publicly-funded extravagances or his wife Sara’s alleged abusiveness toward her servants.

‘You know what? If I was prime minister, I’d eat pistachio ice cream, too. Why shouldn’t he? He works 24 hours a day,” says Moshe, 43, of Ma’aleh Adumim (“a ‘settler,’ right?”), owner of a baked goods stall in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.

The men and women on the right-wing street feel okay about the state of the nation, both in terms of security and, though to a clearly lesser extent, the economy; they tend to give Netanyahu high marks, but above all they see no alternative. The “Left,” especially in what seems to them the delicate hands of Isaac Herzog, lost the debate a long time ago, as far as “national camp” voters are concerned; what used to be called the “peace camp” is a bad memory that only got a lot of innocent Israelis killed, and God forbid it should ever return to power.

In Israel, the Right calls the tune. There seems to be a sense, here and overseas, that because Zionist Union is leading Likud in the polls, and because Netanyahu has been around so long and rubbed so many people wrong, that public opinion in this country has shifted toward the center/center-left.

But it hasn’t.

God forbid Zionist Union wins. They’re nice people but they live in a different world.Reuven Gersovitch

“Israel moved to the right after Operation Protective Edge last summer – it moved to the right even before that, after the 2013 election. A few years ago, 12 to 15 percent of Israelis defined themselves as being on the left; now less than 10 percent do. Israel is one of the few countries where the Right is larger than the center and Left combined,” Tel Aviv University statistics Prof. Camil Fuchs, who polls for Haaretz and Channel 10, told me.

And if mainstream right-wing voters aren’t openly raging at Arabs and leftists, the campaigns of Likud, Jewish Home, Israel Beiteinu and Yahad (whose top candidates include Baruch Marzel, the long-time head of Israel’s Kahanist movement) sure are. The people I interviewed said this attack style didn’t speak to them – but it didn’t drive them away, either. It seems to have helped keep them on board.

With the Left so badly stigmatized for so long, it was no surprise that Netanyahu built his campaign on branding Herzog and Livni as leftists and banging away at them for being weak against the Arab nemesis of the moment, while he was strong. He  couldn’t ’t very well run on his domestic record; the general perception was that he’d done nothing during this last term, and that too many people were suffering in the country’s wildly inequitable economy to brag about it, so he would stick with smearing the Left as traitors and scaring the public into seeking his protection again.

The ‘anti-Zionist’ Left

He’s a old master at this, of course; he oversaw the two-year campaign of traitor-baiting against Yitzhak Rabin that culminated in assassination; he made the words “Peres” and “terror” synonymous in winning his first term as prime minister; a little-remembered detail of his unsuccessful 2006 campaign was the sneering Likud ads against incumbent Ehud “Smolmert” – smol being Hebrew for “left”; another forgotten highlight of that race was the Likud video showing seas of green Hamas flags, then a shot of Olmert in a green cap and T-shirt, as the ominous narration and sound track rumbled on.

No one will ever accuse Bibi of being Mr. Clean. But this time he outdid himself. Not only did he brand Herzog and Livni – who enthusiastically back every Israeli war, every “operation” – as “leftists,” he went a step further by calling them “anti-Zionists,” which, in the Israeli political vocabulary, is worse than a leftist. A leftist may be merely naïve, a bleeding heart, someone who speaks up for the Arabs out of that old, unkillable Jewish guilt – but an anti-Zionist is a declared hater and enemy of the State of Israel.

“The choice here is sharp and clear: the leftist, anti-Zionist list led by Tzipi and Bougie, or the Likud list led by myself,” Netanyahu said in one of his most slanderous videos against Arabs and his campaign rivals. (Besides repeating the words “leftist” and “anti-Zionist” over and over, a key motif in the campaigns of both Likud and Jewish Home is to refer to Livni and Herzog only as “Tzipi and Bougie” – which, it must be acknowledged, is a step up in class from “Smolmert.”) In this video, Netanyahu accused Israel’s friendliest Arab, sportscaster and intercommunal peacemaker Zohair Bahloul, the only Arab among Zionist Union’s electable candidates, of “giving character testimony in praise of Hezbollah,” which was the opposite of the truth.

His single most notorious campaign video, set to a sound track of Arabic rap music, shows a truck full of ISIS men asking an Israeli, “How do we get to Jerusalem, bro?” The Israeli replies, “Take a left,” and the ISIS team drives on with shouts of jubilation. Punctuated by the sound of gunshots, the words, “The left will surrender to terror,” appear on the screen in red letters with bullet holes.

Netanyahu also reverted to form by attacking the media, specifically the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, for conspiring against him. (It must be said, though, that Yedioth, which is in direct competition with Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu free sheet Israel Hayom, has run Bibi down almost as relentlessly as Israel Hayom has puffed him up.) And once again Netanyahu went after the cultural and intellectual “elites,” this time attempting to purge the Israel Prize judges of what he described as “radicals” and “anti-Zionists” (before the attorney general, objecting to such a populist decision being made so close to the election, compelled him to cancel it).

Finally, there were the official acts of state that seemed to double as campaign tactics, notably the killing of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general across the Syrian border, the trip to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket murders, and the anti-Obama speech to Congress.

And it’s all held up. The polls have steadily shown Likud winning in the low 20s in Knesset seats (out of 120 total), bringing them even or no more than a seat or two behind Zionist Union, until recent days when the gap widened to three or even four.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud minister Israel Katz at a campaign event in Raanana. (Yotam Ronen/
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud minister Israel Katz at a campaign event in Raanana. (Yotam Ronen/

Again, contrary to popular opinion, an Election Day haul of 21, 22 or 23 seats for Likud does not signal a drop-off in popularity for the party of Netanyahu. Likud won only 20 in the January 2013  election, when it ran on a joint slate with Israel Beiteinu. This time the party is on its own. If Likud were running again on a joint slate with another party, it would very likely be swamping Zionist Union (a merger of Herzog’s Labor and Livni’s Hatnuah) in the polls.

‘I’m a Likudnik in my blood’

And with all the bitter criticism and the nine long years he’s been in office, Netanyahu remains considerably more popular than his party, which can be seen in the wide gap between him and everybody else when pollsters ask Israelis who is best suited to be prime minister. (Fuchs’ poll in Haaretz on Thursday found Zionist Union topping Likud, 24 seats to 21, but Netanyahu preferred over Herzog for prime minister, 48 percent to 34 percent.)

“Bibi has the character of a leader, he speaks with authority, with charisma. None of the others have that,” says Moshe in Mahane Yehuda. He’s says he’s undecided, though, on whom to vote for, preferring Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s socioeconomic “agenda” over Netanyahu’s, but backing the latter without hesitation on “security.” Moshe also makes the point that Netanyahu is in the race for prime minister, while Lapid isn’t. That, plus his remark, “I’m a Likudnik my whole life, I’m a Likudnik in my blood,” leaves me pretty sure that inside the voting booth, Moshe will cast his ballot for Bibi’s party again.

Says Fuchs: “If there were two ballots, one for party and one for prime minister [as there were in the 1996 and 1999 elections], then Netanyahu would win for prime minister with big numbers.”

On the road near Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University, an institution rooted in the national religious movement, there’s a big Likud banner, and at the entrance to campus is one from Jewish Home. There are no others. Most of the people I talk to support Bennett, the others are for Likud.

“I’m between Bibi and Bennett,” says Daniel Tondavski, 24, who is completing a pre-academic course. “Bibi has the experience, he speaks well, you know what you’re getting. Bennett, on the other hand, can shake things up, he can change things.”

Sitting at an outdoor cafe, he said he didn’t have anything against Zionist Union, and then his friend cut in.

“God forbid Zionist Union wins,” said Reuven Gersovitch, 24, a biotechnology student. “They live in a different world. They’re nice people, they’re good people, but their way of looking at things is just not suitable to where we live.”

Esther Levy, 66, a test examiner and Likudnik, insists that Israelis wants peace. “All our songs are about peace, all our desires are for peace. We don’t want war.”

I spoke with four Arab students sitting on a bench. I must say I was surprised to see Arab students at Bar-Ilan University. They told me there are 800 of them here. How do they get along with their Jewish classmates and teachers? “Very good. I have Jewish friends here, I study with some of them,” said Ahmed Dallasheh, 19, a physics student from the Galilee Arab village of Bueina-Nujidat. All four are voting for the Joint List.

At Bar-Ilan University, the Arabs and Jews get along. The Jews are right-wing, but they’re not racist, not violent, not angry. Again, a very different picture of right-wing Israeli voters than the one suggested by the right-wing campaigns. A week before the election, a new low was reached in the campaign when Avigdor Liberman, head of Israel Beiteinu and foreign minister of Israel, told an audience at a highly-regarded college, Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, that the thing to do with any Arab citizen who is “against us” is to “lift up an axe and remove his head, otherwise we won’t survive here.” This statement got no reaction whatsoever in Israel, except from Arabs and leftists (though not from “leftists” Herzog or Livni).

So in the end, nice doesn’t matter. What matters is not how decently the silent majority talks and behaves, but the power they give their leaders, Israel’s leaders, to deal with Arabs, above all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in a way that is anything but nice, Israeli campus life notwithstanding.

Bennett took the theme of right-wingers-as-underdogs to the most Orwellian lengths.

The most dangerous of these leaders, aside from Netanyahu, is Bennett. He is seen by many, including myself, as Bibi’s heir apparent. After the Haaretz Peace Conference last July, where Bennett was heckled by some people in the crowd, which he would later describe as another left-wing attempt to silence the right, Haaretz’s Uri Misgav wrote:

Bennett’s appearance was truly impressive. He acts like a rock star. It’s no wonder he has such an enthusiastic following among his young, fired up audience of Jewish brothers and sisters. He looks as though he’s in a state of euphoria.

Bennett feels good about himself and good about his country, and he has Ronald Reagan’s priceless gift of being able to make the people listening to him, or those who are open to his message, feel the same way. And even though he’s a multi-millionaire from his days in high-tech, he comes on like the most regular of guys – an indifferent dresser with an ever-present, buck-toothed, regular-guy grin. All of this softens the hard edge of his passionate, persuasive, domineering delivery.

One other quality he’s got, probably a must-have for a right-wing leader anywhere, is the ability to stoke his followers with the fighting spirit of the underdog, to steel them for the struggle against the all-powerful left-wing establishment out to crush them. In Israel, of course, this is a joke. But this is the message behind Bennett and Jewish Home’s campaign slogan: “We’re through apologizing.” This is an even bigger joke: When did Israeli right-wingers, particularly Naftali Bennett, ever apologize for anything?

He set the tone for the airy, comic videos that, along with the hit pieces, have dominated the campaign on social media. Putting on a fake beard and playing a Tel Aviv hipster leftist, he apologizes to the people who spill coffee on him, hit his car or take his bike. Then, the beard gone, he stares urgently into the camera and says, “From today on, we’re through apologizing.” (He’s not a bad comic actor, either.)

Bennett set the tone for Likud’s hit pieces against Zionist Union, too, with a horror show that cast candidate Yossi Yonah, a professor of education and leading Mizrahi activist, as a Hamasnik. Pulling out snippets from Yonah’s past statements and displaying them against a background featuring the Hamas logo, Arabic music, lots of green, lots of terrorists, and ending with the warning, “This is not Hamas! This is Yossi Yonah – Labor Party under Bougie’s leadership,” it was a thousand times more poisonous than Netanyahu’s 2006 cheap shot at Olmert.

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett campaigning. (Yotam Ronen/
Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett campaigning. (Yotam Ronen/

Bennett took the theme of right-wingers-as-underdogs to the most Orwellian lengths. After numerous Jewish Home members spoke out against gay marriage, gay activists began protesting at party rallies. At one, they were beaten. Activist Lilach Ben David told Haaretz that police detained her but “refused to detain those who punched me in the face and all over my body in their effort to shut me up.” Jewish Home, however, claimed it was the gays who started the brawl. Ah, yes, another brutal assault by gay activists on an Israeli right-wing rally. “We call on the leaders of the left to denounce the violence of their activists,” Jewish Home said, “before it is too late and the violence of the left causes irreversible damage.”

When the party then accused the left of failing to learn the lessons of the Rabin assassination, it seemed inevitable. Claiming that Bennett was being advised by security people to stay away from events where left-wing activists might show up, Jewish Home said: “The left has not learned a thing from the murder of Rabin, and the incitement that it is carrying out at the moment will have harsh consequences while Bougie and Tzipi are silent.”

Bennett did not, however, accuse Rabin of shooting Yigal Amir, for which we probably should be grateful.

He was the shining stand-out in the February 26 televised debate among leaders of eight of the 10 parties in the race (Herzog and Netanyahu staying away). He smiled while Liberman glowered. He grew intense when accusing Lapid of telling “bald-faced lies,” an insult that Lapid allowed to stand. He put away the long-winded Meretz leader Zehava Galon, dropping the smile and playing the victim: “For 20 years the left intimidated Bibi with the stigma of  the Rabin assassination – I’m not part of that generation, I’m part of a generation that doesn’t apologize.” In his closing statement, which he addressed “mainly to the young people,” Bennett grinned his grin and said, “Be optimistic. We have an amazing country.”

After watching the playback with my 15-year-old son Gilad, who is no right-winger, I asked him to imagine that he didn’t have any political views or knowledge of the candidates, and to judge them just on how they came across in the debate – who won?

“Bennett,” he said, after a split second’s thought. Why? “He was the most confident. He won the battles with the others.”

The polls show Jewish Home holding onto its current 12 Knesset seats; for Bennett to become prime minister, he’s got to be leader of a large party, which means he’s got to jump to Likud or merge his party with it. The campaign revealed the limits of Jewish Home’s reach – it is overwhelmingly religious and mainly Ashkenazi – when Bennett, climbing in the polls and seeking to draw Mizrahi voters away from Likud, recruited Mizrahi soccer legend Eli Ohana as a candidate, even though Ohana is not religious and was a supporter of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, which is heresy to the right today. The Ohana gambit infuriated the party’s religious old guard and humiliated Mizrahim – it was like the Republican Party trying to win black votes by running Michael Jordan for the Senate – and immediately drove large numbers of them back to Likud or over to the new “Torah-true right” of Yahad.

So Bennett needs to become chairman of Likud to fulfill his ambition – and Netanyahu (and his wife) have no intention of letting him. But Netanyahu is 65; Bennett is 42. Time is on his side.

Nice doesn’t matter. What matters is the power Israelis give their leaders to deal with Arabs, in a way that is anything but nice.

At the bus station complex near the entrance to Jerusalem, the heart of right-wing Israel, Baruch Marzel’s young followers are the only people handing out campaign literature. (Yahad, the party to which Marzel attached his Otzma Yehudit, Jewish Strength, faction, has a storefront there.) The 19-year-old yeshiva student sitting at the Yahad table is a Marzel supporter, and he’s making his case to a young man who’s saying that social and political distress lead Palestinians into terror. The yeshiva boy rolls his eyes but doesn’t raise his voice. He was polite in arguing with me, too, even though he made me for a Meretz supporter. Nice guy.

The next day, some of Marzel’s people raided a candidates’ panel in Ramat Gan, and one poured a bottle of juice on their main target, Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi. Another thug put the list’s spokeswoman, Emily Moatti, in the hospital by beating her on the head with a pole, while another rammed his elbow into Meretz MK Michal Biran’s stomach. I like to think the young man at the Yahad table wasn’t one of the marauders; I know he wasn’t the one who got arrested. But again, in the larger scheme of things, it’s irrelevant. On Wednesday, Marzel was indicted for punching a Palestinian in Hebron in the face and kicking him in the man’s own yard. This may win more votes for Yahad; it certainly won’t lose them any.

In the cell phone shop he owns nearby, Yigal Menachem, 62, a Likud voter, says he’s undecided this time between Netanyahu and ex-Likudnik, economically-oriented Moshe Kahlon. “Bibi is excellent on security, I don’t see anyone else who’s suited to be prime minister, but I didn’t see him having any any serious social or economic program.” I ask if he hasn’t grown tired of Netanyahu after seeing and hearing him up there for so long. “Tired, no. Disappointed, yes,” he says.

Masses of Israelis are considerably more tired, disappointed or just sick to their stomachs with Bibi, and the boost they’re giving Herzog and Lapid in the polls have led many people, here and abroad, to see an upheaval coming on Tuesday. I don’t see it. Zionist Union may very well get more seats than Likud, but it won’t have the makings of a politically coherent coalition government, only a highly unlikely patchwork of opposites. Netanyahu, by contrast, seems guaranteed to have a ready-made, compatible majority of rightists, center-rightists and ultra-Orthodox. And no rightward-leaning party wants to face the wrath of its peers by breaking ranks and putting the “Left” back in power.

Moreover, if Herzog does become prime minister, he would not have the government, or the public support – or the personal inclination – to really change this country, which means ending the occupation as well as the wars and “operations” of aggression. That’s not where this country is at. Israel has been moving steadily in the opposite direction – with a brief interval for the 2005 Gaza disengagement – since the Oslo peace process gave way to the second intifada in 2000. This is why Herzog and Livni have barely mentioned the occupation, while reiterating their support for the wars and operations. It’s why Meretz’s campaign has been so tame. The Israeli public does not want to hear about “trying softer” with Arabs. They believe – incorrectly, as many of us having been saying, unsuccessfully, for a long time – that they tried that already, and every time it blew up in their faces.

Evelyn Gordon, a Jerusalem Post columnist, made what I think is the Likud voters’ consensus case for Netanyahu, and by extension the Israeli majority’s bottom-line explanation for why it trusts the national camp over the remains of the peace camp. Noting the “minimum of bloodshed” during Netanyahu’s tenure (for Israelis but not for Palestinians, I would add), Gordon writes that she would vote for that “any day over the disastrous grand initiatives of Rabin, Barak and Sharon.” Addressing the left, she asks:

Why should we believe that the diplomatic initiatives and/or unilateral withdrawals you advocate today won’t make our lives significantly worse, just as those earlier ones did?

This is the shift to the right that Israelis have undergone in the last 15 years, and it’s what I expect will return the right to power after Tuesday, and what would prevent Herzog from getting far with any “grand initiative” of his own even if he did become prime minister. Most Israelis have come to believe in force alone for dealing with the country’s enemies. This belief has led to more repression of Palestinians and aggression against neighboring Arab states, which has brought rising hostility against Israel, which has made Israelis more and more strongly committed to force as the answer. This is the underlying problem here. The dominance of Netanyahu and Bennett, of the national camp, is largely an outgrowth of it.