The Party of Israel’s Past Languishes Without a Vision for the Future

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What is most striking about Israel’s election campaign is that virtually no one is debating issues. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t perceived as unbeatable, but the smart money is still on his prevailing — despite widespread dissatisfaction with him. The April 9 election, it seems, is more about jockeying for position in the next election, when, common wisdom has it, Netanyahu will no longer be a candidate.

This is an election about personalities, not issues, because there are no major policy matters about which Israelis are agitated. The economy is doing fine, and neither right nor left are urging major changes. Many Israelis don’t love how Netanyahu has cozied up to a variety of unsavory foreign leaders, but still admire the skill with which he has held Russian President Vladimir Putin at bay. He has also dealt with U.S. President Donald Trump’s shocking announcement to pull American troops out of Syria, and has successfully navigated the unchartable waters of a Trump presidency. Netanyahu is a pro, even his foes acknowledge, and his experience and smarts have served Israel well of late. With Israel and Iran increasing their saber-rattling, his experience will only matter more to Israelis.

Netanyahu faces no formidable opposition. It is possible that some combination of Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff with a stellar reputation, and a seasoned politician like Tzipi Livni, recently “dumped” by Labor, or Yair Lapid, long languishing as the not-much-noticed leader of the center, might topple Netanyahu, especially if he is indicted prior to the elections. But the indictments may be delayed, and though Gantz is considered talented and honest, Israelis are also worried that he is an unknown on policy matters. If Israelis re-elect Netanyahu, it will be not because they love him, but because they believe he can keep them safe. Netanyahu’s steady hand and stability have been in striking evidence since Israel narrowly avoided war with Hamas a few months ago. Even his critics give Netanyahu credit for that.

There was, in the days after Israeli dodged a looming war, a sense that had the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett been in power, Israel would have gone to war. Lieberman, who had been serving as defense minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, has since resigned in protest over the fact that Israel did not attack Hamas. Bennett sought to take Lieberman’s post, was rebuffed, and formed his own party amid the fallout. Avi Gabbay, of the Labor Party, or Lapid, the popular wisdom says, might well have had to go to war to prove that they had what it takes to go to war.

It was only Netanyahu who both desperately wanted to avoid a war that he believed was as a losing proposition and had nothing to prove to anyone about his willingness to fight if necessary. Israel is both at relative peace and free from the grip of the far right, even some of his detractors unhappily admit, because Netanyahu is the prime minister.

In contrast to Netanyahu’s political stability stands what is perhaps the most telling dimension of Israel’s current elections, the virtual demise of Israel’s Labor Party. Labor, the party of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, once ruled Israel with an iron fist. But the socialism that lay at the core of Labor’s domestic vision has long since fallen out of favor, while the “land for peace” mantra that animated Israel’s foreign policy for decades was disemboweled by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s decision to launch the second Intifada rather than negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. In the almost two decades that have ensued, Labor has failed to offer Israel any compelling vision for either its domestic or its diplomatic future. Labor, which was reduced to 13 of the 120 seats in the current Knesset, is polling at around seven seats for this April’s elections.

The demise of Israel’s founding party is a metaphor for Israel’s predicament at present. Netanyahu has brought political and economic stability, and diplomatic progress on many fronts. Even on the Palestinian issue, which remains hopelessly stuck, he has convinced most Israelis that Iran, Syria and Turkey, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, are all more pressing challenges than the Palestinians. Yet what does Netanyahu foresee as a viable option with the Palestinians? No one really knows, for he has succeeded in burying the conversation. He has been able to do that, however, because no one on the left has much of a vision to offer, either.

Labor has made no bold foreign policy suggestions. When Gantz entered the political fray, his first major pronouncement was that he was going to heal relations with Israel’s Druze, who were offended by a recently passed nation-state law. He said nothing about the Palestinians. Even Commanders for Israel’s Security, widely considered a left-leaning organization, advocates only not taking steps that would preclude a two-state solution; they, too, are saying nothing about a “deal” with the Palestinians at any time in future.

What will that future eventually look like? That is the conversation glaringly missing from Israel’s political scene. The subject arose, if only momentarily, when Amos Oz, one of Israel’s greatest novelists, died last month. Oz, widely considered a leftist, had bitterly bemoaned Israel’s slide to the right. Yet tellingly, what many obituaries got wrong, was the fact that though he envisioned an Israel at peace with its Palestinian neighbors, neither he nor his political allies had any idea of how to get there.

Also largely overlooked was that Oz despised Ben-Gurion and his now dying Labor Party. In 1954, Israel was embroiled in a scandal called the Lavon Affair; the country had apparently tried to recruit Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in Cairo, but the plot was uncovered. Ben-Gurion dodged most of the political damage by placing the blame on Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, who was forced to resign. Oz had grown up on Kibbutz Hulda, which was also Lavon’s home, and Oz never forgave Ben-Gurion or his party for betraying his fellow kibbutznik. Later, still, Oz castigated Yitzhak Rabin, also of the Labor Party, for abandoning Israel’s socialist roots and succumbing to the attractions of a consumerist Western economy. Oz, in short, despised Israel’s right but was also exasperated with the left’s lack of vision.

Oz was less a leftist than an idealist, and his death is thus a striking metaphor for where Israel finds itself. In many ways, Israel is thriving. Israelis know their economy is stable, and they feel largely secure. They know, though, that they need to talk about the Palestinians and their vision for their country. To what ideals is the country devoted? What kind of society are Israelis trying to build? Sadly, the questions that once riveted Israeli intellectual life have been silenced.

Israelis, like the much-missed Amos Oz, who still hold out hope that Israel can revive a conversation about vision know that this election will not accomplish that. Instead, they are holding out hope that this is the last Netanyahu run, and that once the prime minister finally steps aside, a real conversation about the future of the Jewish State can emerge once again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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