On Tuesday, Israel heads to the polls for the second time in five months, as polls remain unbelievably tight between the right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White. For Israel’s sake, I hope this is their last election for a while, but as far as America is concerned, it almost doesn’t matter who wins.
This election is all about the Benjamins — just not in the way Rep. Ilhan Omar meant it. Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are competing to be prime minister, and even if Bibi’s Likud party loses, I predict American discussions surrounding Israel won’t much change. By and large, Republican elected officials will continue to speak effusively about our close ally in the Middle East, and Israel will remain a thorny subject among Democratic pols.
There has been seemingly endless talk on the political left this year about how the real problem isn’t Israel per se, but the current prime minister. For example, in April, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke dubbed Netanyahu a “racist,” “saying he did not believe Netanyahu ‘represents the true will of the Israeli people’ or the ‘best interests’ of the relationship between the US and Israel.”
Second-time presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders “called the Netanyahu government ‘racist’” during a June town hall. Earlier this month, New York Rep. Alexandria “Ocasio-Cortez told Israel’s Channel 12 News” that “‘the Netanyahu administration has been pursuing a lot of extraordinarily concerning policies.’” Ocasio-Cortez added, “‘I think we can criticize the policies’ of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel.”
This is undoubtedly true. No serious person says one can’t criticize either Israel’s prime minister or Israeli government policies the same way Americans regularly criticize our own government’s policies and elected officials.
But as those on the political left have turned Netanyahu into a giant bogeyman it’s worth remembering that he’s been democratically elected by the Israeli public four times so far. It’s quite possible that we’ll find the Israeli public has grown weary of Bibi’s long tenure or the corruption charges that have recently dogged him.
Still, there’s still good reason to believe that should Bibi lose, Democrats who’ve insisted they’re cool with Israel but just despise Bibi will soon find other justifications for their lukewarm support of the Middle East’s only democracy or their vocal support for a movement that seeks Israel’s elimination. Let’s consider four reasons why.
Security first and foremost. To start with the obvious, Israelis view the world differently than does the U.S. Democratic base. While it’s rare to have a national security election in the United States, it’s part of the scenery in Israel.
Contributing opinion writer Matti Friedman recently explained in The New York Times that this election is haunted by “the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century.” Lahav Harkov, senior contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post, disputed Friedman’s contention that these memories are repressed, messaging The Federalist, “I think they’re very much out in the open. The Likud campaign literally says there will be bus bombings if they don’t win.”
But regardless of Americans’ utopian visions of what modern Israel should be like, the realities of personal security undoubtedly remain a primary concern for Israelis. In the wake of September 11, that should resonate with Americans. Nearly 300 Israelis were killed in the seven years following the Oslo Accords, but “during the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (Sept. 2000 – Dec. 2005) another 1,100 Israelis were killed.”
That is to say, imagine living with the fear of 9/11’s lethal randomness for years. Israel’s a small country, so pretty much everyone was either directly affected by those attacks or knows someone who was.
Israel’s political left is weak. It’s true that American Jews overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, but the Democrats’ counterpart in the Israeli political system, the Labor party, is incredibly weak. Averaging about six seats in the Knesset in recent polling (61 seats make a majority), the once mighty Labor (now running in conjunction with Gesher) simply isn’t a political force anymore, because Israelis stopped trusting Labor with their security.
Israel’s political center doesn’t lean left. Bibi’s primary opposition is a centrist coalition led by three former Israeli Defense Force chiefs of staff. Blue and White’s platform does include an openness to negotiating with the Palestinians. However, its leaders also oppose a nuclear Iran and support “continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, and retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank.”
Gantz is not progressives’ spirit animal. As much as the American left hates Netanyahu for being too right-wing, Gantz may not be any more beloved. During an April interview with Israel’s Channel 13, Gantz indicated he’d prefer “responding to security challenges [from Gaza] with far greater force than Netanyahu has.” He has also criticized Netanyahu for allowing Qatari funds to reach Hamas-controlled Gaza, saying in June, “‘Deterrence has collapsed.’”
So, much remains unknown— whether Gantz would truly be tougher on Hamas and whether Israelis will give him the opportunity to prove it. Either way, though, Americans can expect Israel will soon be led by a prime minister named Benjamin who’s focused on Israelis’ security. And regardless of which Benjamin that is, expect the Democrats’ left flank to be unhappy about it.