For a few years now I’ve been carping at the widening gap between perception and reality among both critics and supporters of Israel in the United States. Now that I’ve arrived in Washington for a prolonged stay (a new job, but please don’t call it yerida), I’m just starting to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The immediate example of this is, of course, the widely reported “Shift to the Right” by the Israeli electorate. Now, I understand why many American Jews might be troubled if Israel were turning away from their own cherished values. But if the elections have proved anything, it’s that Israelis never did lurch to the right, after all.
Like so many other narratives spun by interested parties during an election cycle, the red-shift theory was based on a selective reading of the data, and on the accumulation of multiple mini-myths adding up to one fat pile of bull. To wit:
Mini-myth #1: Israelis have given up on the two-state solution in favor of pro-settlement belligerence. The most glaring salient fact, affirmed by repeated polling, is that while two decades ago the two-state solution was a matter of harsh debate in Israel, today it has achieved consensus status — including among a majority of voters for right-wing parties, and two-thirds of Israelis overall. If anything, this sounds more like a shift to the left over time.
Also, if you take a look at bloc voting, it turns out that Israelis have been surprisingly consistent in recent years. If we bracket out the Arab and religious parties, what remains is a left-right divide that gives the right bloc 43 seats in the new Knesset, to the left’s 27 — plus 19 more for the liberal-centrist Yesh Atid party, which, headed by TV celeb Yair Lapid, has a voter base that leans much more left than right. In the outgoing Knesset, it was 49 seats for the right, to the left’s 44.
The Knesset before, elected in 2006, had Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party taking up a genuinely centrist position and winning 29 seats, splitting the rest between left and right. But in the elections before that, in 2003, the right clobbered the left, 57 to 40. So where’s the Shift to the Right?
Mini-myth #2: Israelis are pushing for increasingly right-wing politics: Look at the merger between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and at the success of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. What few people notice is that these two developments are actually one and the same — and they belie the Shift-to-the-Right thesis.
The merger itself was much less a policy change, or a reflection on changing voters, than it was a tactic designed to guarantee Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued premiership. Forced to resign from the foreign ministry, Beiteinu Chairman (and former Likud director-general) Avigdor Lieberman was suddenly weakened, and his party’s voters needed a compelling home. Netanyahu correctly calculated that the merger would create a large party unmet by anything on the left.
Bennett’s achievement (if you can call it that) was a natural outcome of that same merger — but you can only understand this if you look from the perspective of a settler activist voter. For while people to the left of Bibi saw it as a shift to the right by the Likud, pro-settlement voters saw it as a shift to the left by Beitenu, whose secularism and advocacy of land swaps made Lieberman’s party suspect in their eyes to begin with. It was only natural that a chunk of them would defect to Bennett, the new kid on the block, but that doesn’t mean their beliefs changed.