What the Left Should Learn From Netanyahu if It Wants to Win

“If we only had a leader,” dejected leftists wail. Brokenhearted over Benny Gantz’s betrayal, unenthusiastic about Yair Lapid, still wondering just who Gadi Eisenkot is, they desperately envy right-wing voters. They have Bibi and we have a leadership vacuum. They all line up behind him and we’re torn apart by quarrels and conflicts. They know how to squeeze a victory out of a loss, while we win a majority at the polls and remain stuck in the opposition.

Worst of all: Benjamin Netanyahu looks and sounds like one of us. Ashkenazi from an old-time family, highly educated with good English, wealthy with a host of properties to his name, an atheist who sneaks nonkosher food into Balfour. So why do they support him?  Why do they get the political wizard with the excellent English, the national hypnotist and peerless television orator, while we’re left with nothing of the kind? 

These questions have been driving the losing camp in Israeli politics mad for years, as time after time it thinks it is following the correct recipe only to end up with a dish that’s burnt and ruined. They bring tens of thousands of people out of their homes every Saturday to protest in Rehavia and Caesarea, at overpasses and intersections, filled with the fervent hope that if only the devil and his family were removed, they and their country would taste redemption.  

But a thriving political movement like the Israeli right of 2020 isn’t just about the personal abilities, experience and wisdom of the man at the top. Successful leadership relies upon sociology and ideology – on a group of supporters united around a common interest and idea.

Netanyahu rallied the Mizrahim and the religious behind him, promising them a bigger slice of the national pie after they’d been oppressed by “the left,” and he’s been keeping this promise. His close web of advisers – Ambassador Ron Dermer, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, spymaster Yossi Cohen, economist Avi Simhon, PMO director general Ronen Peretz – are all Mizrahim or religious. As are the politicians whom Netanyahu has promoted in Likud and the coalition. And the journalists, commentators and broadcasters who echo his messages and are gaining more and more air time. 

This is how an “exchange of the elites” occurs. The fact that Bibi is Ashkenazi and secular is irrelevant to his supporters, just as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, like Hillary Clinton before him, is not very similar to the legions of Black and Hispanic Democratic voters, and never personally experienced police brutality or immigration hardships. What matters is that his voters see Netanyahu as someone who cares about them. They don’t care where his grandmother was born. 

This sociology also provides a good explanation for the “Just not Bibi” camp that simply merges all the groups and tribes that lose out from this exchange of elites – the “white tribe” that is pushed off the screen and out of positions of influence, Israelis of Russian background who still struggle to make it to the front, and Arab society, which is left out of the game once again. This is the glue that binds Lapid, Lieberman, Odeh and Tibi. 

In the balance of interests, the two blocs are fairly symmetrical, and the results of the last two elections show that the “Just Not Bibi” camp even holds a small advantage. But the right also has a common ideology: Jewish supremacy, as given expression two years ago in the nation-state law and which enjoys the full support of the disparate elements of the right-wing bloc. This is where Netanyahu holds a clear advantage over his rivals, who cannot agree on a shared idea. Not a state for all its citizens, not advancing women’s rights and LGBT rights, not a Palestinian state and not separation of religion and state. As long as the right has one banner to rally behind and the left is fractured and torn, we’ll only see Balfour from behind the fence and the security guards. Even when Netanyahu eventually retires to Caesarea or heads to prison.

The right has a common ideology: Jewish supremacy. Netanyahu’s rivals cannot agree on a shared idea. 

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