February 21, 2020

Why Are Israeli Voters So Stubborn?

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Critics of Israel have trouble understanding why Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu remains the most popular politician in Israel. He is under constant threat of indictment; his unsavory compromises with his coalition partners have led to policies that have alienated many Jews of the Diaspora; and he shows no signs of resolving a century-old conflict with the Palestinians that continues to hurt, fairly or not, Israel’s reputation.

On top of that, there’s Bibi fatigue. The man won’t go away. He’s the only prime minister in Israel’s history to have been elected three times in a row, and if his current government lasts a full term, he’ll become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister.

How to explain such staying power?

For many of his critics, it’s simple: Bibi is a “fearmonger” who exploits the fundamental human need for physical safety. Instead of practicing the politics of hope, they say, he practices the politics of fear. That is a powerful argument because, in the abstract, hope is always more noble and inspiring than fear.

But if you listened to his speech last week at the United Nations, you could see why so many Israelis support him. When Bibi laid out in excruciating detail the growing security threats against the Jewish state, his supporters didn’t see fearmongering, they saw reality.

Bibi’s genius has been to convince enough Israelis, year after year, that he understands their reality better than anyone else.

“We in America may hate their choices, but they are the ones who have to live with the consequences.”

His U.N. speech was brutal and factual. Even the leftist Haaretz called it “one of his most convincing and effective performances,” which included “a precise and credible indictment against Iran.” In fact, the speech included precise and credible indictments against all kinds of threats facing Israel, from terror rockets pointed at Israel to European appeasement of Iran to anti-Israel lies at the U.N. 

It’s difficult for Americans to fully comprehend the transcendent importance Israelis place on their security. From a safe distance, while we may see conflicts to resolve, Israelis see enemies at their doorstep sworn to their destruction. While we may preach democratic ideals, they see their democracy in a continuous state of war.

This kind of existential danger has a tendency to elicit visceral, primal reactions rather than the civilized, sophisticated reactions we much prefer in America. After all, it’s difficult to be quite so civilized when you are walking down a street fully aware that, at any moment, an enemy may stab you in the back. 

If you ask me, the real miracle of Israel is precisely that it has managed to create a thriving and open civil society despite being under siege from genocidal enemies. This is a resilient society whose culture of innovation influences virtually the entire planet and that consistently beats the U.S., the U.K. and France on the U.N.’s annual “Happiness Report.” 

As Zev Chafets wrote earlier this year on Bloomberg, “Even [Bibi’s] enemies concede that Israel is more secure and prosperous than it was when he came to power.” 

I know that this contextual view of Israel is not popular among American Jews who are sick and tired of an Israeli government that constantly disappoints them, that can’t make peace with the Palestinians, that allows a power-hungry chief rabbinate to ignore non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and that is often accused of threatening the democratic ideals in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

These are genuine grievances, and American Jews haven’t been shy about publicly criticizing the Israeli government to redress them. Whether these protests actually influence Israeli policies is secondary to the right of American Jews to speak up and hold Israel to account. 

But while we speak up here in America, let’s not forget all those who speak up in Israel through the ballot box. These are the Israeli voters who, for better or for worse, have put their faith in Bibi and his government. Isn’t it time we show a little deference to these voters and their democratic choices? We in America may hate their choices, but they are the ones who have to live with the consequences.

“Bibi’s genius has been to convince enough Israelis, year after year, that he understands their reality better than anyone else.”

We can rail, for example, against the failure of Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, but it’s not as if Israelis don’t want peace. Maybe they’re more in tune with the existential danger of the West Bank turning into another terror state, or the reality that Jew-hating Palestinian leaders are loath to sign any deal that recognizes a Jewish state, regardless of where the borders are drawn. It’s OK to respect these views, even as we challenge them.

Israelis are hardly blind to Bibi’s flaws, but they also see how he has led their country with a steady hand under extremely difficult and treacherous circumstances. That’s why so many Israelis stubbornly continue to support him.

Considering the dysfunctional state of America these days, I wonder if, when Israelis hear all the criticism of Israel coming from American Jews, they ever feel like responding: “Hey, why don’t you look in the mirror?”

We should be grateful that they’re sophisticated enough to go easy on us.