It’s a good thing the Israeli election campaign didn’t run one day longer than it did. At the rate he was going, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have called for stripping Israeli Arabs of the right to vote altogether.
On the day before the election, evidently running scared, Netanyahu announced he was repudiating his commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. No such state, he proclaimed, would ever come into being on his watch.
On Election Day itself, he sought to “zetz” any somnolent Likudniks into going to the polls by voicing alarm that Israel’s Arab citizens were actually - oh, the horror - turning out to vote.
Say this for Bibi: He ran a balanced campaign. One part fear, one part loathing.
In the campaign’s closing days, with polls showing his Likud Party trailing its Labor Party opponent, Netanyahu evidently decided to make a play for any voter contemplating casting a ballot for a party to Likud’s right. If the ploy worked, nobody would turn out to vote thinking there was anyone who despised and degraded Palestinians more than Bibi.
The strategy calls to mind the vow that a young George Wallace took in his pre-gubernatorial days, when he lost an election to a candidate who had engaged in far more race-baiting than he had. As reported by Dan T. Carter in “The Politics of Rage,” Wallace said, “Well, boys, no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-[n-word] me again.”
Until the final days of the Israeli campaign, there were leaders of parties to Likud’s right - Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett - who, when it came to their pronouncements on Palestinians, clearly out-race-baited Netanyahu. But in a closing rush, Bibi - henceforth, the Jewish George Wallace - closed the gap. His success in wooing the fearful and the bigoted to Likud was such that all the other far-right parties saw their results drop from their previous levels. Netanyahu’s apprehensions about high levels of Arab voting echoed not only such old-guard segregationists as Wallace but also our present-day Republican Party. The GOP’s war on minority voting, waged through voter ID laws and other obstacles to expanding the franchise, could offer Netanyahu lessons in winnowing the electorate in future contests. Perhaps Likud and the Republicans can open an Institute for the Prevention of Dark-Skinned People Voting.
In the wake of Netanyahu’s scorched earth campaign, every problem that besets Israel will only grow worse. The prime minister’s now-official opposition to a two-state solution will deepen the nation’s isolation and diminish its support within the one nation whose backing Israel most needs - the United States.
And how are Palestinians and Israeli Arabs supposed to react to Bibi’s closing outbursts? If all political avenues are closed to them - negotiations off the table, and their voting viewed as a threat to the state - what courses of action can they pursue? As much as Bibi set out to fan an anti-Palestinian fervor, he seemed just as close to inviting an intifada.
Finally, where does Netanyahu’s campaign and reelection leave the still considerable number of Israeli Jews who backed Labor and other center and left parties, whom Bernard Avishai, writing for the New Yorker, described as “younger, more cosmopolitan voters who have come into their own - connecting with peers abroad through entrepreneurial ventures, cultural and scientific networks, and travel”?
As Israel’s international isolation grows, and as the fear and loathing that Netanyahu stoked has the predictable effect of increasing the nation’s level of, well, fear and loathing, how long will these Jews elect to remain Israelis? The vision of Israel’s future that Netanyahu evoked is one that could intensify a counter-aliyah - an emigration to other nations, the United States in particular. Should that happen, the nation’s descent into tribal paranoia and religious fundamentalism (the same trajectory one sees in Israel’s Arab neighbors) would only increase. The paradox at the heart of the vision of Israel’s Zionist founders - at once particularist and universal, exclusionary and egalitarian - would be resolved in favor of a garrison-state tribalism.
It’s hard to think of a campaign that has done so much damage, or brought such disgrace upon the victor, as Netanyahu’s. He’s given “winning ugly” a bad name.
Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.