Diary

Yonatan Mendel

Since the night of the Israeli election on 22 January I have been avoiding Israeli news. It wasn’t exactly something I decided to do: perhaps it was just my immune system protecting me from the flood of commentators and the endless repetition of words like ‘hope’, ‘change’, ‘future’ and ‘the new politics’. I escaped straightaway to the websites of the BBC and the Guardian and found myself suspiciously interested in the drivers caught in the snow on British motorways. Lucky them, I thought.

No one predicted the success of Yair Lapid. According to the last poll I heard before the election, he was expected to get nine seats, and I remember thinking to myself that for a party that was established only a year ago, and that since then hadn’t said a single meaningful thing about anything, it was quite a generous prediction. In that poll, the right-wing bloc had a strong lead, with Likud-Beiteinu (a merging of Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) expected to get 36 seats, and the Jewish Home party (an ultra-nationalist movement headed by the former director of the settlements’ council) 14 seats. This implied that after the election Netanyahu would only have to tempt the religious parties into joining his government, after which he’d be able to continue undisturbed in his great effort to make Israel the pariah state of the world.

But on the night of the election, Likud-Beiteinu went down to 31 seats, and Jewish Home – despite talk of its rise – settled on 12. Lapid hit the jackpot and introduced 19 new members (including himself) into the Knesset, many of whom had been anonymous hitherto. Overnight, Lapid became the head of the second-largest party after Likud. Netanyahu will now be forced to include ‘centrist’ parties in his coalition, and of these Lapid’s is definitely the first choice. It was a night the handsome TV presenter – Lapid’s job before he went into politics – will never forget, but the morning after was arguably nothing more than a cosmetic change on the face of Israel.

On the day of the election I woke up in my apartment in Tel Aviv, but I had to get to Jerusalem to vote, since I have never told the authorities (or myself) that I am a Tel Avivian (I am not: I just happen to live there). The radio was celebrating democracy’s great moment just as I passed Latrun junction on the way to Jerusalem, where three Palestinian villages (Yalu, ’Amwas and Beit Nouba) had stood until 1967. They were destroyed in that year’s war by the democracy’s army, who also put roadblocks around their perimeter and planted a forest where the streets had been, just to make sure the people who’d lived there wouldn’t be able to come back one day to perform their democratic duty.

It was a sunny day and the radio interviewees seemed filled with optimism. Netanyahu waved his ballot paper in front of the journalists and made a not very funny joke. Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labour Party, was in good spirits too and said she wasn’t going to say who she voted for; then she too made a not very funny joke. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of Shas (the Orthodox Mizrahi party), didn’t speak to the media, but the female observers at his polling station asked him for a blessing and he was happy to give it to them on the record. Asked by reporters how he had voted, Lapid announced with a smile that it was the first time he had voted for himself and that it was ‘indeed a unique experience’. He wasn’t half as funny, though, as the leader of Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, who said that he was calling on voters to ‘join the new house we established in Israel … all you of you – including men and women, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Druze and Arabs.’ It was hard to say what was more bizarre: the distinction he was making between Arabs and Druze or his notion that Palestinian citizens of Israel would vote for a party called Jewish Home, one of whose candidates suggested a couple of years ago in a Florida church that it would be ‘incredible’ if the Dome of the Rock were blown up. You can see it on YouTube.

I entered Jerusalem and went to the polling station in the primary school I left 25 years ago. Bennett was very visible on the posters outside, smiling broadly (‘I love the people of Israel’; ‘I love the state of Israel’; ‘I love the army of Israel’; ‘I love the Torah of Israel’). After voting I went to see my grandmother. She has just turned 97 and has voted in every election since 1948; in 1965 she voted for Abie Nathan and in 1969 for Uri Avnery. This time, she voted for Meretz, a liberal Zionist party. Given her record, and the fact that she opposed both Gaza wars, I felt that this wasn’t the party for her. But there is something about Israel that makes it hard for its Jewish citizens to think outside the Zionist parties’ box. We met in a new coffee shop called Old Katamon, an incongruity that didn’t seem to bother anyone. Neither the name of the place nor its description as ‘a dairy Kosher coffee place, located in a 110-year-old house, which serves unique pasta dishes and uses only free-range eggs’ seemed to signal a missing landlord to its customers, or a missing community, not to mention a missing participant in the not so free-range elections.

It was time to go back to Tel Aviv to try to make use of what was left of the day. As I drove, Shelly Yachimovich called. She rang me about five times over the week of the election: was she desperate? ‘Shalom, this is Shelly Yachimovich,’ said the recorded voice on the other end of the phone, followed by a string of promises about a better future, social democracy, and a pinch of social justice. She didn’t use – she never uses – any tricky words like ‘occupation’, ‘land confiscation’ or ‘settlements’ (‘I certainly don’t see the settlement project as a sin,’ she said in an interview with Haaretz). She also, significantly, refrained from using the L word, a word that has become a curse, a badge of shame in the Israeli political system: ‘Left’. ‘To say that the Labour Party is a left-wing party is a historical injustice,’ Yachimovich said in an interview on the news.

Another person to have learned the lesson is Amram Mitzna, Tsipi Livni’s number two, who made the mistake of saying on a comedy show that ‘we are not another centre party … we are a left party.’ Comedy or not, Livni called Mitzna that evening and rebuked him for using the L word in public. She asked him to apologise, and in a clarification he made the next day, he said: ‘What I meant was that I am from the left and Livni is from the right, and that we meet in the centre.’ So strong is the curse that Bennett too, from the ultra-right, used it against Netanyahu and Lieberman, from the merely far right, when he said: ‘We in Jewish Home are the only centre party after Netanyahu took a sharp turn to the left.’

Tel Aviv was packed and my girlfriend warned me off going home. She works for the Jewish-Arab list, Al-Jabha/Hadash, or the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (a new way to avoid the word ‘communism’). She wanted me to spend as much time as possible stuck in the traffic in order to drive a member of the party from one ballot box to another in the south part of Tel Aviv. Our task was to check that the few red-shirted volunteers were all right, that no one was hungry, that there were a plausible number of ballot papers in the boxes, and that nobody got into trouble in the new McCarthyite Israel.

Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), had a large stand outside Bialik-Rogozin School. I was the last person to get a leaflet as it had just gone five o’clock and the three Lapid supporters were starting to dismantle their stall. A woman in a red dress, who behaved suspiciously like a leftist, was taunting them: ‘Doesn’t Lapid pay you overtime? Working 9 to 5, eh? How much did you get to stand here?’ Maybe there was some truth to her jokes, as the three disappeared soon afterwards. To me, naive as I was, it looked like another sign that Lapid’s party was made up of time-serving nonentities who, when it came to the big moment, no one would vote for. Who, I thought, would vote for a party that, like all the others, talks about a ‘better future’, but whose catchphrase – instead of the familiar ‘social democracy’ (Labour) or ‘a strong Israel’ (Likud-Beiteinu) or ‘our brothers and sisters’ (Jewish Home) – was ‘middle class’, ‘middle class’, ‘middle class’?

A lot of people was the message I received from my friend Elad, who owns a pub in south Tel Aviv. He sent me a text listing the many friends and customers who had told him they had decided to vote for Lapid – next to two of them he added ‘and his workmates’, ‘and her husband’, and next to another: ‘and his pub’. Elad said he hoped that at least the Arab population would go out and vote in large numbers, which would mean stronger representation for the Jewish-Arab list, the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) and the more conservative Islamic party (Ra’am Ta’al). I told him he should start worrying as I was just parking in the Ajami neighbourhood in Jaffa, and the queues of Jewish customers outside Arab restaurants were ten times longer than those of Arabs outside Israeli polling stations. Sixty-five years in opposition, with not one Israeli government ever having included any Palestinian Arab party in its coalition: that can’t have done much to encourage Palestinian Arabs to vote. Not to mention four years of the present government with its record of anti-democratic and racist bills. Yet there is little satisfaction to be had from the Arab MPs who can’t work together and have done very little to improve the situation of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens.

At around 9 p.m. people started saying that Lapid was expected to win about twenty seats. The text message I got from my father when I sent him this information was: ‘Impossible. Let’s wait and see.’ But instead of waiting I had been co-opted by the party to observe the count at a religious school in south Tel Aviv. It was the first time I had done this, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to my friends. One thing became quickly clear: Lapid was truly the star of the election. In the middle-class neighbourhood I was stationed in, he won by a very big margin. When the head of the count took out a Likud-Beiteinu ballot paper, or a Labour one, or a Shas one, or a Kadima one (this only happened once), I felt nothing, but when the paper had the letters PH on them (the symbol of Lapid’s party) I felt dizzy. I couldn’t believe so many people were voting for a party that was less than a year old, that didn’t seem to stand for anything, other than the vague promise of a better deal for the ‘middle class’. What I couldn’t work out was what kind of Israel people wanted when they voted for that kind of party.

I stopped watching Israeli news the next day. Well, apart from a segment one minute and 38 seconds long which brought back my symptoms of dizziness, along with high blood pressure and acute stomach ache. It was a short statement by Lapid. ‘The citizens of Israel,’ the man with hair gel said,

voted yesterday for sanity, they voted for hope, and they voted because they believe in our chances of working together and creating a better place … I heard the prime minister and was happy to see that he is now speaking about the same things we have been speaking about for the last year: sharing the burden [of military service], the situation of the Israeli middle class, and the need to rescue the middle class and help it in education and housing, and in everything that is important to people who live here and love this place … I also heard the talk about a blocking majority [the idea that Lapid might join a ‘centre-left’ bloc against Netanyahu], and I want to take this option off the table. We are not going to create this bloc with the Haneen Zoabis [smiling]. It is not something that is going to happen.

Lapid, it was clear, not only did not see himself as an alternative to Netanyahu or part of a ‘centre-left’ coalition, and not only did not perceive the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel as legitimate partners: he was participating in the fascistic Israeli habit of generalising the Arab population (‘Haneen Zoabis’, after the Palestinian Arab MP Haneen Zoabi). It is an impressive act of condescension to dismiss 20 per cent of the country’s citizens in one contemptuous phrase. The sad thing is that no one (not a single journalist celebrating his victory on television, nor any of the more progressive members of his list) was uncomfortable with the expression.

In one minute and 38 seconds, Lapid joined the large Israeli orchestra that demonised Haneen Zoabi’s protest against the Israeli siege of Gaza in May 2010 when she boarded the cruise ship Mavi Marmara, which was part of the flotilla that aimed to break the siege. Israeli commandos raided the ship in international waters and in clashes with passengers, whom Israel called ‘terrorists’, nine Turkish citizens were shot dead. Despite the fact that the Israeli government’s legal adviser said that there was no evidence to cite against Zoabi, that she hadn’t committed any crime, and despite the fact that the investigation committee appointed by Israel concluded that she ‘was below deck on the ship and was not involved in any clashes with the soldiers’, Zoabi was marked in Israel as a traitor and an enemy. In this respect, Lapid wasn’t doing anything different from other Israeli politicians. He just joined the army of Jewish Israelis who scapegoated a member of the Knesset for having concerns different from those of the Jewish Israeli middle class.

The other thing which struck me in that minute and 38 seconds was that no one had mentioned the occupation or Gaza, or the Palestinians, or the Haredi Jews (the ultra Orthodox), or anyone at all who wasn’t contributing to Lapid’s common good. It was a conservative morning that saw the military – again – as the focal point of Israeli society; it was a right-wing capitalist morning, a morning for the middle class to assert their right to know why their taxes were being used to help the weak; and it was a morning of blindness, since those who really need to be ‘rescued’ are exactly those who Lapid feels are the problem.

I remembered the reaction of my friend Abigail, who lives in Oxford and who came to visit during the ‘social justice protests’ in the summer of 2011. ‘Why do people here keep speaking about a social protest?’ she asked after a trip to Rothschild Avenue. ‘This is a consumer protest.’ And indeed, the hundreds of thousands of people who went out on the streets weren’t there out of a wish for social or political change. It is no surprise that Lapid, the Robin Hood of Israel’s middle class, won the vote in Omer and Savyon, the two richest towns in Israel, but got only 4 and 2 per cent respectively in Ofakim and Netivot, two of Israel’s poorest towns. Lapid’s slogans spoke about ‘sharing the burden’ – mostly in relation to what he called the ‘unfair’ exemption of Haredi and Arab citizens from serving in the army – and he was able to give the demonstrators the feeling that other people were living off them. He was distinguishing between ‘those who give’, meaning ‘us’, successful individuals, the ones who make money, and ‘those who take’, meaning ‘them’, the unemployed, the Arab citizens and the Haredi Jews, all those groups who chose their poverty at our expense.

Lapid, who began his election campaign deep in the West Bank, and who says that ‘a united Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel for ever,’ and that in a two-state solution Israel will maintain control of the ‘blocks of settlements’, and that Israel ‘must at last get rid of the Palestinians and put a fence between us’, knew he wasn’t saying or doing anything politically different from Netanyahu, Lieberman, Yachimovich, Livni, Mofaz, Olmert, Barak (or Sharon, if he ever wakes up). In the vision of the ‘peace agreement’ they share, next to a sovereign, nuclear, powerful Israel that stretches over almost 80 per cent of historical Palestine, a demilitarised, hollowed out, no-airport, no-port, no-borders, no Jordan Valley, non-sovereign, 20 per cent ‘Palestine’ will be established. The reason Lapid has been so successful is that he knows that in a consumerist society the candidate who promises to make the most of our money is the star; that it would be a waste of his time to talk about the Palestinians. And it’s because they believe in stars that people I overheard weren’t sure whether to vote for ‘Yair’ or ‘Tsipi’ or ‘Shelly’ or ‘Bibi’ without even mentioning (or knowing) the name of the parties they represented.

Politics, in the usual sense of the word, played no part in Israel’s election. No one gave any thought to the occupation, Israel’s position in the Middle East and the growing international criticism of Israeli policies. They were enchanted by Lapid’s TV presenter style, by his alleged ‘new politics’ – which are fundamentally no different from Netanyahu’s neoliberal politics. Israelis want to imagine they are far away from the Middle East, that they have the ‘regular’ economic concerns of Western democracies. They want to be not part of America but another America which is situated between Lebanon and Egypt, and Lapid helped them hallucinate. Playing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ – the same song that accompanied Obama’s campaign – at full volume in his car he probably started believing it himself. Muhammad Ali, he said, was his ‘cultural hero’ (hence perhaps the rumours about the boxer’s deteriorating health); and at the rock-style party with which he celebrated his victory he played the electric guitar while the former head of the Shin Bet (number five on his list) played the trumpet to ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’. This is the sort of American dream Lapid sold the Israelis and they voted for the handsome, athletic-looking former chat-show presenter because he said the same thing as the other candidates but said it better.

A few days after the election it was reported that tests had been conducted at the Soroka University Medical Centre in Be’er Sheba to assess the condition of Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a stroke in 2006. The results showed that Sharon was exhibiting brain activity, though Shiba Hospital, where he is actually hospitalised, said these weren’t new findings and that Sharon’s condition can be defined as ‘low-level consciousness’. A senior Israeli neurologist involved in the test put it more clearly: ‘the chances of Sharon getting out of bed are very, very low.’ Israel too is suffering from low-level consciousness, it too has been asleep for a long time, and the chances of its getting out of bed any time soon are very, very low.