The echoes are eerie.
On election day, 2015, PM Netanyahu urged Israelis to head to the polls, stoking fear by warning, baselessly, that the Israeli Arab population was being bused to voting stations “in droves.” The message? If you don’t vote for Likud, the left will prevail (Arab Israelis tend to support left-of-center parties).
The comment was aimed at the stalwart Likud base, which is overwhelmingly comprised of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews. Though it was untrue, it was also successful.
And therein lies the conundrum that no pundit dares to touch. So many hold forth on the important issues of this election: relations with Diaspora Jewry; the need to bring together the religious and secular; and, as always, how to manage security challenges and the “conflict.”
What no one seems to want to address–out loud, at least–is the fact that the majority of Jews in Israel are of middle eastern and North African descent. The Jews from Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Tunis, and Turkey are collectively referred to as “Sepharadim,” tracing their lineage to the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition.
Then there are those descended from Jews dispersed throughout Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere after the destruction of the Second Temple. They are known as “Mizrachim,” which translates literally from Hebrew as “Easterners.”
North American Jews are predominantly of East European origin. They were the early Zionist settlers, who spurned the shackles of organized religion and, very often, their mother tongue—Yiddish–as insufferable chains to the weak, Diaspora version of themselves.
The new Zionist Jew had dirt under his nails, carried a gun, and adopted a morally permissive lifestyle. They read Pushkin and Goethe, not Gemara. The pre-and post-state institutions reflected the saturation influence in Eastern Europe of socialist ideology and generally left-wing sensibilities. They also brooked none of what they viewed as the primitivism of their Mizrachi and Sephardic brothers and sisters. Their contempt was a blunt instrument, failing even to distinguish between the Yemenite Jews, who had been exposed to virtually none of the trappings of “modern life,” and the Jews of Iran and Iraq, among others, who were sophisticated, educated and commercially successful. It was a very crude “us” and “them” distinction.
The truth is, it was the East European socialists who drained the malarial swamps in present-day Israel, contended with backbreaking manual labor, isolation, despair, and grueling poverty. Of the approximately 3 million Eastern European Jews who high-tailed it out of the misery they had known for centuries before World War II, only a paltry 3 percent headed for the desolate land of ancient Israel. The vast majority made a bee-line for the goldene medine: America.
With the post-1948 influx into Israel of close to a million Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom were thrown out of the countries in which their families had lived for millennia, the Ashkenaz elite solidified control over powerful national institutions: the army, agricultural system, and union infrastructure.
The revenge of the underclass was personified in the election of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977. With roots in the right-wing of the Ashkenaz Zionist movement, Begin had been sidelined and mocked by his peers, chief among them founding father, David Ben Gurion. He had also been vilified for decades as an extreme terrorist, just like his successor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Begin bucked the system and dismissed the status quo, expressing the suppressed rage of all those marginalized Jews from places other than Russia and Poland; the metaphorical stevedores of the nation were fed up with condescension and disrespect.
Begin, the diminutive, scrawny, bespectacled Jew from Russia, was a fiery orator. He became the deliverance of the underclass. In many ways, as a political phenomenon, Bibi is his successor.
Emboldened considerably today, Likud voters are a “type.” Think taxi driver. Or, perhaps, Kiryat Tivon, a working-class town of 17,000 near Haifa, the majority of its inhabitants of Moroccan and Mizrachi descent. Last week, a television crew descended on Tivon to take the electoral pulse. One man who was interviewed, straight from Likud central casting, summed it up neatly. “Only Bibi is tough,” he said. “Only Bibi knows how to deal with the Arabs. And only Bibi has a diverse party, including and respecting the non-Ashkenaz.”
When the interviewer pointed out that all parties had diverse leadership and members these days, the Likud man waved dismissively. He was having none of it.
It is an extraordinary accomplishment. Netanyahu may not be universally loved, but he has transformed and now owns the Likud brand. That’s quite an accomplishment for an Ashkenaz, MIT educated, former elite combat soldier.
The majority of Jewish Israelis are of Mizrachi or Sephardic origin, not Ashkenaz. They come from a world utterly contrasting to the Ashkenaz universe, with their own customs and culture. The arrival of more than a million Jews from the FSU in the last 25 years has also fortified the right-wing voting bloc, reducing the center-left, once the Ironman of Israeli political sport, to a weak shadow of its formidable past.
The main competition for Likud in this election is blue-eyed Benny Gantz. The child of Holocaust survivors, this former IDF Chief of Staff leads a coalition of generals and political leaders who are galvanized around the paramount goal of deposing Netanyahu. Their brand is focused on strong security but more social and religious tolerance, contrasting with what they present as Bibi’s tendency to stoke and sow division.
For his part, Bibi dismisses the Gantz-led party, Blue and White, as weak opportunists.
Intending to smoke out his rudderless opposition, he has been telling Israelis for the last few days that if elected he will annex the West Bank, an abhorrent notion to the center and left of the spectrum. It is an intemperate pledge that he is unlikely to honor, but is meant to poke any passive Likud voters, just as he did in 2015 with the comment about convoys of buses.
“If you don’t vote for me,” he is signaling, “then you vote for the left. The end of Israel.”
The crazy thing is that to Blue and White and all center-and left-wing parties, the Bibi scenario of annexation heralds the beginning of the end of a democratic Israel. So, his dog-whistle to Likud and right-wing voters may be equally effective in motivating the centrists and mild leftists to scramble to the polls.
Bibi’s annexation gambit is intended to motivate every last right-wing voter, no matter how extreme, to cast their ballot for Likud. That would ensure that he has the largest bloc of mandates, making it virtually impossible for President Rivlin, whose loathing of Bibi is no secret, to allow Benny Gantz first crack at forming a coalition.
There were no convoys of buses ferrying Arab voters to the polls in 2015, and it is highly unlikely that, if he forms the next government, Netanyahu will annex the West Bank. But, as it did in 2015, his tactic will likely yield the intended result: Victory.