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Jim Sleeper: Israel's Election: Sea Change, or Mood Swing?

Jim Sleeper lectures in political science at Yale and posts frequently at TPM. He has been a New York newspaper columnist and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism. His website is www.jimsleeper.com.

"In the space of a few hours, Netanyahu watched as the American people formally gave their president four more years, and the people of Israel gave their prime minister six more weeks. That is the prime minister's deadline for forming a new coalition based on a Knesset majority, and it is going to be one long row," writes Bradley Burston of the liberal Haaretz, Israel's equivalent of Britain's The Guardian.

In Burston's judgment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a mostly Pyrrhic victory in the recent elections not only because he'd tried to offset religious rightists' defections from his coalition by moving farther right himself; his big mistake was to assume "that the center was as dead as the left. [But] the center, unimaginably, woke from years of suspended animation."

How did that happen? Let me introduce you to three representative Israelis I met two years ago on my way to and from a wedding at Beit Shemesh, an ancient village on a promontory an hour and a half southwest of Tel Aviv. In pre-biblical times the village overlooked a trade route, and then it became a Hebrew outpost near Philistine territory and, later, a border town between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

We drove to Beit Shemesh with a non-religious Netanyahu voter, and back to Tel Aviv with two equally non-religious voters who oppose Netanyahu. What they said was revealing about the Israeli center -- or at least the potential center Burston tells us is stirring.

The families of the bride in Beit Shemesh were originally from Istanbul and Gallipoli, where their ancestors had lived for 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition had driven Jews to the Ottoman Empire. They had grown up hearing their elders speak Ladino, a Sephardic Jewish equivalent of Yiddish that is mostly Spanish rather than mostly German -- an unbroken but fading thread back to pre-Inquisition Spain.

The groom is the son of Jewish refugees from interwar Europe who had moved to Buenos Aires, and as his mother offered the newlyweds her blessings, the Turkish Jews present were startled and moved by the remnants and echoes in her lovely, soft Argentine Spanish of their old Istanbul Ladino. All this alongside the ancient liturgical Hebrew that had traveled with all the families across time and space and bound them closely now to the site of the wedding.

How closely? On our way to Beit Shemesh, our driver, a friendly, politically passionate fellow of about 40 with a shaved head, had given us the characteristic Israeli line on "the situation" of Israel in the world. It's the line that shapes most news reportage in the country and, with it, most Israelis' attitudes and analysis. To paraphrase and summarize:

The world is against us no matter what we do. They wanted us out of Europe. Now that they got us out, they want us out of here, too. They hated us when we ran Gaza, they hated us when we got out and left greenhouses and schools, which Hamas made a big show of destroying; and now they hate us because we can't let Gaza be run by a heavily armed Hamas, which most Palestinians themselves fear and hate and which is tied to powers that are sworn to destroy us.

You see, no one in this region respects or responds to anything but brute force. We have to live with that day and night, so we understand.

I used to vote left, and I still don't like Bibi or [Avigdor] Lieberman, and I'd still say, Give back the Golan Heights, give back East Jerusalem. But give it to who? How naïve can we be?

Does anyone think that any Arab regime, or Amadenijad or Erdogan, who all have more blood on their own hands than we ever did, and who are trying to hide so much brutality now, care a damn about Palestinians? I swear to you, I care more than they ever will.

He drew analogies between the West's baffling, hypocritical indulgence of such monsters and earlier naifs' indulgences of Hitler as amassed power and credibility and broadcast his murderous intentions.

Finally, approaching Beit Shemesh, our driver reminded us that the name "Palestine" is the ancient Roman imperial name for the land of the Philistines, not for Arabs, and that Hebrew was spoken in Palestine more than seven centuries before Arabic was.

It's a seemingly unbreakable and doomed logic -- Netanyahu's logic -- and most Israelis have been sunk in it since the massive wave of suicide bombings in the middle of the last decade. With a better mix of incentives and alternatives as well as constraints, Hamas and Hezbollah might evolve as other seemingly terminally murderous organizations in Ireland and South Africa evolved. Without such a strategy, far-fetched though it may seem to Netanyahu's and his supporters, there will be more brutal, hopeless conflicts that drag all parties, including the beautiful wedding party in Beit Shemesh, to destruction.

So, could Israel itself change in the ways the Ulster Protestants and Afrikaners have done? We rode back from the wedding with two Israelis in their 50s who wished that it could but doubted that it will. They are professional men, one a psychologist and consultant to high-tech companies, the other an industrial-relations expert who hosts some of China's commercial delegations to Israel, where they study irrigation, desalinization, and other agricultural innovations.

Both are cosmopolitan, readers of Haaretz, and also Israeli army veterans and fathers of sons who are or were recently in the army. They were deeply pessimistic about the Israeli public, which they feared wouldn't give up thinking like our first driver until the next, really big, disaster teaches them that the softer, defter strategies are actually Israel's only hope.

Such strategies, involving irresistible economic incentives and real political opportunities, might, if sustained over time, loosen things up enough among Palestinians to diminish the grip of Hamas' most destructive theocrats. Such strategies might even diminish the geo-political shell games being played by cynical Hamas supporters who have so much to hide (including Turkey, whose record with Armenians and Kurds makes its posturing as a champion of oppressed Gazans transparently demagogic.)

Because our hosts on the drive home doubted that Israel's politicians and public would take the necessary first steps, they were desperate for Obama to take those steps by pulling a couple of plugs on Bibi's state-of-siege politics. But that would depend, they felt, how big a shift of opinion is really underway in the American Jewish community.

I arrived back in Tel Aviv aware even more starkly than I'd been before of how despairing and isolated some of the best of Israelis were feeling. If there was an Israeli Obama on the country's horizon, no one I've talked to had spotted him among the midgets and monsters running most of the show.

Now I think I know why Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party have grown in the two years since my visit to Beit Shemesh: The yearning of many Israelis like those I drove back with for more sanity and humanity in their politics has grown strong enough to make them willing to take a gamble on a former television anchor who does seem to embody a new approach.

But the wily Netanyahu is far from defeated, even though he and his politics have lost some of the aura of inevitability that had swayed our driver on the way to Beit Shemesh. Israel's hyper-aggressive posture reflects not only the "tough neighborhood" that Netanyahu is always reminding us it lives in. Some of what's wrong -- perhaps even doomed -- in its posture also reflects its embrace of the casino-finance and corporate capitalism that have deepened its inequalities, alienation, and strains of fanaticism. It'll take more than an electoral mood swing for a better Israel to re-take possession of itself politically and to lighten the fatalism of our drivers to and from Beit Shemesh.

Read entire article at Huffington Post