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How Nearly Everyone Got the Election So Wrong

Looking at the prevailing narratives about Israel

Adam Chandler
January 23, 2013

Early in an otherwise compelling and exhaustive look at The Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in last week’s New Yorker, David Remnick framed Bennett’s story and the Israeli election this way:

The Israeli elections will be held on January 22nd. Netanyahu is almost sure to keep his position. But that is not the central story of this political moment. Naftali Bennett is. His party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), represents the merger and reinvigoration of two older religious parties, and it is rapidly gaining ground. Many expect a third-place finish, behind Labor, which would be a remarkable achievement; second place is not inconceivable.

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead.

Just weeks earlier, J Street Prez Jeremy Ben-Ami, after lamenting–in great detail on the Washington Post opinion page–the “meteoric” rise of Bennett and the Israeli right, also threw some serious shade at the right’s so-called enablers:

This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country who refuse to question Israel’s policies as the two-state solution slips through our fingers.

This idea–proven false yesterday–didn’t come out of thin air, polling showed Bennett’s “meteoric” rise as a serious trend. But it was a trend that many of us got caught up in and from which we divined much false wisdom.

Part of this seems to be rooted in the fact that we–at our own peril–ignore Israel’s complexity in favor of its crudeness and worry aloud about its supposed infatuation with hari-kari instead of its impressive knack for self-preservation. There are still plenty of reasons why yesterday’s election will not allay the fears of many who are rightly skeptical of the future considering the depth of the challenges facing Israel (check back with us later for that). Others will no doubt argue that yesterday’s election represents a step toward the abyss.

But for now, the real disconnect seems to be the way in the narrative is being presented. (I’m sure I’ve got some declamatory sentences that I’d like to unwrite.)

It’s only natural that if you ask an Israeli settler what the most important issue is, he or she will probably tell you that it’s the settlement enterprise. The fact that 96% of Israelis are not settlers remains very easily forgotten when settlers seemingly get 96% of our attention. The same goes for the obsession with Israel’s enemies. These are huge factors, but not the only factors.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.