Wary as ever, Israelis send another mixed message

After the end of the nail-biting Super Bowl on Feb. 1, Kurt Warner, the quarterback for the losing Arizona Cardinals, was interviewed and graciously said that the victorious Pittsburgh Steelers won the game, but Arizona didn’t lose it.

His point was clear. It was not as if his team had bungled a victory, but that Pittsburgh just played better and won.


Herb Keinon

The same cannot be said of what stood at press time as an apparent razor-slim victory by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni over the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.


She did not so much win the election as have it handed to her by Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman.

It was Lieberman — along with two other small right-wing parties, Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union — who siphoned off votes from the Likud. And it was Lieberman — apparently — who brought to Livni some Labor, Meretz and Arab party voters who were petrified by the prospect of a Lieberman-centered government.

Unlike President Barack Obama, Livni did not run a flawless campaign. Unlike Obama, Livni did not come across as a comforting preacher-healer needed by a country in deep crisis. Unlike Obama, Livni did not excite the voters with lofty rhetoric and high ideals.

She didn’t have to; Lieberman did her work for her.

The Israeli electorate spoke this week, and its message was muddled — as has been the case so often over the past 25 years.

On the one hand, it gave the nod to Livni, indicating that it did not regain its trust in Netanyahu and also that it wanted to put the brakes on what is clearly a rightward turn.

On the other hand, the voters did clearly turn right, with the right-wing bloc roundly trumping the left, and with both Labor and Meretz losing significant ground. And there was no less a message in that than in the country’s rejection, yet again, of Netanyahu.

The message in the victory of the right-wing bloc was “enough” — enough of territorial concessions that lead nowhere, enough of military restraint that only breeds contempt. And for this deterioration of the left, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran can claim credit.

Abroad, the strong showing of the “neo-fascist” Lieberman and the increased strength of the “hard-line” Likud will be scorned and likely analyzed under headlines such as “Heading for disaster in the Holy Land,” or “Problems in the Promised Land.”

But those who write those headlines and analyses do not walk in our shoes or live in our homes. And here is how that home looks 15 years after Israel expressed a willingness to create a Palestinian state and proved a willingness to evacuate settlements with the start of the Oslo process: suicide bombers circumventing the security fence, Katyusha rockets landing on roofs, Kassam missiles flying through windows, Hezbollah trying to kick through the back door, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening to blow up the whole house.

That’s the reality that Israelis have woken up to every morning over the past 15 years, and that’s the reality that shaped the election outcome.

Does that mean that the diplomatic process is over? No, but the fact that Livni will be unable to form a coalition without right-wing parties indicates that Israelis want a new direction. They feel that the current path of negotiating with a Palestinian Authority that lacks any real authority over the Palestinians is meaningless, and that Israelis want reciprocity.

Much has been written over the years about how frustrated the Palestinians are that the more than decade-old peace process has not led to any real change in their lives.

The elections and the strengthening of the right — even if Livni eked out a slim victory — showed that Israelis are frustrated that the more than decade-old peace process has not changed their lives for the better, and — as a result — are very skeptical of the process and looking for new directions.

Some will say that Israel did little more this week than vote its fears. Bingo. And, truth be told, there is much out there for Israelis to be scared of. Indeed, there is more right now that is frightening Israelis than giving them hope.

Were Palestinian and regional Arab leaders to emerge singing from a different songbook than the one in use today, and were their actions compatible with that new song, then Israelis — who, for the most part, genuinely do want peace and are willing to accept a two-state solution — would, as the past has shown, embrace them.

But Israelis, as these elections showed, are becoming very wary, waiting to see whether the Palestinians and the Arab world might now rise to the occasion and change direction.

Herb Keinon is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this column first appeared.