Who’s afraid of the big bad Likud?

Hysteria is the default mode of Israeli politics, the timbre of discourse a panicked shriek, but this week things went full-on meshuggah.

Ehud Barak resigned as Defense Minister, figuring he had little chance of retaining the job after the election, while former prime minister Ehud Olmert hinted at a grudge-match comeback to take down his hated arch-rival Bibi Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni returned to politics with a new party and poached former Labor leader Amram Mitzna to be her deputy, while another previous Labor leader, Amir Peretz, threatened to split the party if chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich joined a Likud-led coalition after the election. The United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status to “non-member observer state”, a unilateral move that prompted Prime Minister Netanyahu to announce the building of 3,000 new units in Judea and Samaria.

The Left has reserved its shrieking, however, for the Likud primaries and the list of candidates drawn up to fight the January election. The list saw centrist candidates fare poorly while more right-wing names took top positions. This proved problematic for Left-Zionist types who have always portrayed Likud as The Most Crazypants Right-Wing Gang In The History of Everything Ever and yet had to convey how much more crazypants right-wing this slate of candidates was. Thus the 2013 candidates were “the craziest, most radical list ever” for +972 Magazine and Likud was “the party of annexation” for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion.

Haaretz, the ever-fainting maiden aunt of Israeli journalism, worried: “Has Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” and warned that the list heralded a “hawkish earthquake” and “a tectonic shift to the right” that was “sure to worry foreign capitals and Diaspora Jews” while “creat[ing] new long-term challenges for Israel’s hasbara efforts and for the country’s PR campaign abroad”. Reports that it would also cause Hanukkah sufganiyot to spontaneously combust and spark a mass epidemic of Jewish sons not calling their mothers remain unconfirmed.

Far from a lurch to the right, or the emergence of “an extreme right-wing party with strong racist undertones” as the completely sane Carlo Strenger puts it, the list represents the coming up of the next generation of the Likud. Of the top 20 names – those most likely to be elected – around half are under the age of 50. Further, as Jeremy Saltan points out, the list includes at least six supporters of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, hardly an indicator of pro-settler fanaticism, and where moderates were overlooked it was often because of their establishment connections rather than their centrism. So it was more of a Tea Party-style rebellion against Jerusalem insiders.

Moreover, the caricaturing of some of the candidates, particularly MKs Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely, distorts these energetic and intelligent – if not always to my taste – leaders and offers them up as moon-baying militants desperate to detonate Israel’s democracy. The truth, as ever, is slightly more nuanced.

Danny Danon is a passionate campaigner for Ethiopian Jews, fighting against discrimination, and forcing a national conversation on the little-discussed issue of domestic abuse against Ethiopian-Israeli women by their husbands. Inspired by his ideological hero Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who asserted “the woman’s place over that of men in every fundamental aspect of public and private life” and in the 1920s refused to pay dues to the Jerusalem Municipal Committee until it allowed women to sit on its executive board, Danon was active in the protests against the ill-treatment of women by some ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh and was co-author of the legislation that bans modelling agencies and advertisers from using “Size Zero” models.

Tzipi Hotovely is a young and brilliant political mind; a writer, legal scholar, PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, and one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in Israel. As chairperson of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and a member of the parliamentary Lobby for Single Parent Families, the 34-year-old Hotovely has done more to advance gender equality than politicians many years her senior. She personally broke the (voluntary) gender segregation on “mehadrin” busses in Beit Shemesh and initiated legislation to strip any organisation which participates in discrimination against women of all public funding. She has passed legislation extending maternity leave, banning the photographing of sexual assault victims, and toughening the law on the employment of sex offenders. When the committee that appoints rabbinical judges lost its only female member, Hotovely authored a bill making female representation on the panel a legal requirement. While some of her legislation has been kiboshed in committee or on the floor – bills to increase public funding to political parties that run more female candidates, to extend the statute of limitations for sex offences, and to maintain the earlier retirement age for women – she fights on like a happy warrior.

Both Danon and Hotovely have made statements and advocated policies with which I strongly disagree, and I certainly hold no brief for either of them, but to pretend they are far-right insurgents gunning for Israeli liberalism is a satisfying but dishonest fiction for self-indulgent leftists.

There’s much that could be said about others on the list – Silvan Shalom’s career as an education reformer, Gilad Erdan’s work on drug dependency, or Yariv Levin’s championing of grandparents’ rights – and the demonisation of these bright and capable politicians is a function of malice and political calculation. But there is one name that I too consider worrying and counterproductive to a Likud party that should be aiming to represent all of Israel. Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Manhigut Yehudit faction, and someone whose reactionary policies and ultranationalist pronouncements make even some Likudniks – and this Likud sympathiser – blanch in horror, has no place on the Likud list. Bibi has bumped the extreme Feiglin down the list on a technicality before and with any luck he’ll do so again.

Unfortunately for the op-ed writers and academic brow-furrowers, the voters get to decide the outcome of elections and the polls show Likud-Beiteinu holding a healthy lead over Labor. Of course, as this week has shown, anything can happen in Israeli politics but the numbers and the public mood point to a Netanyahu win. And that’s where the hysteria over the list comes in. The Left and its boosters in the media know they can’t beat Bibi. Even when he loses his Defense Minister. Even when he loses control of his party’s list. Even when he oversees a diplomatic catastrophe at the UN. The voters don’t necessarily like Bibi – he’s a tough guy, rough guy, not a group-hugger – but they know he’ll cut their taxes and protect them from rockets and won’t risk another wave of suicide bombings from a failed peace plan. The Left fears Likud because it fears the voters, fears their demands, and fears that they have stopped listening.

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