If there’s one image from Israeli life that illustrates the national mentality in this decade, it’s the sight of cars backed up in front of you on the highway, and as far and wide as you search, you probably won’t find a single political bumper sticker. No slogans, no parties, no movements. You see quite a few true-believing Orthodox Jewish stickers —“We have no one to depend on except the Blessed Holy One” is a favorite — but aside from them, virtually the only stickers on Israeli bumpers in the 2010’s are commercial advertisements, with “How am I driving?” easily being number one.
This marks a radical change from decades past, when it seemed every newly arrived foreign correspondent from a major newspaper wrote about the vehement political debate going on between Israeli cars on the road, which was seen as a perfect illustration of the passion Israelis brought to political life. In 2004, novelist David Grossman wrote the lyrics of a famous song — “The Sticker Song,” which strung together 54 Israeli bumper-sticker slogans, most of them political —“A whole generation demands peace,” “Let the IDF win,” “The nation is with the Golan,” “Yes to peace, no to violence,” “Shalom, haver,” “It’s all because of you, haver,” “Hebron, always and forever,” and so on. That was in 2004. Except for the few old leftover stickers that haven’t been peeled off, they’re all gone and no new ones have taken their place.
I can’t think of the last political sticker that caught on with Israelis, not on the right or the left. I always used to have a left-wing sticker on my car; it was a matter of principle. But that was in decades past. The last one I can remember putting on my car was “When it’s all shit, evacuate” for disengagement in 2005. Which one would I put on today? Peace Now? Is Peace Now doing something; are there any demonstrations? (This is another conspicuous absence that tells so much about contemporary Israel.) Should I put up another Meretz sticker? Meretz still says all the right things; it’s still a brave, honorable party, but it has no impact anymore. Yet there’s another reason why leftists like me haven’t put political stickers on our cars in recent years: We’re afraid. Afraid they’ll just be torn off, one after another, which is kind of humiliating, as I described earlier — but also that our cars could get vandalized if we parked in the wrong place, such as Jerusalem (never mind a West Bank settlement). In the late 1990’s, I was stopped at a light in Jerusalem with a Peace Now sticker on my rear bumper, and the car sitting in back bumped me—not hard enough to cause a dent, but enough to show the driver’s mind was somewhere else. I turned around and glared at him, then turned back around. A few seconds later, he bumped me again. I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a young man in the driver’s seat staring at me grimly. The light turned green and I drove off. The only explanation I have is my Peace Now sticker that was staring at him.
Nowadays, I think displaying left-wing sentiments would be more dangerous than in decades past. Right-wing marauders in Jerusalem and other cities used to be accustomed to the sight of peacenik bumper stickers—they were all over the place—but the new generation grew up without them, and if they suddenly started seeing cars sporting left-wing or antiwar stickers, or, God forbid, ones for the despised New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, or Breaking the Silence, I think they’d go wild.
And just as the left’s hopelessness and timidity explain the absence of left-wing bumper stickers, the right’s awareness of the left’s lack of spirit explains the absence of right-wing bumper stickers: They don’t need them anymore. They’ve won. They don’t need to get in the left’s face any longer—the left has backed down. Is the “national camp” in danger of being overthrown by the “peace camp”? Is there any threat to the settlements? Is there a Palestinian state looming on the horizon? In this second age of Netanyahu, and starting even a couple of years before, an Israeli putting a right-wing bumper sticker on his car would just be bursting through an open door.
We are in a post-political era in this country. The central, over-riding political fact of national life, the occupation, is no longer a subject for discussion. As far as the public and the major parties are concerned, it’s settled (in more ways than one). The January 2013 campaign, the first of the decade, was also the first in which the question of the occupied territories, and of war and peace in general, was not disputed between the large parties. The Likud’s prescription—more of the same—went unchallenged as the Labor Party, for the first time, dropped the whole matter and concentrated strictly on economic issues. Meanwhile, the star of that election, media personality Yair Lapid, head of the new Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, turned indifference to the occupation into an art. Campaigning against corruption, the high cost of living, and the economic, military, and religious burden of the ultra-Orthodox, Yesh Atid won enough votes to become the second-largest party in the country behind Likud.
This indifference carried on later in the year when John Kerry started up a new peace process. Everybody but Kerry knew it was going nowhere. After nine months, the Netanyahu government, which had shown its attitude to the negotiations by announcing one new settlement project after another, reneged on its commitment to release the last set of long-serving Palestinian prisoners, and that was that—“poof,” as Kerry would haplessly put it.
The 2015 election campaign matched the pattern of contemporary Israeli political life. The only change is in the hardening of the status quo: The country gets more paranoid, more racist, more aggressive. Netanyahu’s Election Day appeal to right-wing voters that “the Arabs are heading to the polls in droves, the left-wing NGOs are bussing them in” has become notorious, but it was only the culmination of an already vicious campaign, the worst he’d ever run, which is saying a lot.
For decades he had been accusing his centrist rivals of being “leftists,” but this time he charged Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and their Zionist Union list with being “anti-Zionists,” which, in the Israeli political vocabulary, is worse than being leftists. A leftist may be merely naïve, a bleeding heart, someone who speaks up for the Arabs out of that old, unkillable Jewish guilt—but an anti-Zionist is a declared hater and enemy of the State of Israel, an anti-Semite. Netanyahu accused Israel’s friendliest Arab, sportscaster and inter-communal peacemaker Zohair Bahloul, the only Arab high enough on Zionist Union’s ticket to be electable, of “giving character testimony in praise of Hezbollah”—which, as Bahloul’s testimony from the trial in question showed, was the exact opposite of the truth. Netanyahu’s single deadliest campaign video, set to a sound track of Arabic rap music, showed a truck full of ISIS men asking an Israeli, “How do we get to Jerusalem, bro?” The Israeli replies, “Take a left,” and the ISIS team drives on with shouts of jubilation. Punctuated by the sound of gunshots, the words, “The left will surrender to terror,” appear on the screen in red letters with bullet holes.
And it worked. I spoke to voters in different mainstream right-wing strongholds, and while they all talked like civilized, friendly people, which you wouldn’t have guessed from the campaigns of the parties they supported, the sentiment I heard over and over, in one phrasing or another, was fear of the so-called left taking over. (And this when the “left-wing” opposition, for the second straight election, had airbrushed the occupation and the Palestinians out of their campaign, lined up behind Bibi on security, and focused strictly on domestic, chiefly economic, issues.) The remark that stood out for me came from a 24-year-old biotechnology student at Bar-Ilan University named Reuven Gersovitch. “God forbid Zionist Union wins,” he said, sitting at an outdoor campus café. “They live in a different world. They’re nice people, they’re good people, but their way of looking at things is just not suitable to where we live.”
Israelis were growing more and more complacent. The economy was good enough for most and great for many, we’d won the war in Gaza, there were no rockets flying our way, no terror to speak of from the West Bank, and the riots in East Jerusalem, which had been sparked by the burning alive of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy by local Jews, had pretty much faded. Between the wars, now falling every couple of years or so, Bibi was keeping us pretty safe and prosperous. For a Jewish state in the Middle East looking out for number one, this was the best of all possible worlds.