The Magazine

WHY BIBI WON

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Not since the nuclear freeze hysteria of the early 1980s has the American press so lost its compass, so forfeited even the pretense of objectivity, as it did covering the recent Israeli election. (The parallel is not accidental, both frenzies triggered by the specter of right-wing warmongers come to power. ) The demonization of Bibi Netanyahu has been thorough and near universal. Everywhere, from the front page to the editorial page, a vote for him was explained -- and thus decried -- as a rejection of peace, a surrender to fear, an end of everything good and hopeful and promising wrought by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.


The apotheosis of this trend was a Tom Friedman column in the New York Times painting Netanyahu and his Likud party as the moral equivalent of Gennadi Zyuganov and the Russian Communist party. (They're running a close race for control of another country of interest to the United States.) On the one hand, you have a collection of Stalinist hacks who believe that Russia, at eleven time-zones wide, is too small for national dignity. On the other hand, you have a party of center-right free-market democrats who believe that Israel, at eight miles wide (it becomes so on the day the West Bank becomes a Palestinian state) is too small for national survival. To compare one to the other is more than absurd. It is scandalous.


But effective. I actually heard Steven Roberts of U. S. News & World Report, an otherwise estimable journalist, parrot this line on a radio talk show just a few days before the election. Friedman's column was a nadir of sorts. But he had plenty of company at the bottom.


Now that Netanyahu has won, the media, having failed to prevent the calamity, are busy trying to undo it. In place of apocalyptic predictions, they are back with revisionist history. The object is to delegitimize Netanyahu's victory by explaining that it was not a victory -- and not Netanyahu's -- after all.


II


One favorite theme is that Netanyahu was elected by Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin. This is the ultimate delegitimation of a democratic election, there being no more serious charge than that the result was in fact obtained by violence. And it rests on the assertion that Rabin "would have certainly beaten Mr. Netanyahu." (Friedman again.)


First, no one can ever know for sure. But second, a study of the data strongly supports the conclusion that Rabin would have lost. Consider:


At the time of Rabin's assassination, he was in a dead heat with Netanyahu in the polls. And we now know that the polls underestimated Netanyahu's support by about five percentage points.


How do we know? From the actual election data. The polls showed Netanyahu behind by three to five points on election day when, in reality, he won the real vote by one. And we know why the polls were wrong. The polls undercounted two Netanyahu constituencies: (a) Orthodox lews, who don't talk to pollsters, and (b) Russian immigrants, who lie to them. (Understandably. They come from a country where, when a stranger calls up on the phone and asks you whom you support politically, the correct answer is not "the opposition.")


In other words, if the election had been held the day before Rabin's assassination, Rabin would have lost. Lost bigger than Peres.


Wouldn't the campaign have changed things? Well, we know that in the actual campaign Netanyahu overcame a 20-point deficit. Sure, the Hamas bombings helped close the gap. But by what logic should we assume that Hamas would have desisted from outrages during a Rabin campaign when it did not during Peres's? And anyway, Netanyahu would not have needed a post-bombing boost. He was already, as we've seen, five points ahead.


Far from electing Netanyahu, the Rabin assassination was, politically, the worst thing that happened to his candidacy. It demoralized Likud and turned much of the country against it. It gave Labor an instant 20-point lead. And it gave the Labor cause the kind of aura of sacredness that in 1964 propelled Lyndon Johnson to the greatest landslide in postwar American history.


Rabin as martyr was a far more serviceable political instrument than Rabin as candidate ever was. The living Rabin had character and courage. But he had no halo. Rabin's ghost was quite useful to Labor. Indeed, Leah Rabin complained bitterly and publicly after the election that Peres had not made enough use of it.


III


The other theme meant to delegitimize Netanyahu's victory is that Israel did not really choose, it split. The margin was so narrow that the contest remains, politically speaking, too close to call. Netanyahu's was a cheap victory, a squeaker. Therefore, although he may have won, he earned no mandate to govern.