Istanbul’s Message of Hope for the Israeli Opposition

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Under the leadership of Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, the Blue and White party has frequently warned voters of the “Erdoğanization” of Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In other words, don’t let what happened to Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan take place here. It is difficult to assess to what degree this argument swayed voters, but it has remained a central rhetoric tool employed by Blue and White – as well as other opposition parties and figures – both during and after the first 2019 campaign. However, recent developments in Turkey offer a different model that would behove Israel’s opposition to adopt if it is serious about ending Netanyahu’s dominant run in Israeli politics.

On June 23rd, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu defeated the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), Binali Yildirim, in a historic repeat election for Istanbul’s mayoral seat. Imamoğlu surprised many in March when he narrowly bested Yildirim, handpicked and heavily endorsed by Erdoğan. After the initial results were challenged by the AKP, it was deemed that Imamoğlu would have to accomplish the feat twice in order to earn the keys to the city. Imamoğlu second victory – in which he expanded his margin from 13,000 votes in March to 777,000 votes in June – simultaneously ended the debate about Istanbul’s future leadership and opened a new discussion about the prospects for change in Turkey at a national level.

Israeli opposition voices like Lapid and former prime minister Ehud Barak were quick to praise Imamoğlu. But instead of only applauding Istanbul’s new mayor, they should also be learning from his campaign. There are less than three months until Israel’s repeat election. Although some have reported that the major parties do not plan on engaging the public until late August, there is no better time than the present for Israel’s opposition to study Imamoğlu’s strategies and adapt them to the Israeli electorate.

When it was announced in Istanbul that the first election results were being treated as invalid, Imamoğlu had every reason to attack the ruling party and the political system. Nevertheless, he told supporters, “They want conflict from us. But we, the people who don’t want this nation to fight, we will insist upon embracing each other.” This simple message was disseminated through Imamoğlu’s campaign slogan, “Herşey Çok Güzel Olacak” or “Everything Will Be Alright” and ran counter to the polarizing and often fear-based rhetoric employed by Erdoğan and the AKP over the last decade and a half. Rather than trying to divide the electorate, Imamoğlu emphasized the need for cooperation. In doing so, he successfully built bridges between Istanbul’s myriad communities.

Like Turkey, Israeli society is also fragmented and divided. Netanyahu has maintained his position at the top of the political circus largely because of his ability to take advantage of the existing fault lines within the electorate and create new rifts when the opportunity presented itself. He has also benefited from a rudderless opposition that is often more preoccupied on determining its own hierarchy than providing a meaningful alternative for Israelis. If opposition leaders like Gantz and Lapid are truly committed to bringing about change, then they must promote an inclusive campaign message, avoid mudslinging with the establishment, and publish a clear set of policy goals that reflect the shared values of Israel’s opposition parties.

The most impactful way for the Israeli opposition to assume a more inclusive approach is by targeting all potential voters and not settling for the comforts of their political base. In the previous two elections, Haredi and Arab voters accounted for somewhere around 25 percent of the total voting public (this number could be higher, however Arab voting percentages in recent years have been lower than the Jewish population). Both of these populations carry deep historical grievances. Many within these communities do not believe they are equal partners in the state-building enterprise. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that these glass ceilings are being shattered. Engagement with these minority populations is a challenging but necessary step towards gaining public trust and developing new partnerships. This proved to be a winning strategy for Imamoğlu, who crossed party lines and addressed audiences from the most secular and affluent neighborhoods to those traditionally religious strongholds within Istanbul. He openly courted the Kurdish vote, ignoring the existing political tensions in favor of his message of coexistence. What if an Israeli politician did the same?

Israel’s opposition can also borrow Imamoğlu’s positivist philosophy and abandon their doomsday predictions about the collapse of Israeli democracy. Israeli democracy has always been flawed, and without question the Netanyahu years have witnessed both a steady decline in institutional checks-and-balances as well as an increase in political corruption. However, if the democratic process has proven to be resilient a country like Turkey – where the slide towards authoritarianism has been much steeper and far darker – then Israeli opposition leaders should focus more on the policy issues that will draw public support away from the political center than campaigning for “anyone but Bibi”. Imamoğlu’s team was faced with a similar conundrum, particularly after the initial results in Istanbul were rejected. However, the manifesto that helped alter the tone of Imamoğlu’s campaign – a pamphlet called the Book of Radical Love – dissuaded supporters from attacking Erdoğan. Contrary to what has been the logic of Turkish politics for many years, the document called for an issues-based approach that avoided polarizing debate.

Finally, Israel’s opposition needs to decide what it stands for. In order to accomplish this, opposition parties should reach some consensus about their shared goals and then publish those goals for public viewership. Imamoğlu accomplished this by decoupling traditional identity politics from his campaign and focusing on economics, sharing public resources, and emphasizing the importance of good governance. And although many argued the election was about Erdogan, Imamoğlu did not make it personal. Lapid and Gantz should take note of this. Turkey is not only Erdoğan, and Israel is not only Bibi. If you succeed in changing the narrative, you expand the public’s imagination about what the future can be. Israelis have heard enough about Netanyahu’s illicit activities. What they must receive now are opposition party platforms that map out achievable policy goals in the areas of economics, security, and diplomacy.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If Israel’s opposition is so inspired by Imamoğlu’s accomplishments, then it should borrow his message and reverse the trend of exclusionary and fear-based politics. Rather than crafting a platform that only addresses the country’s Zionist populations, Israel’s opposition should adopt an inclusive narrative that identifies common interests over identity politics. Instead of permitting the campaign to descend into a referendum on the prime minister’s personality, Israel’s opposition should focus on the policy issues and maintain a positive, conversational tone that welcomes discussion with all parties on the political spectrum. If successfully executed, such a strategy could put an end to the Netanyahu government and revolutionize the nature of Israeli politics in the process.

Upon news of Imamoğlu’s victory, hundreds of thousands of Istanbulites exited onto the streets to celebrate. Addressing the crowds, Istanbul’s new mayor said, “You have shown the world that Turkey still protects its democracy. And we have shown other countries who try to go down the road we were choosing that it is no road at all.” Perhaps what Imamoğlu and his campaign actually revealed was a strategy for thwarting the populist wave the world has witnessed in the last decade. There is arguably no better place to put those strategies to the test than in Israel.

Gabriel Mitchell is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a doctoral candidate in Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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