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Bibi: The Hidden Consequences of His Victory

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by James Ferguson

Benjamin Netanyahu has won again. He will have no difficulty putting together a solid right-wing coalition. It’s true that his erstwhile ally and present enemy, Moshe Kahlon, a relatively moderate Likudnik who now heads his own party, Kulanu, holds the balance of power between the left and right blocs in his hands; but there’s no reason to think that he’ll refrain from joining the Netanyahu government, probably as finance minister. With Kahlon’s party, the Likud and its hard-core satellites have fifty-four of the 120 Knesset seats. The so-called left, led by the Zionist Union of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (which is really somewhere in the center-right) and including the one true leftist party, Meretz (five seats) and the Joint List of Arab Parties, can muster forty-two seats. In the center is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid—“There Is a Future”—with eleven seats, while the ultra-religious parties hold thirteen seats.

The religious parties have, by now, a very strong affinity with the right, even though historically, not so long ago, large parts of the ultra-religious camp were moderate in their views on making peace with the Palestinians. Compared with the outgoing Knesset—the left with thirty-two seats, “the center” with twenty-seven, the right with forty-three, the religious parties with eighteen—the new one shows a shrinking center and an apparent increase of around ten seats for each of the two largest groupings.

There was a telling shift to the Likud by voters who previously had gone with extreme-right parties such as Naphtali Bennett’s Jewish Home (down from twelve to eight). The lunatic right, embodied by the Yachad party of Eli Yishai—the former coleader of the center-right Shas party, who has now allied with Baruch Marzel, once a leading member of the outlawed and racist Kach movement—did not make it past the threshold of 3.25 percent of the total vote. The Arab Joint List, with thirteen seats, is now the third-largest party in the Knesset. One could say that these results reveal a very slight movement of the electorate toward the center-left, with the two major blocs remaining more or less stable and the right still firmly ahead.

But the naked numbers may be deceptive. What really counts is the fact that the Israeli electorate is still dominated by hypernationalist, in some cases protofascist, figures. It is in no way inclined to make peace. It has given a clear mandate for policies that preclude any possibility of moving toward a settlement and that will further deepen Israel’s colonial venture in the Palestinian territories, probably irreversibly.

These results would not have come as such a surprise were it not for the opinion polls of the last weeks of the campaign, which mostly showed a groundswell of disaffection with Netanyahu and put the Zionist Union ahead of the Likud by a small margin. The polls—including the early exit polls on election day itself—were dramatically wrong; some of them may well have been deliberately distorted by the Likud spin experts in order to get traditional Likud supporters to vote, but the huge margin of error—and the polls’ wholehearted acceptance at face value by the media—also tell us something about the conceptual bubble that the Tel Aviv pollsters and commentators inhabit.

On the other hand, my own observations suggest that there was also some truth in the polls; in a half-century of living in Israel, I have never seen such intense revulsion against a serving prime minister on the part of so many, and from such widely different parts of the social spectrum. Netanyahu’s policies have further impoverished the poor, opened up a growing and dangerous gap between the glittering rich and all the rest, and created an unprecedented crisis in housing. The average selling price of an apartment in Tel Aviv reached 1.75 million shekels—about $430,000—in 2014; it is next to impossible for a young couple lacking huge savings to buy an apartment anywhere in the major cities, though they could, of course, move to one of the West Bank settlements, where housing for settlers is heavily subsidized and no such problem exists.

Despite all this, and the tedious list of Netanyahu’s other egregious failures, his electoral base obviously remains intact. As expected, analyses of the voting patterns show that this base is strongest in the lower middle classes and the geographical and social margins—precisely the population most hurt by his economic policies. The Zionist Union, an all-too-familiar reincarnation of the old Labor Party with its firmly Ashkenazi elite, made no perceptible inroads among Sephardi voters, for whom the nationalist politics of the Likud and of the hard-core right in general are profoundly consonant with their decades-old resentment of the “white” Ashkenazi establishment.

The center-left, which once was the mainstream, has a dwindling constituency; and the fact that it fielded a decent but lackluster candidate, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, clearly didn’t help matters. In case any voters had forgotten where the lines were drawn, the artist Yair Garboz reminded them at the large leftist rally in Tel Aviv shortly before the election, with his disparaging remarks about Jews who “kiss mezuzas and worship idols.”

I think that deeper currents are also at work in this outcome—for example, the ongoing, ultimately futile effort to squeeze Jewish civilization, in its tremendous variability and imaginative range, into the Procrustean confines of the modern nation-state with its flag and postage stamps and proclivity to violence. Modern nationalism always makes a distorted, very limited selection of the available cultural repertoire, flattening out the potential richness; fanatical atavistic forces tend to take the place of what has been lost. Palestinians suffer from a very similar problem.

Netanyahu’s shrill public statements during the last two or three days before the vote may well account in part for the magnitude of the Likud victory. Mindful of his long record of facile mendacity, commentators on the left have tended to characterize these speeches as more dubious “rhetoric”; but I think that, for once, Netanyahu was actually speaking the truth, a popular truth among his traditional supporters. He explicitly renounced his pro forma acceptance of the notion of a two-state solution (in his famous Bar Ilan speech in June 2009) and swore that no Palestinian state would come into existence if he were elected. He promised vast building projects in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. He made it clear that Israel would make no further territorial concessions anywhere, since any land that would be relinquished would, in his view, immediately be taken over by Muslim terrorists. I have the strong feeling that he assumes that all Muslims—maybe all non-Jews?—are potential terrorists.

Then there was his truly astonishing, by now notorious statement on election day itself, in which he urged Jewish voters to rush to the polls because “the Arabs are voting in droves.” One might have thought that those Arab voters were members of the body politic he headed as prime minister. Imagine a white American president calling on whites to vote because “blacks are voting in large numbers.” If there’s a choice to be made between democratic values and fierce Jewish tribalism, there’s no doubt what the present and future prime minister of Israel would choose.

What does this mean? On the face of it, things are not all that different today than before the election. But the now seemingly impregnable rule of the right has at least four likely consequences for the near and mid-term future.

First, the notion that there will someday be two states in historical Palestine has been savagely undermined. We have Netanyahu’s word for it, despite his characteristic waffling on Palestinian statehood in post-election interviews directed at a foreign, English-speaking audience and reflecting intense American pressure. If he has his way, Palestinians are destined for the foreseeable future to remain subject to a regime of state terror, including the remorseless loss of their lands and homes and, in many cases, their very lives. They will continue to be, as they are now, disenfranchised, without even minimal legal recourse, hemmed into small discontinuous enclaves, and deprived of elementary human rights.

Take a mild, almost innocuous example, entirely typical of life in the territories. Last weekend I was in the South Hebron hills with Palestinian shepherds at a place called Zanuta, whose historic grazing grounds have been taken over, in large part, by a settlement inhabited by a single Jewish family. Soldiers turned up with the standard order, signed by the brigade commander, declaring the area a Closed Military Zone; the order is illegal, according to a Supreme Court ruling, but the writ of the court hardly impinges on reality on the ground in South Hebron. Within minutes, three of the shepherds and an Israeli activist were arrested.

The people of Zanuta live with such arbitrary decrees on a daily basis, as they live under the constant threat of violent assault by Israeli settlers acting with impunity. In short, these Palestinian villagers are slated for dispossession and expulsion. Activists from the Arab-Jewish Partnership (Ta’ayush) are doing what we can to stop the process, but it isn’t easy. The situation in the northern West Bank is considerably worse.

Second, we may see the emergence in the West Bank of a situation like that in Gaza, with Hamas or other extremist groups assuming power. It seems ridiculous to have to write this, but in case anyone has any doubt: there is no way a privileged collective can sit forever on top of a disenfranchised, systematically victimized minority of millions. We can expect mass violent protests of one sort or another (maybe, with luck, some large-scale nonviolent protest as well). Sooner or later, the territories will probably explode, and the Palestinian Authority may be washed away. At that point Netanyahu will complain loudly that you can never trust the Arabs.

In fact, however, there is an ongoing, intimate, many-layered relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and what one side chooses to do always has a very direct impact on the other side. More generally, if we Israelis fail to cut a deal with the Palestinian moderates, or at least to strive in earnest for an agreement, we will by our own actions bring their extremists to power. There is no dearth of examples from recent decades.

Third, Palestinians will rightly turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague (as early as April 1, according to the official announcement) and to international forums such as the UN Security Council, where Israel may soon no longer enjoy the protection of an automatic American veto. The international boycott will intensify to a level far beyond what we have seen. It may in the end force a change, at immense cost to the cohesion of Israeli society and to the state’s claim to legitimacy. In this respect, I think we are approaching the tipping point.

Fourth, and most important, the moral fiber of the country will continue to unravel. Already for years the public space has been contaminated by ugly, violent voices coming from the heart of the right-wing establishment. As Zvi Bar’el has cogently written in Haaretz, “Netanyahu has succeeded in overturning the principle that the state exists for the sake of its citizens and putting in its place the Fascist belief that the citizens exist for the state.”

In accordance with that belief, there will be more hypernationalist, antidemocratic legislation, more deliberate and consistent attempts to undermine the authority of the courts (especially the Supreme Court), more rampant racism, more thugs in high office, more acts of cruelty inflicted on innocents, more attacks on moderates perceived as enemies of the state, more paranoid indoctrination in the schools, more hate propaganda and self-righteous whining by official spokesmen, more discrimination against the Israeli-Arab population, more wanton destruction of the villages of Israeli Bedouins, more warmongering, and quite possibly more needless war.

To my mind, all of this matters more than the straightforward pragmatic consequences, some of which I have mentioned. The danger from within—to who we are and how we live in the world—is infinitely greater than any external threat. The corruption (I am not talking about money) is already far advanced. Israel has, in effect, knowingly moved further toward a full-fledged apartheid system. Those who don’t like the word can suggest another one for what I see each week in the territories and more and more inside the Green Line.

Is there any good news? The Arab Joint List, having won thirteen Knesset seats in the election, is two seats stronger than the combined Arab parties in the outgoing Knesset. A certain tentative awakening was evident in the Arab sector during the campaign. We will have to see if it continues. The great discovery of this period was the eloquent, always unruffled, charismatic leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh. They have called for full equality for the Arab-Palestinian minority within Israel and for an end to racist discrimination and to the occupation of the West Bank. A little charisma on the left can’t hurt. But it won’t be enough to challenge the right-wing tide.

Is there a way out of the impasse we’ve constructed? In the long term, yes. We have work to do. Holding on to hope is part of that work. Though he has now won four elections, it is in the nature of Netanyahu that he will eventually destroy himself (and probably many others along the way). In the end, the alliance between moderates and activists on both sides may turn out to be as strong, or stronger, than the unspoken blood alliance of Netanyahu with Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS. We will have many opportunities to test this proposition.

Justice, generosity, and empathy are not foreign to the Jewish tradition, though at times they go underground. Perhaps hope lies in a vision of all the territory west of the Jordan River as somehow more than one state but less than two, under conditions of true equality. Already there are groups within what is left of the Israeli left that, together with Palestinian partners, are thinking creatively, and practically, along these lines. One thing is certain. The demand to fully enfranchise the Palestinians now suffering under Israeli rule will eventually prove irresistible. What happens after that, no one can say.

—March 26, 2015