Israel: The Stark Truth

Netanyahu-salute.jpg
Dan Bar Dov/Demotix/Corbis
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory in Israel’s general election, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu has won again. He will have no difficulty putting together a solid right-wing coalition. 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 proto-fascist, 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 with the Palestinians and that will further deepen Israel’s colonial venture in the Palestinian territories, probably irreversibly.

Netanyahu’s shrill public statements during the last two or three days before the vote may account in part for Likud’s startling margin of victory. For the first time since his Bar Ilan speech in 2009, he explicitly renounced a two-state solution and swore that no Palestinian state would come into existence on his watch. He promised vast new 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.

And 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.

Mindful of Netanyahu’s long record of facile mendacity, commentators on the left have tended to characterize these statements as more dubious “rhetoric”; already, under intense pressure from the United States, he has waffled on the question of Palestinian statehood in comments directed at a foreign, English-speaking audience. But I think that, for once, he was actually speaking the truth in that last pre-election weekend—a popular truth among his traditional supporters. 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 historic Palestine has been savagely undermined. We have Netanyahu’s word for it. If he has his way—and why shouldn’t he?—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. We are doing what we can to stop the process, but it isn’t easy. The situation in the northern West Bank is considerably worse.

Secondly, we may see the emergence in the West Bank of a situation like that in Gaza, with Hamas or other extremist organizations 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.

Thirdly, 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.

Fourthly, 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 Barel 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, 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 war-mongering, and quite possibly more needless war.

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 Joint List, a new alliance of four Arab parties, having won thirteen seats in the election, is now the third largest party in the Knesset and 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, charming, always unruffled 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 new energy on the left can’t hurt. For the moment, it won’t be enough to challenge the right-wing tide.

We have work to do. Holding on to hope is part of that work. Though Netanyahu has now won four elections, it is in his nature 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 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.


An expanded version of this article will appear in a coming issue of The New York Review