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Elections are public windows onto national hopes and concerns, and this was certainly the case with the March 2015 voting in Israel. You just have to look through that window with analytical eyes to assess those national yearnings in their essential details.
At first glance the campaigning suggested that most Israelis were focused on economics. This would not be unusual. Just about all democratic elections are fought over bread and butter issues, and Israel has evolved into a society that is harshly divided between haves and have-nots. However, as it turned out, this campaign theme could not have been of primary importance. This is so because the man who symbolizes the dysfunctional economic status quo, Benjamin Netanyahu (aka Bibi), actually won the election. Indeed his hard-right Likud Party improved its position in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from 19 to 30 seats. Obviously, something else was motivating the Israeli voter. What was it?
The answer to that question is fear – or, in Israeli terms, the issue of security. Netanyahu stoked this fear with warnings of a massive Arab Israeli turnout and other examples of racist-tinged propaganda, and this led many Israeli Jews to decide, in the privacy of the voting booth, that they were more afraid of Palestinians than of poverty. At the same time most of these voters refused to face the fact that much of this fear is self-induced. Israel has evolved into one of the most racist countries on earth and at the heart of its racism is the ideologically driven desire for a state reserved primarily for Jews. To accomplish this, Israel as a nation has dispossessed and oppressed the Palestinians. This practice has prevailed for so long that 60 percent of Israeli Jews cannot envision an end to the resulting struggle. So fear of Palestinian resistance, with its implied threat of destruction, or at least transformation, of the Jewish state has always been their ultimate security issue.
It would seem that concern over security and its attendant fear caused enough Israelis, who would have otherwise voted their pocketbooks, to vote instead for the “no Palestinian state on my watch,” free-marketeer Bibi Netanyahu. And that allowed his Likud Party to win.
Consequences for the Israeli People
Given that so many Israeli Jews voted for Netanyahu’s Likud Party or one of the parties allied to it, what can they look for as a result? Well, they can hope against hope for their longed-for security. However, objectively speaking, this expectation is foolhardy. This will be Netanyahu’s fourth term as prime minister and Israel is still the least safe place on the planet for Jews. In addition, thanks to Netanyahu’s policies, life for Jews outside of Israel is less, rather than more, secure. In other words, those who voted for Likud or its allies looking for security seriously misjudged the situation. Indeed, they seem to be unable to understand what is really required for Israel’s security – namely, a just peace with the Palestinians – or how Netanyahu has already and soon will further negatively impact this issue.
Also, Netanyahu has adopted positions and policies which, if pressed forward (as they now surely will be), can only rebound negatively on Israel in the international arena. These positions and policies include Netanyahu’s refusal to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians, his now open rejection of a Palestinian state (despite his cynical post-election reversal on this point), the speeding up of illegal settlement activity, ever more violent oppressive occupation, theft of Palestinian tax revenue, and the utter impoverishment of the Gaza Strip. Over time these policies have upset most of the governments of the Western world (an exception being the U.S. Congress), and that feeling may now grow and make more likely stronger reactions both from the Europeans, the United Nations, and the White House as well.
Israel’s voters can also look forward to an emboldened Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel movement, which will no doubt pick up supporters as a result of Netanyahu’s reelection. Then there is the allegation of Israeli war crimes now being considered by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Bibi’s return to power will ensure that this process continues, possibly resulting in indictments against a significant proportion of the Israeli chain of command, including the reelected Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finally, many Israelis can expect to stay poor under Netanyahu’s free market policies.
Consequences for the Palestinians
In the near run things may not change much for the Palestinians. With Netanyahu reelected, any Israeli talk of compromise, if it is articulated at all, will be recognized as empty propaganda. We can speculate that if Likud’s strongest rival, the Zionist Union headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, had won the recent election, they would perhaps have muddied the waters for the Palestinians – perhaps reopening “negotiations” with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian National Authority, probably then causing the latter to put on hold Palestinian charges of Israeli war crimes at the ICC, and then tempting the aging Abbas with some form of Bantustan. That is the very best the Palestinians could have gotten from any Zionist government. It is realization of this hard fact that many Palestinians and their supporters would rather see Netanyahu in charge: the issues then at least remain crystal clear rather than fogged over by false hopes.
On the bright side of the equation the united Arab List did very well in the recent election and garnered 14 seats. This makes the Israeli Arab coalition the third largest bloc in the Knesset and thus a potential major opposition voice. Arab Israeli leaders will now demand seats on parliamentary committees. They will almost certainly be ignored or, at best, relegated to unimportant places. This will only disillusion many Arab Israelis about politics in general and cause them to look for other avenues to express their longstanding dissatisfaction. For the rest of the world, their poor treatment will become more obvious and Israel’s claim to democratic status all the less persuasive.
Consequences for the United States
The sad truth is that the present leaders of the mainstream Jewish community in the U.S. have long favored the Likud leadership in Israel. Some of these Jewish leaders believe that tough-minded Likudniks are the best hedge against the
“inevitable” next Holocaust, while others will back whoever is in charge because they are ideologically fixated on Israel as their cause celebre. Thus, all of them are no doubt pleased with Netanyahu’s return to power. This is also the case for the U.S.’s Christian Zionists who are motivated by religious delusions about what it takes to bring about the Second Coming of their preferred god. It is a mistake to see these attitudes as generational. In both cases they will be with us for a long time. For all these people, Netanyahu’s reelection means business as usual.
The consequences of Netanyahu’s victory for liberal American Jews and their organizations – J Street, the American branch of Peace Now, and the like – is really problematic. If they can hold onto their membership, they might press on despite all. On the other hand, many liberal Jews might just give up and become quiet, which of course is what the hard-line Zionists want. But it is also likely that liberal Zionist organizations will lose members to more relevant and outspoken organizations such as Jewish Voices For Peace. That would be a move in a progressive, and realistic, direction.
Then there are the Republican Party officials. Their comfort level with the Bibi and his Likudniks is a matter of style and character. Take a man like John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and match him in terms of personality and ethics to Benjamin Netanyahu. What you have is a compatible fit: two utterly unprincipled politicians who may in fact really like each other.
President Obama, and no doubt many other Democrats, would have preferred Netanyahu’s political demise and replacement with a Herzog-Livni coalition. Obama wants Zionists willing to at least put on a front of flexibility. These are the kind of folks he would feel comfortable working with, and given such partners, he would help them pressure the Palestinians into a Bantustan. He won’t get that now and so we are all spared the farce of further “peace talks.”
Finally, there is Netanyahu’s obsession with the Iran question and U.S. negotiations with that country. Bibi will no doubt feel emboldened by his electoral victory, and once he forms his coalition and consolidates power, the White House can expect him to resume his nagging and nay-saying ways on this issue. Once the deal with Iran is struck (and I think it will be), one can anticipate Netanyahu’s collusion with the Republicans to undermine and, if they can, ultimately sabotage President Obama’s one notable contribution to a more peaceful and stable world.
Undermining peace, promoting oppression, assuring poverty, fostering racism, playing on people’s fears and interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries – none of this can be good for the rest of us. Clearly, Benjamin Netanyahu is bad news for the world at large. He is the political world’s analogue to global warming – the more active he is, the more toxic the environment becomes.
In the long run the Palestinians may be the only ones who benefit from the Israel’s March 2015 elections. The now guaranteed continued alienation from Israel of a good part of the Western world will work to their benefit over time. Netanyahu would dismiss this possibility as irrelevant, for he is certain that Israeli power wins out in the end. But then there are different types of power: just ask the men who once ran South Africa’s for-whites-only society.
On the other hand, the biggest losers are the Jews. The fact that the behavior of Netanyahu and his allies is repeatedly endorsed by a significant number of Jews inside and outside of Israel confirms that, except for the Holocaust, Zionism is the worst thing to happen to Jews and Judaism in the modern era. It has tied a people and a religion to a racist political ideology that is a variant on the criminal practice of apartheid.
Given that sort of culture, the worst rises to the top and, sure enough, that is what is happening in Israel.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.