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Israeli elections and Netanyahu’s zero-sum game

In the aftermath of the most recent Israeli election, commentary about where Binyamin Netanyahu plans to take his nation (and to goad its neighbours and allies) in the future has already reached a near-riotous uproar. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first look at some of those responses to Bibi’s victory in that election, even as the victor still has to conclude all the negotiations needed to complete a coalition with various right wing and religiously inspired parties.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
And the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.

                                                            Proverbs 11:29

As the old vaudeville story has it, there was this man in an American courtroom who was on trial for the dreadful double axe murder of his parents. And he is acting as his own attorney. Not surprisingly, his trial has not been going well for him, so when he rose to give his final summation, he turned towards both the judge and jury and said, “Your honour, members of the jury, please, I beg you; take pity on a poor orphan.” That, of course, is a classic definition of chutzpah, and it seems rather like the way Prime Minister Netanyahu played the final hours of his campaign to win his record fourth term as the Israeli prime minister.

Just days before the day of the election, when, surprisingly, the polls were reporting Netanyahu’s Likud Party was likely to be behind the politically centrist Zionist Union under Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Bibi chose to play his last, best cards. He said that he was reversing his earlier stand – as stated six years earlier – in favour of a two-state solution, now and forever. No Palestinian state on Bibi’s watch. No way.

Moreover, just before the voting, he went low with an Israeli version of Richard Nixon’s old “Southern strategy”, telling his supporters they had to turn out in their numbers because “they” were voting in their numbers. The “they” in Bibi’s warning, of course, was the country’s Arab population, some 20% of the national total of eligible voters. With these two statements, endlessly repeated across the country and around the world courtesy of social media, cable and satellite television, Netanyahu made it clear he was totally unafraid of playing the ethnic/racial/religious card – if it would give him an advantage for the final vote tally, thereby besting his opponents. And so it was.

Such has been the dismay over these statements, that Netanyahu has already backtracked on his new-found religion against any negotiations for a two-state solution, saying after the election, on the US MSNBC cable TV network that he was, after all, still hoping for “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that, oops, he had not intended to signal a reversal of his previous position. Instead, it was the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and its pact with Hamas that made such a deal impossible right now.

Or, as he said on air, “I haven’t changed my policy. What has changed is the reality. I don’t want a one-state solution; I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change. I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.”

Ah ha – there is a killer of a chutzpah alert clanging away right now for that one. One wonders exactly what those voters who finally came his way at the final moments from the undecided column – or from some of those smaller right wing parties whose votes he effectively cannibalised – feel about things now. Bibi’s abrupt flip-flop-flip, even if it was never sincere along the way, has however, helped lock in a sense of despair over the policies of the Israeli prime minister going forward – and over the future of the nation.

Despairing of the result of the voting, these statements and actual effects of Netanyahu’s policies, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, usually a kind of tough love admirer of many things Israel, wrote about Netanyahu’s victory, “Well, it’s pretty clear now: Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a major figure in Israeli history — not because he’s heading to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but because he’s heading to be the most impactful. Having won the Israeli elections — in part by declaring that he will never permit a two state-solution between Israelis and Palestinians — it means Netanyahu will be the father of the one-state solution. And the one-state solution means that Israel will become, in time, either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy.

“…And the leader in the world who is most happy that Netanyahu ran on — and won on — a one-state solution is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Oh, my goodness. They must have been doing high-fives and ‘Allahu akbars’ all night in the ruling circles of Tehran when they saw how low Bibi sank to win. What better way to isolate Israel globally and deflect attention from Iran’s behaviour? [Can that really be what Netanyahu had hoped to achieve?]

“The biggest losers in all of this, besides all the Israelis who did not vote for Netanyahu, are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel. What Bibi did to win this election was move the Likud Party from a centre-right party to a far-right one…. When the official government of Israel is a far-right party that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected, it will split the basic unity of the American Jewish community on Israel. How many American Jews want to defend a one-state solution in Washington or on their college campuses? Is Aipac, the Israel lobby, now going to push for a one-state solution on Capitol Hill? How many Democrats and Republicans would endorse that?”

And Friedman concluded his despair, saying, “And that is why I am certain that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a historic, very impactful prime minister in Jewish history. I just hope that — somehow — a Jewish democratic Israel survives his tenure.”

Not to be outdone in its discontent, the left-leaning British newspaper, The Guardian, editorialised, “Israel’s election has brought Binyamin Netanyahu a decisive victory. The Likud prime minister overcame a strong challenge from a centre-left alliance, paving the way for a record fourth term and giving him the success he was counting on when he called early elections last year. But his win can only disappoint those, numerous now in western capitals and within Israel itself, who hoped to see a shift in the country’s political landscape. They will be especially troubled by the way Mr Netanyahu secured his victory, in a manner that will weigh heavily both on Israel’s image abroad and on its chances of a sustainable future as a secure and democratic state.”

And, speaking on behalf of Israel’s Arab citizens, The Guardian carried a column from Sayed Kashua who had written, “Palestinian citizens of Israel once had hope that one day, as citizens, we would be partners, able to live where we want and access resources. No longer. For a moment I was optimistic. For one moment this week the hope I had utterly lost last summer – a summer suffused with racism, hatred, blood and devastation – came back. For one moment, after I left Jerusalem with my family for life in Illinois, I thought that maybe there’s still a chance, maybe there are still enough people in Israel who refuse to rule and oppress another nation.

“The last pre-election polls in the Israeli media predicted a loss for the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the head of the Arab parties’ Joint List, the young lawyer Ayman Odeh, gave me hope that it was not too late to stop the fascism. Odeh took part in a television debate with Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who as usual called Odeh and the rest of the country’s Arab citizens – people like me a fifth column – the spearhead of the terrorist organisations in the Knesset… The young lawyer succeeded in cutting Lieberman down to size, and showed him exactly for what he is: a benighted, pathetic racist.

“‘If I am elected,’ Netanyahu promised the people of Israel, ‘there will not be a Palestinian state.’ True, it’s no secret that Netanyahu was not intending to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. The change lay in the fact that he said so openly, in order to persuade Israeli voters to flock to him. Who, then, should one be disappointed in – the prime minister, or the Israeli majority?” Kashua concluded, “The hope for a binational state that Israeli policy will bring about unintentionally, will be shunted aside for years by the racist separation that already exists in the occupied territories. Israel will continue to expand at the expense of Palestinian land, the Palestinians will continue to be squeezed into densely populated cantons encircled by walls, until the international community will ostracise Israel and force it to grant civil rights to the Palestinians – thereby perhaps bringing about a binational state.”

Voicing a very different perspective – and emblematic of that growing split within the American Jewish community after the election – Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary (the journal published by the American Jewish Committee), “Faced with a crushing defeat, Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s loyal opposition congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory and vowed that he and his Zionist Union would prevail in the future. That is the way in a democracy even when there are plenty of hard feelings about things said and done in the campaign — as there were in Israel — and clear differences between the rival factions. Once the voters have their say, the politicians must abide by their verdict.

“But Netanyahu’s foreign left-wing critics feel no such compunction. As American author and columnist Peter Beinart writes in today’s Haaretz, [italics in the original] he and his liberal pals aren’t interested in following Herzog’s example. Instead, they plan on waging a war on Israeli democracy in which they will try to brand those entrusted by Israelis with their government as pariahs and to support actions by both the U.S. government and the Palestinians to undermine the Jewish state. By demonstrating such contempt for democracy, he is not only seeking to further divide American Jews from Israelis but is materially aiding those who seek its destruction.” But the predominant tenor of public commentary, outside of conservative, Republican circles, is already moving sharply towards the kind of despair evinced by Tom Friedman.

Of course, well beyond this sampling of articles, there will be an enormous tsunami of writing on this election and the implications for Israel’s survival in its tough neighbourhood. These articles and polemics will put Israel’s relationship with the US under a microscope. They will puzzle over how that relationship will play out both in the short run over Iran’s problematic nuclear policies – and for the longer term over how support in the US for Israel will, increasingly, become a preserve of the Republican Party. Or, as the New York Times reported from Israel after the election, “In a last-ditch attempt to mobilise supporters, Netanyahu spoke of a worldwide effort to oust him and warned that Arab citizens were voting ‘in droves.’ The comments drew accusations of racism from Israeli Arabs and a White House rebuke which called the rhetoric ‘deeply concerning.’ ‘What Netanyahu did recently touched on racism,’ Herzog said of the prime minister’s remarks. It ‘destroyed a deep relationship with our allies in the world. The American reaction is not at all easy.’ ”

Still, Commentary’s editors argued the fault wasn’t in the stars, let alone Binyamin Netanyahu’s. Rather, a full measure of blame needed to be placed firmly at the feet of one President Barack Obama. As they argued rather shrilly, “This administration’s willingness to blame the Jewish state under virtually any circumstances was on display again, in the summer of 2014, after rocket barrages on Israeli cities prompted Israel to launch a counterattack on Hamas bases in Gaza. Though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would later cite Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties in the fighting as a model for American troops, the White House and the State Department criticised Israel for the deaths of Palestinians — who were being used as human shields by Hamas. But far worse, and far more suggestive of Obama’s true feelings, was the White House’s decision to try and use arms supplies as a pressure point against Israel.”

More and more, though, as a function of Netanyahu’s rhetorical race to the bottom, the long-term bipartisan agreement in America in support of Israel will assuredly become less and less solid – especially as such support is turned into a litmus test for Republican true believer-ism. Moreover, surveys also show that support is beginning to weaken among minorities and the young in America more generally, and much more strongly in Europe.

Simultaneously, the spotlight will now begin to turn more glaringly than in the past onto the growing alliance between conservative, even right wing, billionaire Republican financial backers like Sheldon Adelson and all those politically conservative, fundamentalist/evangelical/born again Christians who have become, increasingly, a mainstay of Republican electoral victories and who have an “Israel right or wrong” idée fixe in their political worldview. But, as Kashua and Friedman both explored, the question that will also, increasingly, come front and centre will be how Netanyahu’s latest victory will both reflect and alter the actual soul of Israel itself; what its people want to achieve in the future; how they will do that and at what cost to themselves, their supporters and their antagonists; and what are the psychological costs they will be forced to bear as the country follows the path being set out by their prime minister.

In this most recent election, Israeli voters had a tough choice between candidates who focused, on the one hand, on pocketbook issues and who offered some measure of hope – versus those who played on the fears and desperation of voters who were seeking security through a tough obdurateness towards the country’s antagonists. Now they have made their choice. Now they will, at least until the next election, be forced to live with it. DM

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu speaking from his Jerusalem residence before a backdrop of his Likud campaign posters as he addresses Israelis on television and asks them to go out and vote during voting day in the Israeli general elections, 17 March 2015. EPA/TALI MAYER

Read more:

  • Netanyahu Will Make History, a column by Tom Friedman in the New York Times;
  • Centrist runner-up says he won’t join new Israeli coalition at the AP;
  • Israel’s Netanyahu, Softening Pre-Election Statement, Reopens Door to Palestinian State in the New York Times;
  • Win in Israel Sets Netanyahu on Path to Rebuild and Redefine Government at the New York Times;
  • In Netanyahu’s Next Knesset, a More Compatible Coalition at the New York Times;
  • The Jewish Left’s War on Israeli Democracy, a column by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary;
  • A Statement on the Crisis in the U.S.—Israel Relationship, an editorial by Commentary;
  • Dear Mr Netanyahu: Sorry we dared to dream. Yours, Israel’s Arab population, a letter by Sayed Kashua in the Guardian;
  • The Guardian view on Netanyahu’s victory: a risky path for Israel at the Guardian;
  • Backtracking, Netanyahu says he wants two-state solution at the Washington Post;
  • How Bibi pulled it off at the Brookings Institution.
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