You may wish to celebrate. You may be plunged into despair. But signs are the country to which you will wake up on January 23 will be a different Israel.
Sixty-five years after those who spoke for the local Arabs rejected a Jewish state, this will likely be an Israel that has voted to reject a Palestinian state — prompted by a combination of the Palestinians’ intransigence, doubletalk, hostility and terrorism, and of Israeli Jews’ security fears, historic connection and sense of religious obligation.
Curiously, however, this dramatic imminent shift in the national orientation stems less from a surge by the Israeli electorate from left to right — if the polls are accurate, there isn’t going to be all that much of that. Rather, it is the right itself that has already shifted. The right has become the far-right. The Likud is both bleeding support to the adamantly pro-settlement Jewish Home, and itself chose a far more stridently pro-settlement slate for these elections: On the Israeli right in 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu, rhetorically at least, is a discordant relative moderate.
The Israeli right may not grow by much numerically on January 22. Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Jewish Home and National Union held 49 seats between them in the last parliament, and many polls suggest that those same parties — some allied, some defunct, some resurgent — will this time draw a similar number of seats or perhaps just a few more. But this is a different Israeli right, almost certainly helming and setting the tone for our different Israel.
This is an Israeli right whose soaring political force is Naftali Bennett, an ex-IDF commando, former head of the Council of Settlements and previous top aide to Netanyahu, who brushes aside the notion of a Palestinian state anywhere in the biblical Land of Israel. It’s just not going to happen, he declares, with a confidence born of his party’s dizzying rise, from three seats in the last parliament to what the polls indicate will be well over a dozen this time. Unfamiliar to many Israelis — perhaps even to many of its voters — Bennett’s Jewish Home favors annexing the 60% of the West Bank where Israel retains full security and civil control and offering citizenship to the 50,000 Palestinians who live there, and is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it will in all probability provide Israel with two representatives in the Knesset from among the tiny, hardest-core Hebron settler community.
In the new Israel of 2013, furthermore, kippa-wearing Bennett is the monopolistic political face of religious Zionism. The ideologically diverse National Religious Party has been entirely superseded by this new incarnation. And there is emphatically no place in our new Knesset for the dovish religious Zionist politics emblemized by the likes of ex-minister and Meimad MK Rabbi Michael Melchior. In our dawning new era, Orthodox Zionism is now all but synonymous with pro-settlement activism and advocacy, championing and concretizing the IDF’s 1967 liberation of the Jewish people’s historic Judean and Samarian territory.
As shown by the unresolved dispute over Bennett’s declared preference to go to jail rather than obey an IDF order to evacuate settlements — his unretracted conviction that above such an order flutters the “black flag” of illegality — this newly politically empowered Orthodox Zionist swathe of our electorate could not be relied upon to dismantle settlements if so required… and in the likely new Israel will almost certainly not be asked to do so.
The Israeli prime minister will not have changed. But Netanyahu will be leading a very different party of government. This is a Likud without the dovish prickling of Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, a Likud whose 100,000 or so party members chose to send into political oblivion even Benny Begin, the scion of the man who first brought them to power in 1977, not because of a rejected political orientation, a la Meridor, but because of Begin’s determined fealty to the rule of law.
Netanyahu’s government will further lack the braking influence of outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who did insist on evacuating illegal settlement outposts. Barak is gone, and the Labor Party that he abandoned in 2011, so that he could cling onto his beloved ministry just a little while longer, has gone too — in that it has had nothing of relevance to say during this campaign on the core issues of Palestinian statehood, West Bank settlement, the physical contours of this country, our national values, and our place in the international mosaic.
Jewish Home and most in the newly hardline Likud essentially proclaim “To hell with world opinion,” and argue that in this region you survive by standing up for what’s yours and that the soft and the soft-hearted just get trampled. And the Labor Party, the alternative voice? Silent.
The party of former chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, the one-time party of government, has offered no leadership in these elections on shaping our relations with the Palestinians. Discredited by the failure of the Oslo process and by Yasser Arafat’s duplicity, bereft of the assassinated Rabin, confounded by Mahmoud Abbas’s impossible mix of English-language conciliation and Arabic viciousness, it abandoned the security-diplomatic agenda. It mustered no credible ex-generals or security chiefs to galvanize the electorate, contriving to lose even its own ex-general and former leader Amram Mitzna to Tzipi Livni’s doubtless transient Hatnua. Rabin is murdered, Mitzna jumped ship, one-time Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri preferred to run with Yair Lapid, Rabin protege Amnon Lipkin-Shahak is dead. And even our last IDF chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, Labor’s potential future savior, is already neutered politically by his own crass behavior in the Harpaz affair.
In 1996, four suicide bombings in 10 days by Hamas pushed an Israel emerging from the trauma of the Rabin assassination toward Netanyahu, with his scathing, and vindicated, derision over the prospects of peacemaking with Arafat. Ironically, in the new Israel, Netanyahu is now the closest thing the Likud has to a political dove — championing numerous building projects over the pre-1967 Green Line, vowing never to divide Jerusalem, but also defying the hawks in his party, and hemorrhaging votes to Bennett, by affirming his commitment in principle to Palestinian statehood, and by insistently differentiating himself from his joint list’s No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, who talks incessantly of Abbas as a “political terrorist.”
Netanyahu, in the new Israel, will likely find himself “King Bibi” in title only when it comes to the Palestinians. Barely a soul on the Likud list would support him were he to essay even a slightly more flexible policy — if, that is, and it’s quite an if, he felt the urge to do so. His Knesset faction divides only between longtime hardliners and expedient hardliners. The late-November Likud primary winner Gideon Sa’ar noted recently that “two states for two peoples was never part of [the Likud's] election platform.” And Sa’ar was not previously ranked among the particular hawks. Tzipi Hotovely, who always was, is already preparing the ladder for Netanyahu’s two-state climbdown, repeating during the campaign that his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech setting out his “vision” of Palestinian statehood was merely a tactical maneuver intended by Netanyahu to placate the world.
It will be remarkable, if the polls are more or less accurate, that the Israeli electorate has not swung dramatically to the right. Remarkable because this is an era, and a region, in which profound wariness about the notion of Israeli territorial compromise seems axiomatic. Israel left Gaza and South Lebanon without an agreement, and the extremists immediately took over. Israel relinquished territory to Egypt with an agreement, and the extremists eventually took over. Israel adjusted its border with Jordan, and the extremists are on the rise there too. The relatively moderate Abbas would be ousted by Hamas if the IDF were not deployed in the West Bank, and even the relatively moderate Abbas chose not to accept prime minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching, albeit problematically timed, peace offer in 2008. Israel contemplated giving up the Golan Heights, from which it was attacked in the state’s early years, and now heaves a daily sigh of relief that Bashar Assad doesn’t hold that high ground, even as it braces for still greater dangers on that frontier when he is gone. Turkey loathes Israel and is moving out of the Western orbit. Iran is closing in on the bomb.
Wariness is mandated. Bullheadedness, less so. Israel’s relationships in this region are under immense strain, and the security dangers allow for little risk-taking and no complacency. But the Labor party of a bygone age would have argued that Israel’s interest lies in protecting the country today while doing what it can — however Sisyphean the task — in seeking to gradually create a climate more conducive to conciliation and compromise tomorrow. The Labor Party of a bygone age would have sounded an impassioned alarm at the threat to Israel’s Jewish democracy that is explicit in Jewish Home’s vision of a largely Israeli-sovereign West Bank in which almost all of the Palestinians are restricted to limited self-rule in enclaves (Areas A and B) and denied self-determination. It would have determinedly highlighted the consequent risks to Israel’s international legitimacy, and strains on Israel’s vital alliance with the United States. The Labor Party of a bygone age would have bitterly protested the extremism on the far right, which is deeply discomfiting for Israel’s supporters, and makes it so easy for critics to blame Israel even for diplomatic deadlocks for which it is not primarily responsible. It would have urged Israelis not to vote for Jewish Home, and implored Netanyahu not to build a coalition with Bennett.
But today’s socioeconomically focused Labor has offered no compelling formulae for grappling with the regional challenges and the way they have impacted Israeli politics. Yes, Israelis need to put bread on the table. Israelis would also prefer not to spend the foreseeable future hiding beneath the table. Or being told that they no longer have the right to a table at all. Short-sighted self-interest on the center-left prevented the creation of an alliance that might have been capable of offering alternative policies on both socioeconomic and diplomatic/security issues.
And still, the political blocs may remain much the same.
But even if Israelis prove not to have surged across the spectrum less than two weeks from now, even if they didn’t switch from center-left bloc to rightist bloc in massive numbers, the right-wing leadership they are set to re-elect did shift. It’s a right wing with arch-survivor Netanyahu as its constrained figurehead, with uncompromising Liberman marginalized only by his current legal difficulties, and with the triumphant Bennett — whether or not Netanyahu chooses to bring Jewish Home into the coalition — a warning personified against any perceived weakness.
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