By Jonathan Power
Israeli politics gets messier and messier. Now there is to be yet another election, hard on the heels of the last one which, in turn, was hard on the heels of the one before.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have two major aims in life. The first is to remain prime minister for as long as he feels like it. (He is already Israel’s longest serving premier.) The second is to escape prison. He has been charged with bribery and graft. Only if he is holding his high office can he escape prosecution.
After the recent election, with his Lukud Party not doing well, he discussed the possibility of a coalition with his rival, also a conservative. But a deal was elusive and so it is back to the polls.
Many Israelis have talked about the end of Israeli democracy. Avraham Berg, the former speaker of the Knesset (parliament), has written that “democracy in the Jewish state is doomed”. President Richard Nixon predicted that Israel would not last.
Minorities are marginalized more than ever, opposition groups, in particular human rights organizations, are smeared and persecuted. Bullying and racism dominate Israel’s political discourse. Leftists are de-legitimized.
Ultra-nationalism and the growing religious fanaticism have played to Netanyahu’s advantage. But then he has been the one often encouraging it or at least tolerating it. At the time of the Second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising) in 2000 to 2005 in which 1000 Israelis were killed it was understandable why feelings boiled up. But right now and for many years there has been little in the way of a Palestinian violent threat. When Hamas in Gaza started a missile attack FIVE years ago Israeli retaliated with knock-out blows. Many Palestinians were killed but only a handful of Israelis. In a normal, balanced, society one would not have expected the continuation for so long of such angry feelings.
Fanaticism is in the Israeli air. I haven’t made this up: the Minister of Agriculture, Uri Ariel, of the religious Zionist party, Jewish Home, wrote that neutering street cats contradicts Jewish law. He said that all feral cats should be deported to another country.
The right, which always denounces outside interference, unless it’s in their favour, as when President Donald Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, sees no contradiction in wooing foreign money to fund its own political activities. Much of it comes from American Jews.
It goes to parties but also to educational establishments and news media. Sheldon Adelson, a Republican mega-donor, has spent 190 million US dollars on launching his pro-Netanyahu free newspaper, Israel Hayom.
At the same time funding for left-wing causes is attacked. In the main they get their funding from liberal western governments. This gives an easy opening for the right to attack their sources of money, labelling it correctly as “foreign interference”. All this puts the Israeli left at a disadvantage with public opinion.
Israel, like the US and parts of Europe, has been affected by growing anti-establishment feelings. Part of the working class vote has swung against the parties that represent their own economic interests. (The UK election of last week underlined this movement.)
The Mizrahi, Jews who have descended from Middle Eastern and North African states, are particularly prone to move right. As Asher Schechter writes in a perceptive article on World Policy Journal, “Liberal democracy’s concern with the individual is not shared by Israel’s Jewish working class. Religion, community, the state- which are central to working class identity- appear to be secondary to the secular liberal left”. This split has almost become tribalism, “composed of different ethnic, cultural and religious groups that have little in common”.
Against this backdrop Netanyahu goes on ruling, but usually dependent on the small more fanatical parties of the right to give him the coalition he needs. This time he hasn’t quite made re-election, thwarted by the cloud of criminal wrong-doing that has alienated more centrist voters and by the decision of Israel’s own Arab voters to put their differences aside and fight the election in a unified party.
As expected Netanyahu vilifies the Arab Israelis. At the 2015 election he released a video on election day warning Jewish Israelis about “Arab voters rushing to the polls in droves”. Never before has Israeli politics been so anti the Arab Israelis. Even some of the centre-left, desperate for votes, have emulated Netanyahu. At the forthcoming election he will use the Arab’s previous success to scare voters to vote right.
As I wrote three weeks ago you can forget Israel accepting a two-state solution. The right have never offered a means of achieving peace with the Palestinians.
Whether Netanyahu wins or loses the next election this won’t change- but if he loses he may go to prison. The Palestinians and the outside liberal world will have to be, for the time being, satisfied with that.
*Note: Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.