Every time Israel makes it into the news for the mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza, or of Turkish civilians in international waters, I propose a piece to the LRB. The response is usually that I’m too late, or someone better qualified is already writing about it. This never happens with Israeli elections. So every few years I sit down to write a piece for the LRB on a topic that seems less and less attractive for both the reader and the writer.
What else can be said about a country whose electoral options run from bad to worse, from xenophobia to all-out racism? There are, I believe, three main blocs. The first wishes to maintain the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in its current form, preferably with no negotiations, in a liminal situation between cold and open war. The second wishes to dance with the conflict – to negotiate and negotiate as if there were no tomorrow. For the third bloc, there is no conflict at all: the elections are about VAT, the middle class and ‘what it means to be Israeli’.
The upcoming elections don’t promise anything, are hardly about anything, and the fact that I’m writing here again means there isn’t much new to write about. Since Netanyahu was re-elected in 2009 nothing good has happened in the Promised Land, either to its Jewish or to its Palestinian inhabitants. In Gaza, more than two thousand people were killed in the last Israeli offensive – Operation Protective Edge – and the destruction is indescribable. It was the seventh Israeli military operation in 14 years to tackle a problem whose nature is political, and for which political solutions – not fighter jets – should be found. During the operation, which lasted for seven weeks, 72 Israelis were killed (67 soldiers and five civilians), but most Jewish Israelis wholeheartedly supported the attack from beginning to end. Tzipi Livni, who together with Isaac Herzog from the Labor Party is leading ‘the alternative’ to Netanyahu, was his justice minister during the assault. When the UN announced that it wanted to open an investigation into the excessive Israeli use of force in Gaza, she had just two words to say: ‘Get lost.’ She was foreign minister during the first Gaza War (2008), after which a British court issued an arrest warrant against her, and was also in office during the second Lebanon War (2006). When the Lebanese prime minister broke into tears during a speech to the Arab League on the damage caused to his country by Israeli jets, she said that ‘he should wipe away his tears and start working.’
Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party and Netanyahu’s former finance minister, promises Israelis ‘a better future’. As he’s careful not to say anything more than this he’s doing swimmingly in the polls. Other members of the outgoing government who will be running against Likud include Naftali Bennett, the head of Jewish Home, a national-religious-Zionist party, who once said: ‘I have killed lots of Arabs in my life and there is nothing wrong with that.’ Another member of our distinguished government is Israel’s top diplomat, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and leader of Yisrael Beytenu. All of them played their part in an embarrassing administration that broke records only in the number of Palestinians killed, in the sand thrown in the eyes of the US administration (the Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, called the US secretary of state ‘messianic and obsessive … he should win his Nobel Prize and leave us in peace’), and in the number of anti-democratic, anti-liberal and nationalistic bills passed in the Knesset. Many of those bills were overruled by the Supreme Court, which led Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home to initiate another bill to enable the Knesset to re-enact laws which the Supreme Court had overruled. According to her, the court handcuffs legislators. Say no more.
The most important thing about the campaign, in which the greatest minds of all parties are complicit, is that it is about one thing only – nothing. The candidates make great efforts to polish their image, which in the current Israeli political climate means to show their support for the IDF, to prove they have chutzpah – meaning that they aren’t afraid of the law or the international community – and to disparage the Arab people as a sign of patriotism. If you are to the right of Netanyahu you had better also say that you ‘believe in the People of Israel, in the Land of Israel, and in the Torah of Israel’. If you are to the left of Netanyahu, you’d better say and act as if you have one thing only on your mind: ‘We cannot have Netanyahu as prime minister again.’ And if you are Netanyahu, you just need to recite the formula that has been successful so far – talk about Iran, nuclear weapons, Isis, Hamas, take a pause, bite your lip, take a deep breath and say quickly ‘Hamas-Isis-Iran-nuclear-weapons-Hizbullah-the-world-is-against-us’ – and see what happens.
All Jewish parties in Israel (except Meretz, which is against the occupation and is as progressive as its Zionist boundaries allow it to be) share a desire to show that they have the guts to stand up for Israel vis-à-vis international law, and that they are anti-Arab. Netanyahu is a maestro at the first, with his great effort to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a damn about the Israel-US relationship. He insisted on speaking to Congress when no one from Obama to Aipac wanted him there, because back home it meant the world to him: the message was that he is tough and doesn’t answer to anybody. Bennett is quite good at this too. He recently released a video in which he walks through Tel Aviv dressed as a hipster with a long fake ginger beard. Everywhere he goes he says: ‘Oh sorry, I am so sorry, oh sorry, indeed, forgive me, I am so sorry’ – a joke at the expense of Israeli leftists who apologise too much to the international community for Israel’s ongoing violations of international law. Lieberman did his best to follow the act, but his performance was too blunt. Following an attack by Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border (a response to an Israeli attack that killed 12 people, among them an Iranian general and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a former Hizbullah commander), Lieberman said that ‘Israel’s response should be harsh and disproportionate.’ Livni and Herzog also wish to be seen as being as patriotic and Zionist as possible. They’ve all but dropped the name of Herzog’s party and are campaigning as the Zionist Union. This evocative name both alienates Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and signals to the world that the Israeli ‘alternative’ has nothing new to offer, not even its vocabulary. To make sure of being properly anti-democratic, Livni and Herzog decided to join the usual game of trying to disqualify an Arab MK, in this case Haneen Zoabi, from running for parliament. Knowing the proposal would never be approved by the Supreme Court not only figured in their calculations but encapsulated a hidden dream. They knew that in Israel in 2015, if the Supreme Court throws you off the staircase, it can only do you good.
Displays of anti-Arab sentiment are a vital part of any election campaign. A straightforwardly anti-Semitic video was recently released by the Samaria Residents’ Council, a settler group, in which money-grabbing Jewish-Israeli leftists are seen receiving donations from Europeans depicted as Nazis. ‘For them you will always remain a Jew,’ the video says, trying to show that the Europeans who support human rights movements and joint Jewish-Arab initiatives in Israel are neo-Nazis. In another election video, Sharon Gal, a candidate for Lieberman’s party, is seen dressed as a gardener uprooting weeds from the Israeli garden. He calls the weeds by the names of Arab MKs: ‘Here I uproot an intrusive Tibi … and here I uproot a poisonous Zahalka.’ Lieberman himself came up with a fine uprooting slogan: ‘Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine’ (in other words, annex the city-settlement of Ariel to Israel and ‘in return’ uproot fifty thousand Arab citizens of Israel and transfer them to Palestine). Danny Danon from Netanyahu’s Likud released a video in which, dressed as a sheriff, he turns up in a bar in the Wild West and throws out an Arab MK (Zoabi), who ends up motionless on the ground. In another Likud video, Isis militants drive jeeps into Israel; the slogan says that the Israeli ‘left’, that anonymous and mysterious entity, will lead Isis into Jerusalem. (The video had loud Arabic music, which is intimidating for Israelis, and that’s what’s important.) Herzog released a video in which friends from his military intelligence unit tell of his heroism in the army:
Herzog grew up in military intelligence, which means he knows the Arab mentality. He saw Arabs on different occasions; he saw them on the other side of the gun-sight, and behind the gun-sight … The most important man in this business is the person who knows what the state of Israel needs to do with a piece of information. Whether this means firing a rocket, or sending troops forward, or wiping out these people.
The Jewish parties, while similar in many ways, can be distinguished in their approaches to the conflict. The first bloc, headed by Netanyahu, is in no way interested in resolving it: giving back territory, putting a halt to building in the Occupied Territories – all that would be too much of a headache. Bennett is part of this group too, though unlike Netanyahu he actually opposes the two-state solution out loud. He is a great supporter of what you might call ‘the one-and-a-half-state solution’: Israel should annex Area C in the West Bank (more than 50 per cent of the territory), leaving the Palestinians with semi-autonomy in a semi-territory for their semi-state.
The second bloc, headed by the Zionist Union of Livni and Herzog, is in love with negotiations. They can’t wait to topple Netanyahu because they long for a ‘peace process’. Oh, the process! Not an actual peace, obviously, not the return of ‘a single Palestinian refugee’ (Livni’s words), no negotiation on ‘Jerusalem, the united and undivided capital of the Jewish people for 3007 years’ (Livni again, it would be 3014 now), no compromise on Israeli’s full security control of the Jordan Valley in the Occupied West Bank, but still – a process. In their dreams, Livni and Herzog see themselves flying to Washington and shaking hands with the US president. They imagine the croissant they will eat first thing in the morning when hurrying to an important meeting in Paris, and the meeting in Ramallah with their Palestinian counterparts, where they show stubbornness, firmness, decisiveness and confidence. They wish to rehabilitate Israel’s image in the eyes of the world, without in any concrete way doing things differently. When the Labor Party was last in control, under Ehud Barak, negotiations with the Palestinians collapsed, signalling the beginning of the end. It was under that Labor leadership that 13 Israeli demonstrators were killed by Israeli police – all of them, of course, Arab citizens of Israel.
When Abdallah Abu Rahmah, one of the leaders of the non-violent Palestinian struggle in Bil’in (a village in the West Bank whose inhabitants have been demonstrating against the separation wall for the last ten years), was interviewed for the website Local Call, he had no second thoughts:
If the Labor Party wins, it will not be so good. There is not much difference between Labor and Likud, and we actually prefer Likud. The Labor Party has better public relations in the world, but they do the same things. They do not promote peace, they build settlements and walls and make wars, but they get legitimacy for this from the world. For us in the Occupied Territories, Lieberman is probably best, as he together with Netanyahu damages Israeli foreign affairs … We don’t want Labor, as we don’t want another Peres who will just help to ease the pressure on Israel.
The Zionist Union wants to topple Netanyahu, but without offering a meaningful alternative. I don’t have a hidden desire to see Netanyahu continue in power, but ‘getting rid of him’ sometimes seems like the opposition’s only plan. In fact, there are many movements and individuals who wish to see the end of Netanyahu’s regime, including a group of two hundred retired senior security men – known as Generals for Security in Israel – who say that Netanyahu needs to go in order ‘to bring security back to Israel’. They don’t say how. V15 (Victory 2015) is another ‘non-partisan’ movement that receives funds from Jewish donors in the diaspora worried about the situation in Israel. Their slogan is ‘March 17. Simple. Make a Change’; their stated goal is to unseat Netanyahu and to bring ‘hope’ back to Israel. What does this hope consist of? What is to be done to create a better Israel? These questions are not answered. They aren’t even asked. The movement’s activists just call on people to go out and vote to get rid of Netanyahu.
The anti-Netanyahu campaign that has spread in the Israeli media in the last couple of months is similarly vacuous. It consistently ridicules Netanyahu, making fun of his purple hair, questioning the amount of money spent on pistachio ice cream in the prime minister’s residence and generally portraying him and his wife as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This can be funny, and the campaign has also included serious criticism of his lousy social achievements, but it still seems that the desire to unseat Netanyahu has become an end in itself rather than a means to anything else.
The third bloc is by far the ‘nicest’. It’s led by Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. Following the ‘social justice’ demonstrations in 2011, Lapid got voters to think first about themselves and their own ‘social justice’ and to forget about the Other’s lack of social and political rights. Lapid got help from the Labor Party (then headed by Shelly Yechimovich), which showed its new lack of spine when it ‘forgot’ the conflict and concentrated instead on Israel’s middle class. And indeed Lapid offers a great option for Israelis. Why does it matter whether there are 400,000 or 500,000 Israeli settlers? Why worry that Gaza has been under siege for eight years, and could explode tomorrow? Why should we deal with the difficulties of the poorest communities in Israel – the Arab citizens and the ultra-orthodox – when we can complain that they are holding us all back? This party is a great hit in Israel, and there are those who wish to copy its success – the Kulanu party, headed by Moshe Kahlon (formerly of Likud), is a right-wing version. The clearest proof of Israeli decadence and escapism, these parties sell Israelis an all-inclusive package of ‘social justice’ – within Zionist and neoliberal parameters – that does not include Arabs, conflict, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements or any other passé 1990s concepts.
These elections are all about rhetoric, not about ideology or political vision. Likud’s decision not to have an official manifesto is emblematic. The Labor Party – sorry, the Zionist Union – could have said something meaningful. Instead, they chose to follow not what they believe – who knows what that is? – but what their spin doctors told them they should say. The result was an all-Israeli, blue and white message, empty within, that aimed to be very similar to Netanyahu’s, but with a different slogan: we are not Netanyahu; it’s either him or us.
That’s the story in a nutshell. We are now experiencing an embarrassing masquerade in which various politicians tell the Israeli people that under them things will be different from the way they were under the previous government. The one thing they don’t stress is that they were the previous government. Livni was justice minister; Lapid was minister of finance, and his party was in charge of education, science, technology, health, welfare and social services. Bennett, Eli Yishai, Lieberman, Kahlon: they all held central ministries in Netanyahu governments. The coming election will result in a coalition formed by either Netanyahu or the Zionist Union, but most likely both together, each with just over twenty seats, backed up by up to four smaller parties, to make a government that will be way too similar to the last.
There is, however, one likely positive outcome. Like in a good Bible story, Lieberman may be undone by his own machinations. During the last Knesset, he suggested raising the electoral threshold from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent, as a way of excluding Arab parties. As a result, the Jewish-Arab List, the National Democratic Assembly, the United Arab List and the Arab Movement for Renewal joined forces to re-form as the Joint List, which may be the third largest presence in the next parliament. Headed by a young and charismatic leader, Ayman Odeh (who is, yes, supported by me), this party has a line. It says it is against another war on Gaza. It calls for an end to the occupation (and it actually uses the word ‘occupation’) in the West Bank as a step towards peace (and it actually uses the word ‘peace’). It calls on Jews and Arabs in Israel to unite against racism and discrimination – of Arabs and Mizrahi alike – and positions itself on the left (and actually uses the word ‘left’).
In a country where only 17 per cent of the people openly support the left, that’s quite a bold programme. But their overarching principles, their call for true partnership in the fight for a just and equal society, as well as a peaceful end to the conflict, should make Jewish as well as Arab citizens of Israel vote for them. Yet Jewish citizens, even those who seem to hold progressive views, find it hard to cross the ethnic divide. This may be the Zionist movement’s greatest achievement, maintained by its education system and its cultural institutions.
A third term for Netanyahu may look inexplicable to Europeans and Americans who still believe in a progressive Israel that has been hijacked by right-wing zealots. A relative success for Herzog and Livni will be portrayed as a return of sanity and hope. This is wishful thinking. The Herzog-Livni era promises more of the same, but in a form that’s easy for the international community to digest. That’s the only difference. The Joint List are the only real democratic hope for the country. Yet for them to be a significant part of a coalition in the Knesset, Jewish Israelis will have to start seeing the Arab-Palestinian Israelis as equal citizens and legitimate political partners. Until that happens, we are doomed to more wars and more killing, and to the indifferent choice between Netanyahu, Bennett, Lapid, Livni and Herzog.