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These elections are a choice between resignation and despair

Four years ago, the prospect of another Netanyahu government meant perpetuating the status quo. This time, the opposition is offering the status quo — and Netanyahu something far worse.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a government handout photo, taken near Israel's southern order with Egypt, March 7, 2019. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO/Handout)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a government handout photo, taken near Israel’s southern order with Egypt, March 7, 2019. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO/Handout)

The short distance between resignation and despair is the difference between knowing that things aren’t going to get any better and the fear that they could very easily get worse and there’s nothing to do about it. In many ways, that feels like the theme of the upcoming Israeli elections — at least for the small minority of Israelis whose political identity and priorities are wrapped up in the fights to end the occupation and seek an equitable society.

Four years ago, the last time Israelis went to the polls, I wrote that the only thing that could have possibly defeated Benjamin Netanyahu was hope and vision: hope for change, vision of a better future, anything really. Nobody was offering such a vision. And absent an alternative worth taking a risk for, there was nothing more reasonable for Israelis to do than to choose more of the same — stability.

This time around, things seem far bleaker. Without any vision of their own, Netanyahu’s main challengers have adopted a platform that is basically just a more palatable version of the status quo. Continued occupation. No lifting the siege on Gaza. More collective punishment and oppressive policies. No push to resolve the conflict. A Benny Gantz-led Israel would merely make the current discriminatory and undemocratic reality prettier, thereby reducing any international pressure to change course.

The only discernible difference between the current administration and the “Blue and White” alternative is a few less radical right-wingers in the government, and an ostensibly less corrupt prime minister. In other words, this time around it’s the challengers who are offering the status quo as their vision — resignation.

Israelis walk past a campaign billboard in Jerusalem for the Yashar political party, with major politicians seen giving the public the middle finger, March 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israelis walk past a campaign billboard in Jerusalem for the Yashar political party, with major politicians seen giving the public the middle finger, March 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is taking huge strides to the right, leaping over lines many thought even he would not cross. Faced with corruption charges and a cadre of generals vying to replace him, the prime minister has paved a political future for himself that, if he is tasked with forming a fourth consecutive government, could set Israel-Palestine on a path far worse than anything we’ve seen in decades.

In the nearly 10 years that Netanyahu has consecutively occupied the Prime Minister’s Office, each of his governments — and the accompanying political climate — have been more nationalist and right-wing than the one that preceded. The Israeli right’s wish list of laws, policies, and actions has slowly but steadily moved from the drawing board to the law books to the real world.

Laws were passed to limit speech that challenges Zionist narratives, to restrain and harass human rights and anti-occupation groups, to keep critics out of the country, to legalize the theft of Palestinian land, to delegitimize even the most nonviolent acts of Palestinian resistance. This government ordered the army to open fire on thousands of protesters in Gaza. It decided to steal millions of dollars from the Palestinian Authority, stripped Arabic of its status as an official language in Israel, put in place a plan to displace tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel, and stripped hundreds of Bedouin of their citizenship. The Netanyahu government made friends with world leaders flirting with bona fide anti-Semitism, and in the same breath, convinced the world that criticizing Israeli policies and political ideology is the real anti-Semitism.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban review an honor guard in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Handout)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban review an honor guard in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Handout)

The ideological undercurrents that drove all of those policies and legislative decisions will only be reinforced, emboldened, and untethered if Benjamin Netanyahu forms his next government with the most extremist lineup of right-wing parties he has ever assembled. Which is to say, further to the right than the current collection of racists and supremacists he surrounded himself with.

For the sake of reference: the current Israeli government includes a deputy minister who called Palestinians sub-humans, a minister who threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba,” ministers who tried to shut down foreign news outlets for being too critical and have shut down Palestinian networks just for existing. The current government includes a minister who compared asylum seekers to cancer, and who once in office publicly embraced crowds belting out genocidal chants. Senior officials regularly call for and implement collective punishment against Palestinians and others, the ruling Likud party has embraced annexation as a policy goal, and numerous ministers have used the demolition of entire Palestinian villages to gain political points. Netanyahu himself has accused his critics of being traitors, warned that nearly a quarter of Israeli citizens’ votes are a threat to the country, and stated more times than I can count that he will never, ever, end the occupation.

And all of that was without the openly Jewish supremacist Kahanist party, “Jewish Power,” to whose ideas Netanyahu will be beholden if he needs them to form a government, something to which he’s already admitted will be the case.

At that point, it wouldn’t take much to remove the constraints that have held back the flood waters so far. The next government will not have a Moshe Kahlon powerful enough to block a change to Israel’s non-constitution giving the Knesset the power to override the Supreme Court, as Ayelet Shaked and much of the Likud desperately want. It wouldn’t take much to change the role of Israel’s attorney general such that he is no longer positioned to stand in the way of the most egregious, oppressive, unjust, and discriminatory policies. It won’t take much more domestic pressure before the threat of international blow-back is no longer enough to stop the annexation train from leaving the station. And in the Trump era, particularly with the backing of European leaders like Victor Orban, the threat of international pressure is nowhere on the horizon.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the New Right party, wants to give the Knesset a veto over Supreme Court decisions, March 12, 2019. (Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the New Right party, wants to give the Knesset a veto over Supreme Court decisions, March 12, 2019. (Flash90)

Analysts have been warning for years that the status quo of occupation is unsustainable. Those alarms were usually sounded to increase the perceived urgency of reaching a two-state solution and ending Israel’s undemocratic military rule over millions of Palestinians. But the danger here is far greater than simply issuing a death certificate for the two-state solution.

The real danger lies in what an empowered right-wing Israeli government, having proven to its people that a negotiated peace isn’t an option, is willing to try in its stead. The real danger is what a government, whose power is reliant on parties with ideologies that call for expelling Palestinians, will do the next time it has an opportunity to fundamentally change the status quo. The real danger is how far a hyper-nationalist government that has already shown its desire to silence dissent will go in that pursuit.

As political despair has come to envelope the anti-occupation camp in recent years, particularly in the Trump era, I’ve often drawn hope from the knowledge that some of the biggest changes in the world, like the fall of Apartheid and the Berlin Wall, came with little, if any, warning. Nowadays, that same knowledge has become a source of fear.

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    COMMENTS

      • Lewis from Afula

        “They aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine: they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.”

        Egyptian popular author and preacher Muhammad Hussein Ya’qub. Televised sermon in 2009.

        Reply to Comment
    1. Tommy Goldberg

      If anyone told you that Israel’s sitting justice (!!!) and education (!!!) ministers would cut an ad where fascism and democracy were likened to purely subjective impressions one might have while smelling a perfume — until what year would you have accused me of being completely detached from reality?

      https://twitter.com/naftalibennett/status/1107718624763088896

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Notable is Shaked’s invariably cold, cat-like stare, those cold eyes, that remarkably unvarying cold, disdainful supremacist expression. (She fits the part like a TV villain.) Then we have this attempt to couple that coldness and this fascism with aestheticism and eroticism. Well, this has been done before. It did not turn out well:

        http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/33dTexts/SontagFascinFascism75.htm

        “It was Genet, in his novel Funeral Rites, who provided one of the first texts that showed the erotic allure fascism exercised on someone who was not a fascist. Another description is by Sartre, an unlikely candidate for these feelings himself, who may have heard about them from Genet. In La Mort dans l’âme (1949), the third novel in his four-part Les Chemins de la liberté, Sartre describes one of his protagonists experiencing the entry of the German army into Paris in 1940: “[Daniel] was not afraid, he yielded trustingly to those thousands of eyes, he thought ‘Our conquerors!’ and he was supremely happy. He looked them in the eye, he feasted on their fair hair, their sunburned faces with eyes which looked like lakes of ice, their slim bodies, their incredibly long and muscular hips. He murmured: ‘How handsome they are!’ . . . Something had fallen from the sky: it was the ancient law. The society of judges had collapsed, the sentence had been obliterated; those ghostly little khaki soldiers, the defenders of the rights of man, had been routed. … An unbearable, delicious sensation spread through his body; he could hardly see properly; he repeated, gasping, ‘As if it were butter—they’re entering Paris as if it were butter.’ He would like to have been a woman to throw them flowers.”

        Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      When will our dear leftists, who are essentially financed from abroad and influenced by theories opposed to Judaism, understand that for a majority of Israelis, there is no occupation, but rather a liberation full of hopes according to the promises of our prophets, hopes being fulfilled. The Jewish people return to their ancestral land, the economy is prosperous, the majority of the population is very happy, the diplomatic relations are very numerous. Even the Arab world does not care about the myth of the pseudo “Palestinian people”. When will our leftists understand that they are wasting their time making foolish proposals that endanger the Israeli population? Return to the roots of Judaism, stop acting as enemies, read the works of the Gaon of Vilna and Rav Cook. Only then will we listen to you. Now you are inaudible. You preach in the desert and you will go from disappointment to disappointment.

      Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Everyone knows that in Ariel Sharon’s final years, the guy became totally corrupt. His family became involved in shady deals like the “Greek Island Affair”. Under pressure from the Israeli Supreme Court, Sharon started to follow Leftist Appeasement policies. Thus, most of Sharon’s statements in his final years should be taken with a grain of salt.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “There is no occupation…Rav Kook.”

        These preening displays of cultism are instructive. As Bruce points out, Sharon certainly realized it was an occupation and admitted it frankly. Your Kookism, Halevy, is already a known historical failure, a crushing disappointment, a last gasp crisis movement given emergency life support by the secular-judeo-neo-fascism of Shaked the cold-eyed perfumer. It is destined to be seen as a kind of late 20th century cargo-cult waiting for the god that never comes and plaintively wondering why everyone else can’t stifle a giggle when they think of the ridiculous spectacle of you and your white robed “pure” sons sacrificing goats on a temple top in the 21st century.

        You are in my mind essentially a plain ordinary neo-fascist hypernationalist, Halevy, dressing this up in kookist religious messianism but the majority of Bennett and Shaked’s nascent marching shock troops are not religious in a genuine way and simply draw on religious-historical mythologies to justify baser motives. Previous fascists pretended to be excited about Wotan too. What you are excited to do, Halevy, is turn Zionism into a theology, not theology into Zionism.

        You speak the language of “disappointment” versus “happiness.” This is cult-speak. Cleansed from your glazed, wide-eyed talk is any sense of right and wrong, justice and atrocity, or really, of any modern education that I can discern. That too is nationalist cult-speak. You pretend all this is something higher and better than it is. You pretend is it redemption in a cruel, “sovereign” maximalist lebensraum-seizing kingdom, but in reality Israelis are not given a special exemption, any more than 21st century Christian crusaders would be given, or Islamist jihadis are now given, and are no different than the masses that succumbed to hypernationalist ideologies in the past. You are not one whit better than the hypernationalist Serbs and their glazed-eyed talk of mythic battles on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. (So you can’t put it down to anti-Semitism when all else fails.) Shaked is totally non-religious. Bennett has only a veneer of religion. It’s fake.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Always the same logorrhea repeated over and over again. I believe more in the words of our sages of the past or the present than in the words of the leftists, who have been deceiving themselves for decades. Whether you like it or not, Judaea and Samaria have been miraculously freed following a war of aggression against Israel. Now hundreds of thousands of Jews live there and develop them. All the rest is leftist blah blah.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “I believe more in the words of…”

            Halevy, I am not writing talmudic commentary and this is not a faith-based dialogue, so you give away the flawed argumentary ground you stand on, the ahistorical, anti-rational, anti-modern fundamentalism your whole world view is rooted in, by supposing this is a matter of “belief,” yours or mine. You remain the champ, of missing the point. In this way I can always count on you.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Of course we do not have the same argument. Mine is heavy and solid that has proven itself. Yours is full of beautiful words, but it’s wind ..

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy, it is most definitely NOT solid and has NOT proven itself. You are living in a dream-world:

            Settler politics as God’s playing field
            by : Tomer Persico
            Publish Date : April 6, 2013
            http://www.bina.org.il/en/1124/

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            “Settler politics as God’s playing field”

            But before June 1967, there was no occupation, no settlements, no checkpoints etc. Judea and Samaria were “Judenrein”. Yet even then, the Arab bastards were attacking and killing us.

            How do you explain all that, Ben ??
            It’s a mystery isn’t it ?
            Hah ha ha

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It’s no mystery at all. I’ll explain it. (1) Your account of the pre-67 conflict is selective, sanitized and twisted. (Somewhere Tommy Goldberg explained this to you.) (2) The conflict and both parties with it have evolved. No conflict on Earth gets settled otherwise. The vast power imbalance between the parties means that there is less selection pressure on the Israelis to evolve and solve in this moment in time. (Any number of articles by Noam Sheizaf here have explained this.) (3) The first two are facilitated by your simplemindedness (intrinsic? an act? who knows? who cares?) (I already explained this).

            I have never seen a right winger actually engage the thinking of Tomer Persico on Feiglism, Kookism, or anything else. They drop it, scurry on. This is interesting.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            No real explanation from Ben.
            More waffle from a lunatic who creates his own version of history to explain the murder of Israelis before 1967.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        I hope you realize just how little of a f**k most Jews who live in civilized countries give about Judaism, let alone the misbegotten version you people have farted out (involving bastardized Orthodox mumbo-jumbo and early 20th century irredentist euro-nationalism). Most Jews are more than happy to live normal, peaceful lives, at the cost of not getting to “return” to some sand-blasted strip of land that God supposedly gave them.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Speak for yourself, Ray
          Speak for yourself.

          Reply to Comment