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What Israelis aren't, but should be talking about in these elections

Could these elections bring about the end of Netanyahu’s rule? Why isn’t anyone talking about half a century of occupation? And do these elections even matter, anyway? +972 and Local Call writers open up on what’s at stake this time around.

Israeli soldiers watch Palestinian women walk towards Qalandiya checkpoint, West Bank, August 20, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers watch Palestinian women walk through Qalandiya checkpoint, West Bank, August 20, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Reading much of the Israeli and international press, one might get the impression that the upcoming Israeli elections are solely a referendum on the last 10 years of Netanyahu’s rule. That might be partially true, but there are no few number of issues that aren’t being talked about, and there are stakes — and stakeholders — not being accounted for by most observers.

In order to better understand where our attention should be, I spoke with a number of writers from both +972 Magazine and Local Call, representing various positions in Israeli and Palestinian societies, about the issues they think we need to be talking about, whether these elections matter, and why nobody is talking about the occupation.

But first, what everyone is talking about — Netanyahu. The mainstream consensus holds that these elections are a referendum on the prime minister, and his only serious challengers’ primary platform consists of very little beyond ousting him.

There is no such consensus, however, on what the consequences of ending the reign of Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister would be.

For Amjad Iraqi, there is a danger for the anti-occupation movement in simply replacing Netanyahu, often viewed in progressive and international circles as the man responsible for everything they object to about Israel, with someone seemingly more palatable.

Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019. (Flash90)

“Part of what has helped expose people to the facts on the ground here and understanding the depth of the occupation and racist policies is Netanyahu, his anti-democratic trends, and his similarities to Trump and other authoritarian leaders,” Iraqi explains.

A victory for Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, viewed as stately and more moderate than the prime minister, could lead to the erosion of some of the international pressure on Israel today. “Once that pressure is lifted, you lose a lot of the hard work that has been [done over] the past 10 years.” But Netanyahu the individual leader isn’t the problem,” Iraqi adds. “It’s the [entire] Israeli political spectrum.”

For Noam Sheizaf, Netanyahu’s downfall could be a watershed moment for Israeli politics. The prime minister’s reign has relied on “a powerful coalition between ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, the old right-wing elite, and Mizrahi Jews and Russian immigrants from the periphery of Israel. This is the coalition that kept the right in power for a very long time. If it breaks apart after Netanyahu, that will be very significant.”

Yet while a victory for centrist parties, and Gantz in particular, won’t necessarily lead to the reversal of a decade’s worth of Netanyahu policies or an end to the occupation, a victory for the right could lead to things getting far worse, Orly Noy warns. “Their first order of business will be implementing the Jewish Nation-State Law to target Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Noy says. “If the right wins once again, it’s a totally different ballgame for Arab citizens.” (Full disclosure: Noy is running in the upcoming Knesset elections on behalf of the Balad party).

So what are Israeli citizens actually talking about this time around, apart from Netanyahu’s legacy and looming corruption cases? Dahlia Scheindlin says that Netanyahu’s legal troubles are, finally, pushing Israelis to start taking seriously the defense of democratic values.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party conference in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party conference in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

“[Democratic values] are not necessarily front and center, but they are linked to the issue of corruption,” Scheindlin says. “Netanyahu’s corruption cases have highlighted the role of the justice system and the attempts to undermine it by Netanyahu and the previous government.” For Scheindlin, just the fact that democratic norms are on people’s minds — and that newspaper columnists are actually writing about the issue — should not be written off.

For Eli Bitan, one positive note about the current election cycle is that Israelis are finally talking about the role religion and religious authorities play in their lives. Separation of religion and state was once the bread and butter of secular Tel Aviv liberals with anti-Orthodox views that often bordered on hate. Today, Bitan says, we’re seeing a real movement toward progressive and secular values in many sectors of the Jewish-Israeli public, including among religious communities.

“Look at the national-religious [parties],” he says. “We see [these parties progressing] on many issues, ranging from LGBTQ rights, to feminism, to social justice issues. Only when it comes to the Palestinian issue do we see no change.”

Another positive development, Noy adds, is the way Israelis are waking up to the grave matter of corruption in their society and politics — and the opportunity that presents. “Talking about corruption creates room for optimism,” she explains. “Corruption is a sickness, and democracy cannot exist when corruption is such an integral part of it.”

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In her eyes, both regional and local developments over the past decade — such as the Arab Spring and the 2011 social protest movement — has led to the development of a public consciousness about corruption that simply didn’t exist prior. “Israel doesn’t exist in a bubble. These events had an effect — all of a sudden corruption, which had always been there, came under a spotlight.”

When asked about the one issue most Israelis aren’t talking about this election cycle, the answer was unequivocal: Israel’s half-century military rule over the Palestinians in the occupied territories. According to Sheizaf, the two leading parties, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party, have been “deliberately blurring the Palestinian issue.” The rest of the parties, he says, are simply reverting to the old slogans, rather than offering new ideas on the Palestinians’ future.

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian protesters in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 1, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian protesters in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 1, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

“Everyone is making a fuss about what Netanyahu said or didn’t say, or what Gantz did or didn’t do. No one is talking about Gaza,” says Bitan. “The fact that we’re seeing a party made up of generals becoming the hope of the Israeli left is absurd.”

With the growing irrelevance of a two-state solution, Scheindlin points out that while some parties know how to talk about a peace process, none are actually coming up with solutions. “There needs to be an alternative to the two-state solution such as a two-state confederation. That means a solution based on open borders, residency options without citizenship for refugees and some settlers, open Jerusalem, and shared institutions,” she says.

And while an end to the occupation and resolving the conflict is still a near-consensus issue in the international community, Israelis don’t seem to mind that the topic is completely absent from the current election cycle. As far as Israelis are concerned, says Iraqi, the occupation is simply not a major issue in their lives. “Israelis don’t incur a substantial enough cost to do something about it,” he explains. “There is nothing almost at stake – so why bother bringing it up?”

A Palestinian mother and her child walk past the Israeli army's Qalandiya checkpoint as clashes take place. (File photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A mother and her child walk past the Israeli army’s Qalandiya checkpoint during clashes between soldiers and Palestinians. (File photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Scheindlin puts it in even starker terms: “The occupation isn’t on the agenda because nobody thinks it’s a vote winner. Most people think it’s a vote loser. And in fairness, it’s so off the agenda that most people don’t have an articulate way of resolving the conflict.”

As long as the occupation goes unchallenged, Sheizaf adds, Israeli politicians will continue to deal solely with internal issues — that is, those pertaining mostly to Israel’s Jewish public. “The status quo is a relatively convenient option in terms of Israeli Jewish society, and there is no significant challenge to the status quo from the world nor from Palestinian society, which is divided and engaged in its internal rivalries,” he says.

Noy sees things differently. The left, including the radical left, shares a large portion of the blame. “For many years we were naïve enough to think that we had a problem of semantics rather than an ideological gap between the left and the Israeli Jewish public,” she says. “This was a terrible mistake. In effect, the left wanted to talk about justice and equality in order to win credibility while remaining silent about the occupation and the rights of Palestinians. Rather than standing up for its principles and thinking about how to pragmatically implement them, the left effectively legitimized its own delegitimization.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. Joel

      “Their first order of business will be implementing the Jewish Nation-State Law to target Palestinian citizens of Israel,” – If you’d actually read the law, rather than just the horrified reactions to it, you’d see that there isn’t anything to “implement” in it, nor is it designed to target anybody.
      “As far as Israelis are concerned, says Iraqi, the occupation is simply not a major issue in their lives.” “Israelis don’t incur a substantial enough cost to do something about it,” -Gaza and the West Bank are big issues here in Israel. There is a cost. Terror, rockets, and the occasional war are heavy costs. But “the occupation” is not an ELECTORAL issue here. Why? Because we’ve tried moving towards peace, under the leadership of the left. Remember Oslo? The withdrawal from Gaza? Both are moves that I personally supported at the time. Both were honest attempts to move towards peace. And both failed miserably, resulting in terror and death. So naturally enough, most Israelis don’t see an honest partner for negotiations on the Palestinian side. The left doesn’t have anything realistic to offer. The best we can do right now is to manage the situation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Joel: https://www.ochaopt.org/theme/gaza-blockade

        “Israel has imposed movement restrictions on the Gaza Strip since the early 1990’s. Restrictions intensified in June 2007, following the takeover of that part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) by Hamas, when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Gaza, citing security concerns. Despite relaxation of some blockade-related restrictions in recent years, 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza remain ‘locked in’, denied free access to the remainder of the territory and the outside world.”

        It’s that first sentence that interests me – Israel has imposed movement restrictions on the Gaza Strip since the early 1990’s. I’m also a little puzzled as to how the home demolitions and settlement expansions are supposed to promote a peaceful solution.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Because we’ve tried moving towards peace, under the leadership of the left”

        No we haven’t. There was never a true left and there were only fake leftists and fake moves like Barak’s famous “generous offer” that was in reality a take-it-or-leave-it non-offer meant to help no one but Barak, cynically engineered to position Barak for an election.

        “most Israelis don’t see an honest partner for negotiations on the Palestinian side”

        Israelis tell themselves all sorts of self-serving untruths. Israel has never, not once, been an honest partner for negotiations since 1967. Israel has never negotiated in good faith, only pretended to negotiate. (Olmert’s effort with Abbas was his private sort of rogue initiative that lacked any realistic backing by his coalition.)

        Reply to Comment
        • joel

          The plain fact is that Israel gave up territory and allowed the Palestinian Authority to be set up. I know this doesn’t fit in with your image of Israel as an evil nation and Israeli Jews as racist fascists, but so it goes.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Joel: In your two sentences I detect four half-truths or quarter-truths, aka distortions, and zero plain facts.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Sarah Lascar

      You have to be careful when speaking about left. From international perspective, you are giving ammunition to Palestinian sympathy.
      This is problematic for Jewish university students who are harassed non stop. In the 90’s we saw many individuals and groups that mingled for constructive dialogues.
      This somehow doesn’t exist today. Peace is a process; having generals as prime ministers shows strength. Jews cannot put heads in sink, head up with pride and power goes a long way and is effective.
      Sarah Lascar Rousso

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Peace is a process”

        It’s been nothing but a process–a process of Israelis pretending to negotiate, “peace process” as endless status quo maintenance. As Israeli exercise in bad faith, as trickery, essentially. So when you talk about “mingling for constructive dialogues” you miss the fact that the Palestinians discovered that all the Israelis have ever wanted to do was talk as a way of maintaining the occupation indefinitely. The more aggressive protests now are fueled by that wariness, by having been burned by “the process,” and by a refusal to normalize the occupation, which occupation Israel works incessantly to try to normalize.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Frank Adam

      Conflict is two way and it needs both sides to make a peace. Abbas, never mind Hamas have made it easy for Bibi’s coalition. What the historians might well debate is whether if Abbas had died sooner things would have been different at this point? Certainly when the Abbas generation of 48 die the PA Arabs options are : civil war, rebellion or disintegration; but none are constructive. On the other hand come a PA leadership willing to do a Sadat …?

      If there are attitude changes happening as listed by Noy in the younger Israeli generation it might be just because PA obstinacy has shelved them into irrelevance.

      Reply to Comment