Anti-Democratic Trends

Netanyahu won the Israeli election in a last-minute reversal by scaring right and far-right blocs of voters back to their normal political base – his Likud party. But in doing so, he burnt his bridges with the international community and tore up the rules of democratic discourse.

Tired, confused, desperate and paranoid are just a few of the epithets that have been hurled at Netanyahu in the last days of the campaign. Warning that the whole of the right will fall with him, if he is defeated, Netanyahu ascribed his difficulties not to personal failings but to a sinister plot by “foreign groups”. There was “a huge, worldwide effort to topple the Likud”, he warned.

The thrust of the right’s election campaign suggests a different reading of Avigdor Lieberman’s move to raise the threshold last year. Then, it was widely assumed he was trying to bar the Arab parties from parliament. Now it seems as if he may have had a more sinister goal in mind. In creating the Joint List, the Arab parties may – rather than foiling the right’s plan – have stepped into its trap.

Israel’s Central Elections Committee on Thursday barred Haneen Zoabi, one of the most prominent Arab politicians in Israel, from running for the parliament in next month’s general election. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party had submitted a 50-page dossier of quotes it claimed proved Zoabi supported armed struggle by Israel’s enemies and opposed Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.

The right needs a credible enemy, one that can be feared and that keeps the Jewish tribe from feuding too viciously. The occasional rocket from Gaza hardly qualifies. The role is instead being assigned to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They and Palestinians in Jerusalem are now likely to take centre stage in any future election campaign.

The Israeli parliament voted overwhelmingly last week to suspend Haneen Zoabi, a legislator representing the state’s large Palestinian minority, for six months as a campaign to silence political dissent intensified. But Zoabi is not the only Palestinian representative in the firing line. The Knesset raised the threshold for election to the parliament, in what has been widely interpreted as an attempt to exclude all three small parties representing the Palestinian minority.

Israel’s large Palestinian minority is facing an unprecedented backlash of incitement and violent reprisals as Israeli Jews rally behind the military operation in Gaza, human rights groups have warned. Palestinian citizens have been accused of being “traitors” and a “fifth column” for criticising the attack on Gaza, in a surge of ethnic hatred by the Jewish majority not seen since the outbreak of the second intifada 14 years ago.

There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.

As recent events show, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are above a culture of hate. As long as Israel’s belligerent occupation continues, their lives together will be predicated on bouts of violent confrontation. But that does not mean Israeli and Palestinian culpability is equal. The reality is that Israelis do not need to seek revenge on their own account. The Israeli state, military and courts do it for them.

The apparent abduction of three teenagers has provoked a wave of revulsion in Israel but no readiness to examine the causes of the incident or the appropriateness of Israel’s response. Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the parliament, discovered the cost of not joining the chorus of outrage: she was assigned a bodyguard after receiving a flood of death threats, and is being investigated for incitement.

Israel is preparing to shut down the most popular Islamic party among its large Palestinian minority, apparently hoping to exploit the tide of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. “Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

Some 9,000 police have been drafted in to protect the Pope during his visit to Israel, and Christian institutions are under round-the-clock protection. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations have turned “the holy sites into a military base”. But Israel is loath to publicise the grounds for its concerns, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamic extremists but Jewish fanatics linked to the settler movement.

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.

Mounting efforts by Israel to divide its large Palestinian minority along sectarian lines have heightened fears that the Biblical city of Nazareth may be about to return to the scenes of violent clashes witnessed 15 years ago. Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game, seeking to inflame tensions so that he can pit Christians against Muslims and weaken us as a community,” said Hanna Swaid, a Christian Knesset member.

The last thing Israeli leaders want is for Jewish and Palestinian citizens to develop shared interests, forge friendships and act in solidarity. That would start to erode the rationale for a Jewish state, especially one premised on the supposed need of the Jews to defend themselves from a hostile world – Israel’s self-image as “the villa in the jungle”. A Jewish state’s future precisely depends on the anti-Arab stereotypes inculcated in young Israeli minds.

Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters stand accused of stoking an atmosphere of increasing intimidation and intolerance in schools and among groups working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The government has also come under particular fire for its efforts to police the school curriculum to remove references to the Nakba and play down the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.

Leaders of Israel’s Palestinian minority have accused the Israeli authorities of intensifying efforts to push Christian and Muslim communities into conflict, as part of a long-running divide-and-rule strategy towards the country’s Palestinian citizens. The allegations have been prompted by a series of initiatives to pressure Christian school-leavers into the army, breaking the community’s blanket rejection of the Israeli army draft for the past 65 years.

As Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority, gears up for the country’s general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views. Paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, the posters are intended to mobilize the country’s Palestinian citizens to vote. They pose a blunt question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?”

A sustained battle by the Israeli right to stifle academic freedom at the country’s universities is close to claiming its first major scalp. In an unprecedented move last month, Israel’s Council for Higher Education recommended the effective closure of the politics department of Ben Gurion University, based in the Negev. The threatened closure comes in the wake of a series of repressive measures sanctioned by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to intimidate or silence domestic criticism, from human rights groups to the media and judiciary.

A series of legal and political moves by Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government to stifle criticism of its policies have prompted warnings that Israel is rapidly heading towards a system of authoritarian rule. In recent weeks, the Israeli government has put forward measures to muzzle the media, shut down human rights groups, and seize control of appointments to the supreme court to fill it with rightwing judges.

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