Israeli Politics

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.

The newly launched Joint List is facing a series of crises. Not least, if the bloc breaks up after polling day, as looks likely, it will suggest to the Arab public that it was simply an opportunistic vehicle for bypassing the obstacle of a raised Knesset threshold. Rather than reversing – as intended – the long-term decline in turnout among Palestinian voters, the list’s failure could dramatically accelerate it.

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.

While Europe is tentatively finding a voice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence reigns across the Atlantic. The White House appears paralysed, afraid to appear out of sync with world opinion but more afraid still of upsetting Israel and its powerful allies in the US Congress. Now there is an additional complicating factor: the Israeli public, due to elect a new government in three months’ time, increasingly regards the US role as toxic.

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.

In bringing forward an election, Netanyahu can try to unmake a coalition he never really desired, and one he no longer needs after even the US appear to have given up on the diplomatic track since its implosion last April. Netanyahu chose this moment to collapse the government because Yair Lapid, his biggest potential challenger, was at his most vulnerable.

Despite hailing as a victory the seven weeks of fighting that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and destroyed large swathes of Gaza’s infrastructure, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appears to have emerged as the main political casualty of Operation Protective Edge. In late July, Netanyahu’s approval ratings stood at 82 per cent. Last week, as the ceasefire began, his popularity had plummeted to 32 per cent.

In some parts of Israel, voters in Tuesday’s elections will be casting a ballot not on how well their municipality is run but on how to stop “Arabs” moving in next door, how to prevent mosques being built in their community, or how to “save” Jewish women from the clutches of Arab men. According to analysts and residents, Israel’s local elections have brought a tide of ugly racism to the fore, especially in a handful of communities known as “mixed cities”, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity.

Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed. At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.

Will the Palestinians be able to take advantage of President Obama’s apparent renewed interest in diplomacy? Here is the rub. Benjamin Netanyahu already has a stranglehold on the politics of his potential peace partners. He can easily manipulate the fortunes of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the two biggest tests he faces: the peace process overseen by the international community, and reconciliation talks with the rival Palestinian faction Hamas.

Shortly before polling day in Israel, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace.

This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity ever further rightwards.

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?”

The inciting cause of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas has little to do with the firing of rockets, whether by Hamas or the other Palestinian factions. The conflict predates the rockets – and even the creation of Hamas – by decades. It is the legacy of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948, forcing many of them from their homes in what is now Israel into the tiny Gaza Strip. That original injustice has been compounded by the occupation Israel has not only failed to end but has actually intensified in recent years with its relentless siege of the small strip of territory.

The speculation among Israelis and many observers is that an Obama second term will see much greater pressure on Israel both to make major concessions on Palestinian statehood and to end its aggressive posturing towards Iran over its supposed ambition to build a nuclear warhead. Such thinking, however, is fanciful. The White House’s approach towards Netanyahu and Israel is unlikely to alter significantly.

Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.

Despite mounting speculation that Mr Netanyahu is preparing to unveil a peace initiative in the coming weeks, Haaretz newspaper revealed last week that he has been conducting negotiations with the National Union to bring three of its four MPs into his coalition. The party is considered the most right-wing in the 120-member Knesset. Mr Netanyahu also announced the appointment of a hawkish former general as the new head of the National Security Council.

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new “centrist, Zionist” faction in the Israeli parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.

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