Israeli Politics

In a surprise move, Benjamin Netanyahu forced out his long-serving defence minister, Moshe Yaalon. As he stepped down, Yaalon warned: “Extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel.” He was referring partly to his expected successor: Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose trademark outbursts have included demands to bomb Egypt and behead disloyal Palestinian citizens. But Yaalon was also condemning extremism closer to home, in Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

There is no bigger taboo in Israel than comparing the state of Israel to Nazi Germany. And yet that is precisely what Yair Golan, the deputy head of the Israeli military, did during a speech to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. There is now a palpable fear among army commanders like Golan that they are losing control over their soldiers – and with it any hope of holding on to their much-cherished claim to be the “most moral army in the world”.

In Israel’s evermore tribal politics, there is no such thing as a “good” Arab – and the worst failing in a Jew is to be unmasked as an “Arab lover”. Or so was the message last week from Isaac Herzog, head of Israel’s so-called peace camp. In the current climate, Herzog and his opposition party Zionist Union have found themselves highly uncomfortable at having in their midst a single non-Jewish legislator.

Benjamin Netanyahu is effectively legislating the expulsion of the Balad party and throwing down a gauntlet to the courts. It won’t end there. If Balad is unseated, the participation of the other Joint List factions will be untenable. In effect, the Israeli right is seeking to ethnically cleanse the parliament.

Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a crackdown on Palestinian political leaders in Israel, blaming them for the current unrest, in what appeared to be an attempt to bolster his severely dented image as ‘Mr Security’. After a security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu directed officials to assemble the evidence to make possible the outlawing of the northern wing of the Islamic movement.

The popular shift rightwards in Israel means that even the left can no longer afford to keep its racism hidden from view. For Palestinian leaders, that may be no bad thing: it is easier to grapple with an Israel that grows ever less sophisticated, ever less capable of concealing its central goals. It looks uglier, not simply because things are getting worse but because they are finally out in the open.

A month into resuming his premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of an increasingly autocratic rule, as critics warn his new government is preparing to take a draconian line against institutions opposing its policies. Israel’s rightwing coalition has already indicated it will make a priority of tackling three fronts – human rights organisations, the media and the Supreme Court.

Only a few weeks into Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, the intense strain of trying to square its members’ zealotry with Israel’s need to improve its international standing is already starkly evident. But even faced with a cabinet of settlers, ultra-nationalists and religious extremists, President Barack Obama is still choosing to shower Israel with arms and favours.

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.

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