In responding to the Israeli election results, I’ve seen an almost complete disconnect between my friends in Edinburgh and the media commentators who I read and respect. Almost everyone I know is downcast at Netanyahu’s electoral victory and its predictable consequence—a continuation of the policies that have prolonged and worsened the occupation and all its miseries, including periodic wars (or, more accurately, massacres) in Gaza.
Even more depressing than the victory were the means by which it was achieved: Netanyahu’s last-minute total rejection of a Palestinian state and his openly racist calls to his supporters. It’s impossible to resist the conclusion that if this is how to win elections in Israel, Israel is clearly a right-wing country: a depressing conclusion indeed for liberal Zionists, or indeed for anyone hoping for real progress towards peace in the region. As the Magnes Zionist remarked:
This is not a state that is presided over by a unpopular tyrant. This is a state run by a very popular Jewish bigot, who gets elected by telling his supporters that there will be no Palestinian state, and that they must get out and vote in order to stop the Arab citizens of Israel “who are voting in droves.”
“This is your god, O Israel” Aaron said to the Israelites, as they worshipped the golden calf of bigotry, deceit, and self-centeredness.
Still, it’s not necessary to be totally downcast about the outcome. Here are three different lines of thinking about the result; while none is exactly cheering, each one contains an element of hope and encouragement.
The first line of argument is that it could be worse: a victory for Netanyahu’s opponents would in practice have served only to obscure the policies of the occupation, not to change them in any real way. It’s not as though the Zionist Union stood for an end to the policies of occupation, or even for any concrete promises about ameliorating them. Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a leader of the non-violent protests against the Separation Barrier in the village of Bil’in (and considered by the EU to be a “Human Rights Defender”) put it like this in a February interview:
If Labor wins… it won’t be so good. There is no real difference between Labour and Likud, in this sense we much prefer Likud. Labour has better relations with the international community, but they are no different when it comes to policies. They do not promote peace, they build settlements, they build walls and they go to war. And yet they get legitimacy from the world. We might as well have Lieberman [Israel’s far-right foreign minister], who only damages Israel’s international relations.
So at least we will no longer hear that protests are “undermining the peace process”. The peace process, a walking corpse for many years, has at last been officially laid to rest—by the Israeli Prime Minister himself. Following from this, the second line of argument is that this will greatly strengthen international pressure on Israel, both from governments and from civil society. I take my lead on this from Jonathan Freedland, the influentia doyen of UK liberal Zionism. In a Guardian piece entitled “Netanyahu sank into the moral gutter—and there will be consequences“, Freedland clearly interpolates his own views (my emphasis):
If Israel is effectively ruling out a Palestinian state—and given that it rejects a one-state solution whereby Israel absorbs millions of Palestinians and gives them the vote—then it has committed itself to maintaining the status quo, permanently ruling over another people and denying them basic democratic rights. And that is a position the world cannot accept.
Such a stance might entail US withdrawal of diplomatic cover. It might mean tougher European sanctions of the kind proposed in Friday’s EU report on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. It could mean a growing shift towards divestment and sanctions, targeted at the occupation, without the polarising tactic of boycott that tends to alienate as many potential supporters as it recruits.
Whatever form they take, there will be consequences for Netanyahu’s actions. He was ready to sink to a new low to save his skin, but it will be Israelis—and their Palestinian neighbours—who pay the price.
We can expect to see Freedland’s change of view widely echoed, especially among American Jews (though perhaps not yet their leadership) who until now have practised mental gymnastics so as to be able to give Israel unconditional support while opposing the settlements. So, despite Freedland’s dislike of the B in BDS, the BDS movement as a whole will certainly gain in respectability and strength from Netanyahu’s victory.
The third line of argument sees a genuinely positive outcome from the election, the result of a serious mistake by Lieberman. In a move designed to exclude Arab parties, he successfully proposed raising the minimum threshold for election to the Knesset. Ironically, this change not only brought his own party near to exclusion, but forced the predominantly Arab parties into a single list, which now has the third strongest representation in the Knesset. Inspired by the vision of an Israeli state for all its citizens—Jews and Arabs—it campaigned for an end to wars against Gaza, against the occupation, and for full equality of Arab citizens within Israeli society.
The Joint List’s message of optimism and partnership was emphatically rejected by the mainstream parties and, in the end, by the Jewish Israeli voting public. But with 13 seats in the Knesset, it will be too strong a voice to be ignored. Already, in the run-up to the election, it gained far more publicity than any “Arab party” of the past. In the new Knesset, where the dominant tone will be racism, aggression and self-pity, the Joint List will provide a voice for an Israel that will be, as the Magnes Zionist says, “substantively Jewish and democratic—and, also, Palestinian“.