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Netanyahu’s Choice: Center-Rightism or Racist Nationalism?

For the sheer political theater of it, it’s hard to top Israeli elections.  New personalities, new parties critical to the formation of a government emerging from nowhere within a matter of weeks; powerful, even ruling center-right parties (remember Kadima?) falling abruptly off the map. Much about Israel is not really to envy, but I do wish we could try out their parliamentary system for a cycle or two to see how we liked it.

Yesterday, Israeli voters surprisingly delivered an unmistakeable if not decisive rebuke to their “King Bibi”—soon to be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister apart from David Ben Gurion.  Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party (which has become more right-wing during the past four years due to the sidelining of some of its relatively centrist figures, a process that parallels contemporary GOP developments) and its alliance partner, Avigdor Lieberman’s more extremist  Yisrael Beiteinu party, held 42 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament going into the election, and polls expected them to improve on that score. Instead, according to latest figures, they have 31. The “annex-the-West-Bank-and-put-the-Palestinians-in-bantustans” party of Naftali Bennett, who garnered much press attention as a rising political star, performed worse than expected.  A centrist Tel Aviv television personality, Yair Lapid, also with a new party, did surprisingly well. Labor, campaigning solely on economic issues, did decently.  The Israeli left—those who think a peace with the Palestinians is a practical and moral necessity for the  Jewish state—showed some new life.

The preliminary results show a parliament nearly evenly divided between left and right.  Netanyahu will probably be able to forge a ruling coalition with Lapid’s party, but it likely be a coalition less driven by the ambitions of ideological West Bank settlers or the burgeoning Israeli far right.  For those who watch Israel from afar—and have in the past  years observed a talented and wealthy small country seemingly driven to march itself inexorably off a racist-nationalist cliff (and probably exploding the Middle East in the process)—the election results appear to signal a pause: the emergence of “wait-a-second, where is this heading?” sentiment among the secular Tel Aviv middle class.

A few points, observed in the past few weeks.  Several have noticed  (and I heard this from ex-Israelis visiting us over the holidays) that the big Iran bogeyman played almost no role in the Israeli campaign. The great fear of the Iran bomb seemed to be something ginned up for American audiences only; even the Israeli right, if they are worried about losing Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, know that such fears don’t play much in the Israeli public.

The international campaign to boycott Israeli products and divest from companies doing business in Israel (BDS) is beginning to have an impact. Tzipi Livni, a major center-right figure who ran with new party, campaigned on the theme that Netanyahu’s continuation in power would bring boycotts and international sanctions to Israel. Those who spent a Sunday afternoon telling shopping mall customers not to buy Sodastream aren’t wasting their time.

There are racist assumptions embedded in Israeli political structure , and few are more blatant, or more destructive to Israel’s long-term viability, than the idea that the “Arab” parties are off-limits for governmental coalition building. Here is Foreign Policy‘s assessment of the election results:

With nearly all the votes counted, early reports indicate that each block received 60 of parliament’s 120 seats, but because certain Arab parties are excluded from coalition building, it is likely Netanyahu will be asked to form a coalition government and retain his hold on the premiership.

Note the seemingly casual mention that certain Arab parties are “excluded” from the coalition building. In practice, the qualifier “certain” doesn’t belong: no Arab parties are ever  part of a governing coalition. This is  more or less an axiom of Israeli political life: Israel is a “democracy” and the descendants of the Palestinians who weren’t expelled in 1948 get to vote and elect representative to Parliament, but—apart from the fact that merely having to debate occasionally Arab members of the Knesset is extremely annoying to right-wing Zionists—their votes don’t count for the purposes of forming a government.  It would be as if black and Hispanic Americans could vote to elect members of Congress, but the elected representatives weren’t tallied in the count to see whether Republicans or Democrats held the majority. This (or actually worse) was the case for most of America’s history.

But that can change, as it has in America. Nothing I’ve read about Yair Lapid makes it seem remotely likely that he would take the bold step of saying he would rather be part of a coalition with elected Palestinian Arabs than right-wing  Jews who basically resemble fascists, but something like that could happen sometime down the road.

In short, there is much to puzzle about the Israeli election results. Israeli analyst Noam Sheizaf lays out several of the reasons for Netanyahu’s poor showing: a miserable campaign, seemingly more designed for Florida than Israel, and a sense that he hasn’t accomplished much despite stable governing majorities, and adds this:

There is something elusive about these elections—they seem to reflect some deep shifts within the Jewish public. But they won’t result in much movement on the issue most outside observers care the most about—the conflict and the occupation. A bit like the 2011 social protest, which seems to have been, after all, the driving force behind the anti-Netanyahu mobilization we witnessed today.

So no, a weakened Netanyahu is unlikely to engage in a serious peace process, leading to viable Palestinian state. There is no Israeli majority for that. But there does seem to be, in an almost inchoate sense, a recognition by the secular, Tel Aviv-based Israeli center that the country is moving too far to the right, too fast, that the messianic and racist settlers are driving the national agenda, and that this will push Israel from the comfortable spot it currently occupies—that of a relatively wealthy, highly-educated, quasi-European country on the Eastern Mediterranean, where many citizens can fly to Paris and Rome for the weekend. That circumstance is endangered by Israel’s refusal to make peace—a fact long clear, and which Israelis maybe, just maybe, are waking up to.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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