By Richard Silverstein
What if they called an election and nobody came? That’s about what I feel about the coming March election, which Bibi Netanyahu has precipitated for no apparent reason other than to prolong his record as the longest serving Israeli prime minister. At this rate, he’ll be embalmed in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem like Lenin in the Kremlin. They should change his title to “Prime Minister for Life.” The irony is that 60 percent of Israelis polled don’t like him or want him to be prime minister – they just want the other guy even less.
If you were cynical (and it pays to be when you observe Israel and its political system), you’d say Bibi has been orchestrating key events for months leading up to his call for new elections. There’s nothing like a good war against Gaza or Lebanon to perk up poll numbers. I have little doubt that Operation Protective Edge was part of his plan to prepare for elections. Even if it wasn’t, it dropped a wonderful campaign gift into his lap.
Further, the Israeli provocations that led up to the last month of terror attacks and killings were also likely laying the groundwork for elections. There’s nothing like feeding red meat to the settler “dogs” of the Likud’s far-right flank – with police assaults on the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian expulsions from Silwan to further the Judaisation of East Jerusalem – to motivate extreme nationalists to vote Likud.
The latest series of what I call Knesset “race bills” (but which Israelis call “nationality laws“) has also monopolised the political discourse. Even though these racist proposals have been roundly criticised abroad and by no less than the “eminence grises,” Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin (the current and past presidents), and it’s unlikely they will pass in their current form, they play well to the roughly 60 percent of Israelis who polls show have racist views of Palestinians.
Another critical move the Knesset made to anaesthetise the left was raising the electoral threshold for political parties from 2.5 percent to 4 percent. It’s no accident that all Palestinian parties win under 4 percent of the vote. The upshot is that unless the parties unite, they will be shut out of the Knesset. So, instead of Israeli Palestinians having only half the actual representation they should have in proportion to their actual population in the current Knesset, they will have none. It was a shrewd racist move in many ways. Even if the parties do coalesce into a single entity Palestinians, almost half of whom refuse to participate in the electoral process at all, will be far less motivated to vote.
Imagine if the UK Tories and Social Democrats were forced to unite in order to rise above an electoral threshold. How many voters in each party would be so turned off by the cheapening of their values that they would say to hell with both of them and stay home? I predict this is what’s likely to happen in the coming Israeli election.
This is not an academic exercise, nor is its impact limited to Israeli Palestinians. It is yet another in a long line of successful ploys designed to emasculate the Israeli left. The extreme nationalist right has engineered (barring outside intervention) a permanent settlerist majority. Israeli democracy is dying. Any society which disenfranchises 20 percent of its population in the name of Jewish supremacism is on its way to political hell.
Netanyahu’s announcement of the sacking of the two centrist ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, which he accused of orchestrating a putsch, is also the stuff of political theatre. The idea of Israel’s pathetically weak centrist parties having the coherence, savvy or boldness to organise such a political manoeuvre is beyond ridiculous. Neither Livni nor Lapid can agree on what day it is, let alone join together to try to take over the government. But conspiracy-mongering this sort of plays well to the Likudist electorate, always smelling a conniving “leftist” rat.
Netanyahu, whose performance in the last election was actually quite poor, forcing him to cobble together an awkward coalition of far-right nationalists with centrist liberal Zionist parties, stands to do much better in the coming one. He has neutralised the political centre and stimulated the right with Pavlovian policies like those I outlined above. The opposition is demoralised, the governing coalition is mobilised. It promises a sure win for the rightist coalition.
Now let me say something heretical for most observers of Israeli politics: who wins doesn’t matter. In the inconceivable event that Lapid or Livni win, policies would not be significantly different. Sure, there will be a few sops thrown to the social justice movement. Maybe Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas would be invited to visit. Israel might allow a nuclear agreement with Iran and not threaten to attack. But no Israeli prime minister would be able or willing to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians and other frontline states (Lebanon and Syria). There is simply no consensus about this and no one has the guts to try to forge one.
Nor does it matter much who’s elected to the Knesset. That body, despite being Israel’s legislative branch, does precious little that has any substantive impact on Israeli society. Government policy is implemented by a tight-knit circle of the political, military and intelligence elite including the prime minister, defence and finance ministers, the intelligence chiefs and IDF chief. The main purpose of the Knesset and ministerial portfolios is to hand-out political pork to supporters and factions. This is why the Haredi, Mizrahi and Orthodox parties have done so well in past governments. They had little interest in impacting policy in significant ways. They wanted political fiefdoms from which they could parcel out goodies and patronage along with the odd Judaic morality play about preserving rabbinic control over marriage and divorce.
In other democracies, the purpose of the legislative branch is to oversee the executive branch: to review policies and finances and ensure government functions in a fair and transparent way. The Knesset doesn’t monitor the prime minister, military or intelligence branches as they might in a real democracy. Its members do a lot of grandstanding. They give interviews to newspapers in which they vent about the latest Palestinian outrage. It’s all pandering to an electorate which laps up Palestine-baiting. The grandstanding is little more than political positioning for the next election. The more column inches you get in the Israeli Daily, Yisrael HaYom, the higher you’ll be placed in the party list and more likely you’ll enter Knesset and become a minister. Israeli politics is little more than a gravy train leading to perks and patronage.
Lest anyone doubt this, take Ehud Olmert’s political career as a model: From almost the beginning when he became mayor of Jerusalem through his role as a junior cabinet minister up to becoming prime minister, he was as crooked as the day is long. Almost everything was for sale for the right price. If he couldn’t find Israelis able to finance his lifestyle, he turned to kindly Diaspora Jews like billionaire, S. Daniel Abraham, to shower him with Slimfast boxes full of cash.
Now Olmert whines about how bad Israeli politics works and how little is being done to solve real problems. But when he had a chance to make peace with the Syrians and Palestinians, he demurred. In the former case, he preferred starting a useless war against Gaza than signing a deal with Syrian President Assad. Only when Israeli politicians leave power do they sound like the soul of Hamlet.
Netanyahu hasn’t quite followed the same path. He’s corrupt, but not on the same scale (as far as we know). He is more ideologically motivated than Olmert. But even Bibi is willing to trim his sails to suit the prevailing winds. Though he’s repulsed by the notion of a Palestinian state, he gave George Bush a speech in which he endorsed it with his fingers crossed behind his back.
Bibi’s primary goal is not to make an indelible mark as a statesman. Not to solve an intractable national problem. His goal is survival. Longevity. He likes hearing the sound of his own voice delivering orations at the UN or before Congress. It flatters him.
He has no strategic vision. He’s not trying to get from point a to point b in terms of pursuing a political agenda. He is satisfied with the settlers providing the ideological passion and energy. He sits above it all, as a conductor leading the orchestra, making sure no one plays too much out of tune.
In 2011, Jerry Haber penned a post, Bibi for Prime Minister, which seemed heretical to some. I wasn’t sure at the time I agreed with him. I do now. In fact, I’d prefer a victory by someone even more extreme like Lieberman, Bennett or Danon. They will expose the fangs of Israeli racialism and fascism. The world will know what it’s getting with that crew. There will be no mincing words, no waffling, no hoping for better future outcomes. Once Israel elects the Apocalypse, there will be no turning back to a nation of liberal democracy. There will be no nostalgia for the past of kibbutzim, collectivism, and social democracy. That will be thrown on the dust heap of Israeli history.
This time, Israel will be exposed like the Alien monsters in the film franchise who lurk undetected inside perfectly nice and unsuspecting human beings. But at a certain moment, these aliens explode from the bodies, killing their hosts as they show themselves in all their hideous “glory.” That’s the direction Israel is heading.
France has had its Republics. Like France, Israel’s history has included kings, prophets, judges, conquerors, and prime ministers. Now, Israel is closing out another chapter in its history. The era of the democratic nation state is lapsing into a Judean theocratic regime. Paraphrasing Yeats, some “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches” towards Jerusalem to be born. The sooner this beast appears, and wreaks the full measure of his havoc, the sooner the world will realise that it must act to prevent an even greater catastrophe. Things will get worse, much worse, before they get better.
– Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield). (This article was originally published in Middle East Eye.)