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The messages from Israel’s election

by Ilan Pappe         20 March 2015        The Electronic Intifada

Jewish Israeli voters have steadily turned away from liberal Zionism, preferring the “real thing.” (Matan Portnoy/Flickr)

Those of us who know the nature of the beast could not have been surprised by the results of the Israeli election.

Like many of my friends, I was also relieved that a liberal Zionist government was not elected. It would have allowed the charade of the “peace process” and the illusion of the two-state solution to linger on while the suffering of the Palestinians continues.

As always, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself provided the inevitable conclusion when he declared the end of the two-state solution — inviting us all to the long overdue funeral of an ill-conceived idea that provided Israel with international immunity for its colonialist project in Palestine.

The power of the charade was on show when the world and local pundits unrealistically predicted a victory for liberal Zionism, an Israeli ideological trend that is near extinction — embodied by the Zionist Union list headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

The exit polls compiled by Israel’s finest statisticians reinforced the wishful thinking, leading to a huge media fiasco as expectations of the “liberal” camp’s victory turned into shock and dismay over Netanyahu’s triumph.


It is worthwhile to begin an initial analysis of the Israeli elections with closer attention to this debacle.
An important segment of those who vote for Netanyahu’s Likud Party belong to the second generation of Jews who came from Arab and Muslim countries.
They were joined this time by settler communities in the occupied West Bank who voted as a bloc for Netanyahu. The Arab Jews voted for Likud much more then they voted for Netanyahu. The settlers did so at the expense of their new political base —Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party that promises outright annexation of the West Bank — so as to ensure that Likud would be the largest party in the next parliament.
Neither group was entirely happy with their choice and were not so proud to wear on their sleeves their decision to vote yet again for Netanyahu. That is perhaps why many of them did not admit to the exit polls who they really voted for.
The result was quite catastrophic for all the renowned pollsters. They missed the headline that should have been announced when the exit polls were done — a smashing victory for the Likud in 2015 and a disappointing result for the liberal Zionist camp. The more exciting news was the success of the Palestinian citizens of Israelwho united to form the Joint List and won the third largest bloc of seats after the Likud and the Zionist Union.

Likud’s victory


The three outcomes — an invigorated Likud, a defeated Labor Party (the Zionist Union is a partnership of Labor and Livni’s “Initiative” list) and a united Palestinian representation — can either be ignored by the international community or serve as a catalyst for new thinking on the evergreen question of Palestine.
The victory of Likud, despite the social unrest in Israel over growing economic hardships, and the unprecedented low standing of the Jewish state in the international community, indicate clearly that there will be no change from within Israel in the near future.
Labor, meanwhile, has maximized its potential: it is not likely to do better and hence it does not offer an alternative. The main reason for this is that it is not an alternative. Israel in 2015 is still a settler-colonialist state and a liberal version of this ideology cannot offer a genuine reconciliation to the indigenous people of Palestine.
Ever since Likud took power for the first time after its historic 1977 victory, Jewish voters have preferred the real thing, so to speak, steadily turning away from the paler, liberal version of Zionism.
Labor was in power long enough for us to know that it could not offer even the most moderate Palestinian leaders any deal that would have granted them genuine sovereignty — not even in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which form only a fifth of historic Palestine.
The reason is very simple: the raison d’etre of a settler-colonialist society is displacement of the natives and their replacement by settlers. At best natives can be confined in gated enclaves, at worst they are doomed to be expelled or destroyed.


The conclusion for the international community should be clear now. Only decolonization of the settler state can lead to reconciliation. And the only way to kick off this decolonization is by employing the same means exercised against the other long-standing settler state of the twentieth century: apartheid South Africa.
The option of BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — has never looked more valid than it does today. Hopefully this, together with popular resistance on the ground, will entice at least some of the second and third generation of the Jewish settler-colonial society to help stop the Zionist colonization project.
Pressure from outside and from the resistance movement within are the only way to force Israelis to reframe their relationship with all the Palestinians, including the refugees, on the basis of democratic and egalitarian values. Otherwise, we can expect Likud to win forty seats in the next elections, perhaps on the back of the next outraged Palestinian uprising.
There are two reasons why this approach is still feasible. One is the Joint List. It will have no impact whatsoever on the Israeli political system. In fact, like the Palestinian Authority, the days of Palestinian representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, are numbered. If a united list can have no impact, and if a disempowered PA does not satisfy even liberal Zionists, then the time has come to look for new forms of representation and action.
The Joint List’s importance lies elsewhere. It can ignite the imagination of other Palestinian communities about the possibilities of unity of purpose. That Islamists and secular leftists can work together for a better future is an example that can have far-reaching implications not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for an increasingly polarized Europe. The Joint List represents a group of native Palestinians who know the Israelis well, are deeply committed to democratic values and have risen in importance among the rest of the Palestinians after years of being marginalized and almost forgotten.
The second reason for hoping that new alternatives will emerge is that despite all its nastiness and callousness, the Zionist settler-colonial project was not the worst in history.
With all the horrendous suffering it has caused, most recently during the summer massacre in Gaza, it did not exterminate the local population and its dispossession project remains incomplete. This does not mean that it will not get worse or that one should underestimate the suffering of the Palestinians.



What it means is that the main impulse among Palestinians is not for retribution but for restitution. Their wish is to live normal lives — something Zionism denied all the Palestinians ever since the ideology’s arrival in Palestine in the late nineteenth century.
Normal life means an end to the discriminatory apartheid policies against the Palestinians in Israel, the end of the military occupation and siege of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and recognition of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
The quid pro quo is accepting the Jewish ethnic group that emerged in Palestine as part of a new, decolonized and fully democratic political dispensation based on principles that would be agreed on by all concerned.
The international community can play a positive role in bringing this vision about if it adopts three basic assumptions. The first is that Zionism is still colonialism and hence anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism but anti-colonialism.
The second is that if it leaves behind the exceptionalism it granted Israel over the years, mainly in the realm of human rights, it has a better chance of playing a constructive role towards safeguarding these rights in the Middle East as a whole.
And finally, we should all be aware that the window of opportunity for saving innocent lives in historic Palestine is rapidly closing — if Israel’s power remains unchecked a repeat of the massacres of recent years is all but certain. It is urgent to forsake old formulas for “peace” that did not work and start looking for just and viable alternatives.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Dan Bar Dov/Demotix/Corbis
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory in Israel’s general election, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015 

Benjamin Netanyahu has won again. He will have no difficulty putting together a solid right-wing coalition. But the naked numbers may be deceptive. What really counts is the fact that the Israeli electorate is still dominated by hypernationalist, in some cases proto-fascist, figures. It is in no way inclined to make peace. It has given a clear mandate for policies that preclude any possibility of moving toward a settlement with the Palestinians and that will further deepen Israel’s colonial venture in the Palestinian territories, probably irreversibly.

Netanyahu’s shrill public statements during the last two or three days before the vote may account in part for Likud’s startling margin of victory. For the first time since his Bar Ilan speech in 2009, he explicitly renounced a two-state solution and swore that no Palestinian state would come into existence on his watch. He promised vast new building projects in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. He made it clear that Israel would make no further territorial concessions, anywhere, since any land that would be relinquished would, in his view, immediately be taken over by Muslim terrorists.

And then there was his truly astonishing, by now notorious statement on election day itself, in which he urged Jewish voters to rush to the polls because “the Arabs are voting in droves.” One might have thought that those Arab voters were members of the body politic he headed as prime minister. Imagine a white American president calling on whites to vote because “blacks are voting in large numbers.” If there’s a choice to be made between democratic values and fierce Jewish tribalism, there’s no doubt what the present and future prime minister of Israel would choose.

Mindful of Netanyahu’s long record of facile mendacity, commentators on the left have tended to characterize these statements as more dubious “rhetoric”; already, under intense pressure from the United States, he has waffled on the question of Palestinian statehood in comments directed at a foreign, English-speaking audience. But I think that, for once, he was actually speaking the truth in that last pre-election weekend—a popular truth among his traditional supporters. What does this mean? On the face of it, things are not all that different today than before the election. But the now seemingly impregnable rule of the right has at least four likely consequences for the near and mid-term future.

First, the notion that there will someday be two states in historic Palestine has been savagely undermined. We have Netanyahu’s word for it. If he has his way—and why shouldn’t he?—Palestinians are destined for the foreseeable future to remain subject to a regime of state terror, including the remorseless loss of their lands and homes and, in many cases, their very lives; they will continue to be, as they are now, disenfranchised, without even minimal legal recourse, hemmed into small discontinuous enclaves, and deprived of elementary human rights.

Take a mild, almost innocuous example, entirely typical of life in the territories. Last weekend I was in the south Hebron hills with Palestinian shepherds at a place called Zanuta, whose historic grazing grounds have been taken over, in large part, by a settlement inhabited by a single Jewish family. Soldiers turned up with the standard order, signed by the brigade commander, declaring the area a Closed Military Zone; the order is illegal, according to a Supreme Court ruling, but the writ of the court hardly impinges on reality on the ground in south Hebron. Within minutes, three of the shepherds and an Israeli activist were arrested.

The people of Zanuta live with such arbitrary decrees on a daily basis, as they live under the constant threat of violent assault by Israeli settlers, acting with impunity. In short, these Palestinian villagers are slated for dispossession and expulsion. We are doing what we can to stop the process, but it isn’t easy. The situation in the northern West Bank is considerably worse.

Secondly, we may see the emergence in the West Bank of a situation like that in Gaza, with Hamas or other extremist organizations assuming power. It seems ridiculous to have to write this, but in case anyone has any doubt: there is no way a privileged collective can sit forever on top of a disenfranchised, systematically victimized minority of millions. We can expect mass violent protests of one sort or another (maybe, with luck, some large-scale nonviolent protest as well). Sooner or later, the territories will probably explode, and the Palestinian Authority may be washed away. At that point Netanyahu will complain loudly that you can never trust the Arabs.

In fact, however, there is an ongoing, intimate, many-layered relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and what one side chooses to do always has a very direct impact on the other side. More generally, if we Israelis fail to cut a deal with the Palestinian moderates, or at least to strive in earnest for an agreement, we will by our own actions bring their extremists to power. There is no dearth of examples from recent decades.

Thirdly, Palestinians will rightly turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague (as early as April 1, according to the official announcement) and to international forums such as the UN Security Council, where Israel may soon no longer enjoy the protection of an automatic American veto. The international boycott will intensify to a level far beyond what we have seen. It may in the end force a change, at immense cost to the cohesion of Israeli society and to the state’s claim to legitimacy. In this respect, I think we are approaching the tipping point.

Fourthly, and most important, the moral fiber of the country will continue to unravel. Already for years the public space has been contaminated by ugly, violent voices coming from the heart of the right-wing establishment. As Zvi Barel has cogently written in Haaretz, “Netanyahu has succeeded in overturning the principle that the state exists for the sake of its citizens and putting in its place the Fascist belief that the citizens exist for the state.”

In accordance with that belief, there will be more hypernationalist, antidemocratic legislation, more deliberate and consistent attempts to undermine the authority of the courts, more rampant racism, more thugs in high office, more acts of cruelty inflicted on innocents, more attacks on moderates perceived as enemies of the state, more paranoid indoctrination in the schools, more hate propaganda and self-righteous whining by official spokesmen, more discrimination against the Israeli-Arab population, more wanton destruction of the villages of Israeli Bedouins, more war-mongering, and quite possibly more needless war.

The danger from within—to who we are and how we live in the world—is infinitely greater than any external threat. The corruption (I am not talking about money) is already far advanced. Israel has, in effect, knowingly moved further toward a full-fledged apartheid system. Those who don’t like the word can suggest another one for what I see each week in the territories and more and more inside the Green Line.

Is there any good news? The Joint List, a new alliance of four Arab parties, having won thirteen seats in the election, is now the third largest party in the Knesset and two seats stronger than the combined Arab parties in the outgoing Knesset. A certain tentative awakening was evident in the Arab sector during the campaign. We will have to see if it continues. The great discovery of this period was the eloquent, charming, always unruffled leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh. They have called for full equality for the Arab-Palestinian minority within Israel and for an end to racist discrimination and to the occupation of the West Bank. A little new energy on the left can’t hurt. For the moment, it won’t be enough to challenge the right-wing tide.

We have work to do. Holding on to hope is part of that work. Though Netanyahu has now won four elections, it is in his nature that he will eventually destroy himself (and probably many others along the way). In the end, the alliance between moderates and activists on both sides may turn out to be as strong, or stronger, than the unspoken blood alliance of Netanyahu with Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS. We will have many opportunities to test this proposition.

Justice, generosity, and empathy are not foreign to the Jewish tradition, though at times they go underground. Perhaps hope lies in a vision of all the territory west of the Jordan River as somehow more than one state but less than two, under conditions of true equality. Already there are groups within what is left of the Israeli left that are thinking creatively, and practically, along these lines. One thing is certain. The demand to fully enfranchise the Palestinians now suffering under Israeli rule will eventually prove irresistible. What happens after that, no one can say.