The dust continues to settle after the Israeli national election. Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “there will be no Palestinian state”, in the event of his reelection, challenged radically the status quo in international diplomacy. Netanyahu’s stance was one already suspected by many, but the open rejection of a two-state solution by an incumbent Israeli prime minister hasn’t been seen since the 20th century.
Netanyahu’s overt race-baiting, especially at a time as sensitive as a nationwide election, and in the wake of escalating ethnic and religious tensions in Israel-Palestine, was also unprecedented. For the leader of Likud, the most powerful political party in Israel, to post a video warning about “Arabs moving in droves to the polling stations” after being bussed there by foreign-funded left-wing organisations, is a display of racist incitement and paranoia so transparently grotesque it should have sent a shiver down the spine of every domestic and international observer (particularly when they remembered that the 49th UN-inaugurated International Anti-Racism Day was due the coming weekend).
Jonathan Freedland, senior columnist for The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle penned a piece on Friday aptly titled “Netanyahu sank in to the moral gutter – and there will be consequences.” And, even more aptly, included therein: “He [Netanyahu] was speaking of the 20% of the Israeli electorate that is Palestinian: Arabs who were born in, live in and are citizens of Israel. A prime minister was describing the democratic participation of one-fifth of the country he governs in the language of a military assault to be beaten back. Imagine if a US president broadcast such a message, warning the white electorate that black voters were heading to the polls in ‘large numbers’. Or if a European prime minister said: ‘Quick, the Jews are voting!'”
Professor Paul Krugman, a leading American economist and writer for the New York Times, described Israeli society as “one of the most unequal” in the advanced world. Isaac Herzog, not allowing his defeat at the helm of the Zionist Union to prevent him saying what everyone else was, declared that Netanyahu’s victory was secured through the humiliation of Israeli-Arabs. An anchorwoman on Channel 2 news confronted a Likud representative about Netanyahu’s statements, and President Rivlin saw the opening of coalition negotiations on Sunday as an opportunity to castigate the PM regarding his comments on Israeli-Arabs.
Tuesday wasn’t as disastrous as some have opined, Bibi’s last minute lunge to the right did its job and as a result he successfully stole votes from far-rightists such as Eli Yishai’s Yachad (which failed to pass the newly raised electoral threshold, now at 3.25% rather than 2%, precisely because – in an ironic twist – his extremist ilk in Yisrael Beiteinu wanted to keep out the small Arab parties). Meanwhile, the Joint List formed by the three major Arab parties in Israel, and the Arab-Jewish/secular communist party Hadash, came third and garnered over half a million votes. The Joint List has already made history. Overall, the left gained two seats, the centre remained level, the right gained a seat, the Arabs gained two, and the ultra-orthodox lost five. By some measurements, Israel shifted leftwards.
However, such optimism doesn’t take in to account the increasing polarisation in Israel and the global Jewish community. The right has begun to appear more hardline, while the Jewish left, and left as a whole, is feeling more alienated from a country who seems to consistently drift further and further away from its agenda.
Bibi’s disavowal of a two-state solution flies in the face of the worldwide and Jewish diasporic consensus; likewise the Israeli PM’s frontal assault on the Obama administration and alignment with the Republican Party fails to take in to account that just under 80% and 70% the Jewish-American population voted for the current president in the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism, which officially represents the Reform movement (the largest branch of American Judaism), said: “No public figure should lament fellow citizens exercising their right to vote freely, expressing themselves openly, and peacefully in accordance with the values of a democracy”. The Conservative Jewish movement, the second largest American denomination, echoed WUPJ. Jon Stewart joked that Netanyahu had decided to go “full settler”. J Street, the preeminent American liberal Zionist group, swiftly condemned Bibi’s statements in strong terms. In a similar turn of events, the prominent British liberal Zionist organisation Yachad called on its supporters to sign the open letter addressed to Netanyahu that reaffirmed the belief of diasporic Jews in democracy and two states.
Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the world’s leading Jewish non/anti-Zionist organisations, has had its membership skyrocket and featured the likes of Angela Davis at its last conference (also the largest since JVP’s founding in 1996). In February 2015, JVP announced its full support for the BDS movement as a response to what it believed was the deep entrenchment of apartheid in Israeli institutions, an opinion buttressed impressively by Middle East Monitor’s summary of the Zionist political parties prior to the 2015 election. All ten, bar Meretz, advocate the annexation of East Jerusalem, six encourage significant settlement activity in the West Bank and/or Golan Heights, and four explicitly reject the right of Palestinians to statehood. MKs belonging to Jewish Home, one of the settlers’ most fervent backers in parliament, had reportedly demanded control over the housing ministry as a precondition to entering coalition government.
The evolving usage of the word “apartheid” itself could be seen as an indicator of what’s to come. Jimmy Carter experienced heavy demonisation from his own party less than a decade ago for simply daring to utter “apartheid” in reference to Israeli policy. How times have changed. On March 18th, Yousef Munayyer wrote about “apartheid policies” in the bottom left hand corner of the New York Times’ front page. Three days later, Rula Jebreal mused on a CNN panel discussion that Israel is “already de facto a one state with separate sets of rights […] an ethnocracy rather than a democracy”.
Though grassroots shifts are important, and well-documented here, high-level changes are arguably even more so when the widespread perception, and the reality, are as divergent as they are on Israel.
Philip Hammond, the Conservative British Foreign Secretary whose comments could be seen as fairly uncritical compared to those of the Labour opposition, warned that the UK feared for the two state solution and had been, along with Germany, holding the EU back from a tougher stance on anti-settlement sanctions. The European Union did indeed wade in, with a report – leaked only four days after Netanyahu’s reelection – claiming Jerusalem was “more divided than at any time since 1967” and calling for “consideration of tougher sanctions over settlement building”. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and vice-president of the European Commission, herself came out and said in a formal statement that the EU was staunchly committed to a two-state solution.
The United Nations’ secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, reminded Netanyahu of the importance of a two-state solution in a personal phone call. The United Nations’ actions could yet invoke Netanyahu’s ire more than any of the other punishments he, or his electorate, are bound to suffer; especially in light of President Obama’s historic announcement that he might withdraw the seemingly unconditional support Israel enjoys from the US at the UN. In fact, Obama went as far as signalling publicly that he’d allow full recognition of the Palestine state.
The spat between Netanyahu and Obama has taken on an almost vendetta-like quality. Most recently, Obama pointed out the alarming nature of Netanyahu’s pre-election messaging, Netanyahu says he didn’t mean it, Obama continues to question his counterpart’s commitment to a two-state solution, Netanyahu escalates by saying Obama doesn’t “have Israel’s back”, Obama does the same by stating outright that, actually, there is no question and Netanyahu simply won’t be a reliable participant in negotiations for two-states.
Among Netanyahu’s few remaining allies are some of the GOP congressmen due to visit Israel, led by Boehner, who recently embarrassed themselves globally by sending an unprecedented letter directly to the Iranian leadership. Hoping to irrevocably and undemocratically undermine the president’s foreign policy, by appealing directly to the extremists within Iran who also have most to lose from a nuclear deal, is a peculiar strategy when you consider specifically the rhetoric from Republicans such as Steve King. King said he couldn’t understand how “Jews in America could be Democrats first and Jewish second”, which is pretty tame in comparison to what Pamela Geller (co-founder of the AFDI and SIOA, labelled far-right hate groups by the British government) had to say on Netanyahu’s “groundbreaking speech to Congress” and the opposition to it. Geller called Jon Stewart a “vicious traitor” (a label she’d previously applied to Edward Snowden, and Hollywood for supposedly rewarding him), the definition of “self-loathing Jew”, blamed him for the “absence of good” in American culture, and decided to award him the title of “most disgusting Jew on the planet”.
Talk of traitors and treason has become mainstream in the Holy Land. Avignor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has six seats in the Knesset, said: “Israeli citizens who wave a black flag on Nakba Day can leave, and I am willing to donate them to [Abbas] very happily […] I expect every Arab, Christian or Jewish citizen to be loyal to our state, without a connection to religion, and enlist in national service.” To take an even more drastic utterance: “Whoever is against us, there’s nothing else to do. We have to lift up an ax and remove his head, otherwise we won’t survive here.”
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, had to tolerate Lieberman asking him, on national Israeli television: “Why are you in this studio rather than a studio in Gaza? Why are you running for the Israeli Knesset instead of being elected in Ramallah? Why are you even here. You are not wanted here.”
Odeh’s treatment during his campaign, and that of Israeli Arabs, shows why international pressure on Israel and the settlers (in the name of a two-state solution) won’t ever be enough. Yes, the Joint List provides an amazing chance for those who want to improve the lot of Arab-Israelis and Palestinians through Israeli legislation, but the degradation of non-Jews in Israel or Palestine is unlikely to stop with a push for two-states. The settlers and fascists have made a viable, independent, seperate Palestine, and true equality, impossible.
Whether they emerge through Israel’s refusal to allow the birth of a Palestine alongside itself, or the creation a bantustan destined for collapse and further subjugation, the choices will be the same as those presented today by advocates of a secular one-state. So, when the options before the world are finally accepted as being between a one-state solution with democracy, and one-state without it, everything will hinge on the sincerity not quantity of the calls for Palestinian justice. And on the genuine egalitarian movement that ascended in the election, the only really good thing to come out of it besides Netanyahu jumping the shark.