Paul Gross

This election and Israel’s place among the nations

For all the controversy and paranoid conspiracy theories about the V15 organisation, their message is right: We need a change of government.

The criticisms of the Netanyahu/Likud-led coalitions of the past six years on socio-economic issues are legitimate and important. The recent blustering protests from the Likud’s resident blowhard Miri Regev that her party was in no way responsible for the crazy cost of living in Israel would be laughable, except that it’s not all that funny. Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for six years. In that time, millions of shekels have been spirited away to the settlements. Netanyahu only started even thinking about addressing the cost of living when the protests in the summer of 2011 forced him to do so. He belatedly established a commission under noted economist  Manuel Trajtenberg, then promptly ignored most of the recommendations it made. (Trajtenberg has since joined Isaac Herzog’s and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union and is that party’s candidate for finance minister.)

Netanyahu himself has just informed the Israeli public, in his interview on Channel 2, that “I didn’t do enough” to bring down housing prices.

For all that, the single biggest reason for the urgent need for a new government and a new prime minister is best expressed by the title of a book written in 1993 by a young up-and-coming Israeli politician, one Benjamin Netanyahu: “A Place Among the Nations”.

Although some right-wing commentators have suggested that the Arab world is praying for a Herzog-Livni victory, the reality is that it is Netanyahu and the policies of the Right that have assisted Israel’s enemies.

As was reported here in The Times of Israel:

“‘I decided to hang Netanyahu’s portrait next to Arafat’s a long time ago,’ a Palestinian journalist associated with the PLO recently told The Times of Israel. ‘If there is anyone who helped us win the support of the international community and who caused a real rift with the United States, Israel’s closest ally, it’s Netanyahu.'”

Yes, it is most certainly the case that Israel is the victim of outrageous double standards and demonization in much of the world’s capitals and institutions. No one should claim that any Israeli government is to blame for the ridiculous resolutions of the Orwellian United Nations Human Rights Council; or the toxic mix of ignorance and prejudice that colors the Israel-debate on university campuses and in so much of the western media. But the real diplomatic danger for Israel is not the cacophony of its enemies, but the threat of silence from its friends.

What binds Israel to its allies, what keeps it part of the western bloc, is its status as a liberal democracy. How many speakers at the recent AIPAC conference referred to the “shared values” that bind Israel and the United States?

What no one on the Right seems to be willing to accept however, is that not a single one of our allies – no US President of either party; not the leaders of Canada or western Europe – accept the ideology of permanent rule over the West Bank. No democracy will accept the idea that we can permanently rule a territory where the Jews have full rights as citizens and the Arabs do not, just because of our religious and historical connection to that territory.

Our friends are not insisting that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank tomorrow, come what may. They are not blind to our security concerns, but they do expect that if an end to Israeli control of the Palestinians is not currently feasible, that that is because of Palestinian intransigence, not because Israel has no intention of giving the Palestinians their freedom.

We can only speculate whether a Herzog/Livni-led government will have more success than previous ones in negotiations with the Palestinians, but there is certainly cause for skepticism. The more cautious approach of Yair Lapid’s party may well be the more realistic one. However, in terms of our diplomatic standing, there is a world of difference between reluctantly occupying another people because of that people’s militant refusal to recognize the Jewish right to a state here; and continuing to build settlements across the West Bank as though our desire to retain our ancestral territory justifies the denial of civil rights to 2.5 million Arabs under our rule.

Put more simply: our most potent diplomatic weapon has always been the serial rejectionism of the Arabs; but what happens when we’re the rejectionists?

How though do we know that Herzog and Livni won’t sign a suicidal agreement with the Palestinians?

Well, for one thing it helps not to listen to the Right’s rhetoric on this. Herzog, despite the image inflicted on him in this multimedia age by his allegedly ‘nerdy’ appearance and voice, is from the hawkish wing of the Labor party. Even while pushing for negotiations with the Palestinians and invoking the “Zionist imperative” to reach a two-state solution he has held to territorial demands not so different from Netanyahu’s (and markedly similar to those of his hero Yitzhak Rabin) – in particular, the retention of an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley even after a peace deal is signed.

For Livni’s part, she is painted by the right as the ultimate in security naivete; a give-away-the-farm peacenik. Actually, one only needs to speak to American interlocutors from the days of serious negotiations during the Ehud Olmert premiership to correct that impression. Then-US Secretary-of-State Condoleeza Rice writes in her memoirs of how Livni was constantly raising objections on security grounds during the peace talks and Livni herself was critical of the unprecedented concessions that Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas.

Yes, Israel needs to retain its military power with a leadership willing to wield it, but this is not the preserve of the Right. A center-left government with defense policy run by Amos Yadlin (Zionist Union) or Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) is not short of strategic security thinking. Lest we forget, it was a center-left prime minister Olmert who bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor – in the face of US protests – while Netanyahu’s only efforts to stand-up to the White House have been arrogant, obnoxious and hugely damaging to the crucial bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

On Iran, Herzog and Lapid have both made clear that the Center-Left shares Netanyahu’s concerns about the Obama-led negotiations. They just fundamentally disagreed with the Prime Minister’s tactics of aligning himself with Republicans in Congress against the President.

Meanwhile, we can assume that a Herzog/Livni-led coalition would not do anything as disgracefully irresponsible as freeing hundreds of terrorists to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table rather than freezing settlement construction – a choice Netanyahu made to appease Naftali Bennett who, it seems, could stomach the prisoner release more easily than he could stopping building in Judea and Samaria.

The Right’s chauvinistic, anti-democratic tendencies could also be seen in the Jewish State Bill proposed by Likud and Bayit Yehudi legislators, which actually rowed back on commitments to equal rights made in the 1948 Declaration of Independence and which was criticized by President Ruby Rivlin (a Likudnik from the days when it was a liberal nationalist party) for harming Israeli democracy. Alternatives to this version of the Bill were proposed by Livni and Yesh Atid’s Ruth Calderon which would have preserved the delicate Jewish and democratic balance of the state.

For the sake of our place in the liberal, democratic west we need a government that will be ready for peace when the Palestinians get there and will completely freeze settlement-building outside of the major blocs until they do; that understands that Zionism was always about redeeming a people much more than it was about redeeming a land, and that a Jewish state must be a just state.

The values underpinning such positions can be found in the Zionist Union, in Yesh Atid and in Meretz; not in today’s Likud, and certainly not in Bayit Yehudi, which has little time for such ‘secular’ concerns as human rights or democracy when they clash with its absolutist interpretation of God’s will. Netanyahu and Bennett are leading us to international isolation and we need an exit route fast. Tomorrow’s election provides one.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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