Netanyahu’s Electoral Alliance With the Far Right is Frightening, But It’s Nothing Radically New

by Douglas Gerrard

5 April 2019

Palácio do Planalto/Flickr

In February, two months before the Israeli election, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was forming an electoral alliance with Otzma Yehudit, a small far right party comprised of unrepentant followers of the late Meir Kahane. The reaction, even from reliably pro-Israel quarters, was one of horror: Otzma were condemned by everyone from the Zionist Anti-Defamation League to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The neoconservative Eli Lake summed up the sombre mood, warning that Netanyahu was in danger of jeopardizing his legacy.

Lake’s concern is understandable, even if his bleating about Netanyahu’s legacy is not. Put simply, Kahanism is Judeofascism, and Otzma are Israel’s foremost fascist party. They aim to expel every Arab either side of the green line, replace secular law with Halakha, and extend Israeli sovereignty from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Their fascism is authentic: they venerate murderers, yearn for a mythic past, and in Lehava they have a thuggish street gang on a crusade against ‘miscegenation’.

But while Lake has a point (fascism is bad), he also has a suspiciously short memory, as does anyone else denouncing this alliance as a step too far. In particular, he seems to have forgotten the years from 2013 to 2015, when Netanyahu allied with Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultranationalist party led by his old friend Avigdor Lieberman. While they might not have shared Kahane’s fruitier theological stances, Beiteinu unquestionably inherited his ideas about citizenship. As foreign minister, Lieberman repeatedly pressed for the summary expulsion (and occasionally the beheading) of ‘disloyal’ Arab Israelis, a policy that in 2009 made its way into the party’s election slogan. In preaching the doctrine of expulsion from the pulpit of a government ministry, Lieberman had mainstreamed fascism in a way Kahane never could.

Netanyahu is popularly understood in the West as a fanatic – an image this alliance will do nothing to dispel – but the mundane truth is that he’s principally a politician. He didn’t create Otzma, and he legitimizes them only because ignoring them risks splitting the right-wing vote. Over the past decade he has given political sustenance to an ascendant radical right, installing them in key ministries and adjusting his party’s ‘security’ focus to their more extreme eliminationist rhetoric. But Netanyahu would make common cause with antisemites if it meant staying in power, and the newfound prominence of Kahanism has more to do with material conditions in the West Bank than it does with the electoral patronage of Likud. It’s not clear exactly when the two-state solution died, but that it is dead is indisputable: there are now four times as many settlers as there were when the Oslo accords began in 1993, and more West Bank land is being gobbled up all the time. Plus, even if the political will for two-statism existed, anyone seeking to institute it would have to reckon with the fact that the legal distinction between the settlements and the state is currently being methodically dismantled.

Without the leverage of potential statehood, Palestinians have become entirely expendable. They are, as Noam Chomsky put it, “unpeople”: they can’t be assimilated into the state, because in Israel demography is democracy, and three million Arabs would upset an already delicate ethnic balance. This is what produced Otzma, because annexation and expulsion come to seem like rational options in the absence of a viable path to Palestinian statehood, and when the only other alternative would erase Israel’s ‘Jewish and democratic’ foundation. But this process didn’t begin with them: fascism is inscribed into the logic of the occupation, and Otzma are just Beiteinu an election cycle down the line, after the steady accumulation of four more years of ‘facts on the ground’.

For all the kvetching about Otzma, the only genuinely novel feature of this election concerns the main opposition party, who for the first time in Israeli history do not take liberal Zionism as their organizing principle. The Labor party, the traditional representatives of the peace camp, have under Avi Gabbay been transformed into the left wing of Likud, and are now busily triangulating themselves into electoral oblivion. This means the only man standing between Netanyahu and a fifth term is Benny Gantz, a telegenic former IDF general co-heading the centrist coalition Blue and White. Blue and White (who are polling around the same level as Likud) are a peculiar, slightly nebulous organisation, lacking any defining policy positions or obvious ideological posture. A small journalistic cottage industry has developed around the question of how they would behave in government, but even asking it misses the point. Gantz’s candidacy is entirely symbolic: he embodies an Israeli self-conception – an honourable, confident sabra ethos – that is fast being destroyed by Netanyahu’s paranoia and corruption.

Like Otzma, Blue and White owe their position to the final demise of the two-state solution. But unlike Otzma, who want to radically intensify an existing injustice, Blue and White’s plan is to somehow hold the injustice in place in perpetuity. Their manifesto is bewildering: they are committed to a ‘separation’ from the Palestinians, but without evacuating any of the main settlement blocs, without the release of the Jordan Valley, and without divvying up Jerusalem into East and West. Supporting ‘peace’ via an impossible Palestinian state-minus is an old tactic, one that Netanyahu himself employed before his lurch to the right. It hardly needs saying, but you can’t have separation without evacuation, unless you are going to ethnically cleanse the settlement blocs of their Arabs. And with evacuation off the table, annexation will eventually insinuate itself into Gantz’s fantasy Israel anyway, because why keep the settlements at all if they aren’t part of the state?

Really, though, the practicalities of this policy are beside the point. What Gantz is practicing is a kind of anti-politics, predicated on a widespread exhaustion with the whole fruitless debate. The Israeli national psyche has been delimited by two decades of failed peace talks – half of the population still support a two-state solution, but 90% of them know it’s impossible. Gantz’s supporters understand he won’t – can’t – solve anything, but by putting off talk of annexation he might at least give them the illusion of living in a normal country for a few more years.

This election has been read by most as proof of an irredeemable situation for Palestinians, but amidst the wreckage of the two-state solution there is a small wrinkle of hope. Anti-Zionism, which hitherto has had to compete for oppositional space with liberal Zionism, can now persuasively claim to be the pragmatic position as well as the just one. The contours of this new political landscape make extending full civil rights across the occupied territories a far more realistic proposition than somehow disentangling the settlements from the state. The left should accustom itself to this idea, and fast, for if there is any hope of a lasting peace, it will be on these terms.

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