Israel: Rise of the Right
The timing of the December-January Israeli assault on
But now the elections are over. And while final tallies aren't officially finished, a few things are already clear. The two top mainstream parties, popularly known as "right" and "center," placed virtually neck-and-neck. Tzipi Livni's ostensibly centrist Kadima Party ended up in first place, one seat ahead of the officially rightist Likud bloc of Bibi Netanyahu.
Far more significant — for Israelis, Palestinians, and U.S.-Israeli relations — was Israeli voters' choice for third place in the Knesset (
The great victor in the election is neither Netanyahu nor Livni but, rather, Avigdor Lieberman. His racist, indeed fascist, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party took third place, leaving the traditionally powerful Labor Party of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak struggling for fourth. Ironically, the skyrocketing popular support for Lieberman's extremism pulled enough votes away from the rightist Likud to reverse what until a few days ago appeared to be its inevitable victory, thus giving Kadima and Livni the titular first place.
Rise of Racism
Lieberman's star had been rising for a long time; his party had even won the mock elections held recently by Israeli high school students. Though coming in third, Lieberman will likely play an important kingmaker role. Even if her Kadima party wins the most votes, Livni may not become prime minister. The president can choose any party leader he believes has the best chance of putting together a governing coalition. Given the right-wing, militaristic majority in the new Knesset — 64 of 120 seats — the prime minister spot may still go to Netanyahu. Lieberman may tip the balance one way or the other.
Lieberman's success is only one sign of how far to the right political opinion has moved in
From the start of this election season, the three top candidates for prime minister vied with each other to see who could be tougher — more militaristic, more aggressively anti-Palestinian, more eager to use force against Hamas, more willing to threaten
The election debate never questioned the legitimacy of the
The rise of Lieberman and the official credibility the election brings to his ultra-racist Yisrael Beiteinu party represents the only really new development. Lieberman, a Jewish immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union, has mobilized huge popular support for his calls for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel, for forcing Palestinian citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as an exclusively Jewish state, for drowning Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and for the execution of any Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset who meet with Hamas. Lieberman won't become prime minister — at least this time around — but he'll almost certainly return to a high government position if Likud forms a coalition government. And while some Israeli leaders have repudiated some of his past statements, this election makes clear that Lieberman and his toxic politics are now undeniably part of the mainstream of Israeli discourse and political power.
Likud leader Netanyahu, who had tempered his rhetoric slightly while campaigning to avoid accusations of antagonizing
On the issue of settlements, there has been virtually no difference between the various Israeli governments, regardless of which party has taken the lead. Whatever agreements they signed with Palestinians, the
The significant difference after the election will be at the level of language, not policy. Will we hear the discourse of negotiations or that of force? A "two-state solution" or "putting aside statehood"? A "settlement freeze" or "greater
Israel and Obama
If Netanyahu becomes prime minister, President Obama's claimed goal of an immediate, intensive diplomatic campaign aimed at some version of a two-state solution will be much more difficult to attain. Forging a coalition among Israel's fractious parties is always complicated, and with the rise of the right-wing extremists and a tight power struggle between Likud and Kadima, the process could take months. And any government so created, whether ostensibly a broad "national unity" front or a government of the acknowledged right-wing alone, will almost certainly be too unstable to engage in any serious diplomatic process, regardless of the desires of its leadership. On the other hand, such a government will almost certainly agree on further aggression against Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. War will provide a much greater point of unity than peace. Whoever leads it, Israel's new government will spell a massive headache for Obama.
But from the vantage point of justice rather than diplomatic convenience, a return of Netanyahu as prime minister, even with a visible role for Lieberman, may not be such a bad option. Netanyahu's abrasive Likud rhetoric is far more honest in depicting actual Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. The carefully anodyne words of Livni to her pal Condoleezza Rice, the myth of Ehud Barak's "generous offer" to the Palestinians at Camp David: These never reflected reality on the ground. There, settlement expansion in the West Bank, isolation and impoverishment for Gaza, a policy of Judaization of Arab Jerusalem, and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel remained — and remains — unchanged despite Israeli (and American) political shifts.
This more diplomatic language, however, did make it much easier for the United States to claim, and maybe even believe, Israel was at least trying to ameliorate the conflict. The discourse of negotiations and "two states" made it far easier to continue providing $3 billion a year in military aid, despite Israel's violations of Washington's own Arms Export Control Act. The discussion of peace processes and roadmaps made it much easier to continue protecting Israel at the UN, where U.S. vetoes insured that Israel would never be held accountable for its war crimes. It made it much easier to believe that Israel attacked Gaza in December 2009 to stop Hamas rocket-fire (when even the former head of the Mossad publicly admitted that if that were really the reason, "opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation"). The discourse was always diplomatic. But it was never true.
Perhaps now, the harsh authenticity and brutal illegality of the Israeli occupation will have to be recognized. Maybe that aggressive Likudnik rhetoric will present exactly the kind of opportunity President Obama might be seeking. Maybe the Israeli elections, despite the horrifying consolidation of racism and militarism they reflect, will provide exactly the kind of political cover that Middle East envoy George Mitchell and others in the Obama administration will need if they are to respond to popular mobilization against the occupation and the U.S. public's demand — especially in the aftermath of the Gaza massacre — for "change we can believe in" for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, serves on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (www.interlinkbooks.com).