Benjamin Netanyahu’s wild swerve, from right-wing to ultra-right-wing, in the run-up to Israel’s elections is a desperate tactic to reverse the trajectory of his flailing campaign. But it also represents an important marker in his career, and a clarifying moment in the course of the Israeli right.
Netanyahu has generally played a coy game on Palestinian statehood. He has supported the two-state solution in theory but abjured it in practice. His settlement policy has, likely by design, made negotiations impossible, which has seemed to produce his ideal result: Israel holds on to the West Bank and Netanyahu can blame the Palestinians for it. His new line dispenses with the coyness. Netanyahu now opposes yielding territory, full stop. If Netanyahu prevails, the nature of Israel's diplomatic alliance with the United States will have to change — the U.S. cannot continue to extend its U.N. veto to a country whose government has formally disavowed negotiations.
His comments today are more alarming still. Rallying his supporters to the polls, Netanyahu warns, “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are bringing them in buses.” Of course, the availability of Arab voting rights is a longtime point of Israeli pride, a fundamental defense of the principle of Zionism against its existential critics.
Taken together, Netanyahu’s comments present a coherent and chilling vision of his long-term strategy. His intention is to maintain singular Israeli control in perpetuity over the entire territory that the early Zionists were once happy to partition into two states. This course will eventually lead to pressure for Palestinians to gain a democratic voice within the institutions that control their lives, but Netanyahu treats that as illegitimate, as well. He proposes to snuff out every peaceful outlet for Arab political aspirations.
In this light, his bumbling attempts to transform Israel’s alliance with the United States into an alliance with its conservative movement looks less like a blunder (as his former ambassador Michael Oren has described it) and more like a plan. In the long run, a deep American alliance with the kind of garrison state Netanyahu envisions will become untenable. The only remaining diplomatic strategy will be to deepen Israel’s ties with right-wing America, whose support for Israel is not contingent upon it fulfilling its liberal, democratic ideals. The Republicans who hailed Netanyahu as a Churchillian prophet are cheering a figure who no longer disguises his intention to bury forever the original Zionist dream.