israel elections

Searching for a Ray of Hope After Netanyahu’s Win

Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart and Eric Levitz and New York staffer Abraham Riesman discuss what Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory means for Israel, American Jews, and the already moribund peace process.

Ben: In the end, Israelis picked the devil they knew. Benjamin Netanyahu fended off a strong challenge to his left — though not that far to his left — from army officer Benny Gantz, and appears to have triumphed in Israel’s elections on Tuesday. He is now likely to form a coalition even further to the right than his current government, even as he faces a looming indictment over corruption charges. He’s poised to surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving Israeli PM ever this year, even as he continues to infuriate many American Jews (and many Israeli Jews, too) with his nationalist rhetoric and actions. What are your first-blush thoughts on what all this says about where Israel is as a country right now?

Eric: I’d say it’s going where it has been for the bulk of Bibi’s tenure — further and further away from its putative democratic commitments, and towards an evermore forthright embrace of illiberal, Jewish ethno-nationalism (which is to say, among other things, towards the indefinite and unashamed maintenance of apartheid rule in the West Bank).

Abe: I’d say Israel’s certainly cruising for long-term isolation by the left-leaning governments, parties, and individuals of the world. Netanyahu is all too happy to align himself with strongmen like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and has shown nothing but disdain for even the center-leftism of Barack Obama. Now you have Israel’s leadership and population embracing Donald Trump, the premiere icon of neo-fascism in the world. Right now, that approach is working because of the resurgent global right, but does that mean Israel isn’t cruising for trouble if (and it’s a big if, I know) the world comes to its senses? I see greater isolation for the Jewish state in the circles that will come to include the vast majority of American Jews.

Eric: Observing Israeli politics has really driven home for me how utterly non-inevitable social progress is. The whole, “what will our grandchildren say when they read about the injustice we tolerated” sentiment is just so alien in the Israeli context, where the younger generations are more reactionary and intolerant than the old.

Abe: Right, Gantz was more popular among the older guard, but you have this whole younger Jewish demographic there that treats Bibi like a god-emperor.

Ben: In part because of that turn toward the right, peace with the Palestinians has never looked less likely. Eric, you’ve said that you thought it was better to have Netanyahu than Gantz, since neither will have any mandate to pursue a two-state solution, but the former will be most likely to inspire a Democratic administration to apply pressure. Abe, do you agree with this assessment? Does it need to get worse before it gets better?

Abe: I’m not that dedicated a Marxist, but I certainly see the appeal of an accelerationist approach to resolving the Palestinian Question. I was recently in Israel and the West Bank, and the Palestinian activists and pundits I spoke to usually said they’d rather see Bibi win, because that would make it harder for the sane voices in the world to tolerate the entire Zionist enterprise. I’m not an oracle, so I can’t tell you whether that approach is the one that can turn the tide, but I certainly get why it might work.

Eric: To clarify my view: I think Netanyahu’s reelection is more conducive to the goal of pushing a future Democratic administration to pressure Israel into curbing settlement expansion/annexation. How one should balance that consideration against the other implications of his victory, I don’t feel qualified to say.

Abe: Right, and you’re totally on the money with that. Israel is going to be a big topic in the primaries and if it turns out the base is angry at the Jewish state, you could end up with a candidate and possible president who gains in the polls by criticizing Israel or — could it ever happen? — threatening to withhold military aid if the country doesn’t get its act together.

Eric: Yeah. I’m still pretty pessimistic about all that, to be honest …

Ben: I somehow doubt Israel will be a major issue in the primary or general election, beyond major donors

Abe: You think? I feel like Ilhan Omar foretold more. But I could absolutely be wrong.Trump demonstrated that he’s willing to imply that Democratic Jews aren’t real Jews because they don’t respect his pro-Israel stance, so why wouldn’t he throw that into the general? “Remember Jerusalem,” etc.

Ben: Yes, I just don’t think it’ll move the needle. Jews will still vote for the Democrat by the same lopsided margin as always.

Abe: Fair point!

Eric: I don’t think there are enough voters who truly care about the Palestinian cause for the electoral benefits of taking on Israel to outweigh the costs. Majoritarian opinion, intensity of opinion — and, uh, ’the Benjamins” — are all still on AIPAC’s side. I do think that Netanyahu’s unpopularity with Dem voters could create space for a Democratic president, once safely ensconced in office, (or after reelection) to apply pressure without talking about it a whole lot, as Obama did in the most modest of ways by abstaining from that UN vote right before exiting the White House.

Abe: That’s a good point. And we’re talking about a Democrat who’d be taking office in 2021, and a lot more stuff can happen in Israel under this likely coalition between now and then. Hoo boy, the left is really looking at the slimmest of rays of hope when it comes to Israel.

Eric: Yeah, I mean who knows. The contradictions are going to get heightened when/if Israel annexes the West Bank and stops feigning a commitment to Democratic values.

Ben: On that subject: In a naked bid for the hard-right vote in the closing days of the election, Netanyahu promised to begin annexing the West Bank, which make settlement expansion look like child’s play. With an emboldened Israeli right wing and the Trump Administration probably willing to look the other way, will he actually follow through? Or will he continue to make both sides of this equation unhappy, by precluding any possibility of peace, but also not going full conquering power?

Eric: I don’t know. I saw some speculation in the Guardian that he could somehow broker a deal where he gives the hard right annexation in exchange for legislation that would immunize him from the legal threats he’s currently facing. But I have no idea if that’s a serious possibility or how it would work.

Abe: What I keep thinking about is Brexit. Netanyahu didn’t call for a referendum on annexation, but he put in motion a set of gears that will grind the country closer to that apocalyptic outcome whether he likes it or not — much like David Cameron did when he reached out to UKIP voters with the tossed-off promise of a vote on EU membership. Bibi has demonstrated decisively that you can aggressively float annexation of some or all of the West Bank and not pay any political price for it. Even if he now abandons that stance, the annexationists within the hard-right coalition will be emboldened to propose it formally, and by that point the Overton Window is way off where the buses don’t run. Public pressure could grow. Bibi may not want to gobble up Area C, but he might not have a choice, now.

Ben: If that does come to pass, Israel really would become a semi-pariah state, I think.

Abe: Oh, absolutely. But as Chomsky points out (I know, I swear I kept reading books after college), South African apartheid was able to survive as long as it had US patronage. If Trump is still in office, I don’t see him altering the US’s official stance. (edited)

Ben: Bibi has been adroit at creeping up to the line of risking serious political or economic backlash. The economy is strong, which is a huge reason he’s been able to maintain this grip on power for so long.

Yes, true enough about South Africa. But I think there would be all kinds of pressure for companies not to do business there, in a way that there really isn’t now, outside of a small group of activists.

Abe: It’s so surreal that these “would be” statements have come so close to actual fruition. It feels like my whole childhood of defanged liberal Zionism is being shattered.

Eric: Yeah. I feel like it’s important to avoid the “end of history” delusion — that we live in a world where liberal democratic values are becoming evermore hegemonic; if Israel strays too far from those values, it will forfeit its membership in the community of nations, therefore, liberal Zionism isn’t just more morally virtuous than other flavors, it’s also more realistic.

China just put like, two million Muslims in concentration camps. The international community didn’t respond by making China a pariah state — because China has enough economic and military power to make its domestic crimes its own goddamn business (just as we, in the U.S., are powerful enough to keep our war criminals out of the Hague).

The real constraint on Israel, in my view, was the power of the major Arab states (and to a lesser extent, liberal opinion in Europe). But MBS doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emirates are much more invested in an alliance against Iran. And the European Union isn’t looking like all that strong of a bulwark against illiberalism these days.

Ben: Also, Israel has long been a global flashpoint in a way China hasn’t. And there’s the anti-Semitism thing.

Eric: So, I think it’s possible that Israel isn’t a powerful-enough country — and is surrounded by enough hostile powers — to make its adoption of apartheid untenable. But it also seems totally possible that this will actually be much less problematic than we’ve told ourselves

Abe: I just have this creeping dread that annexation became inevitable last night. It’s the way I think about climate change. This unthinkable outcome that might have passed the point of no return already, without us seeing or stopping it.

Eric: We’ve arrived at a dark place when our source of optimism for the prospects of international solidarity with the Palestinians is the resilient appeal of anti-semitism.

Abe: Oy.

Ben: You said it.

Searching for a Ray of Hope After Netanyahu’s Win