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Populism, Palestinians and Peace: What’s at stake in the Israeli elections?

Populism, Palestinians and Peace: What’s at stake in the Israeli elections?

As Benjamin Netanyahu seeks a fifth term in office, Andy Walton assesses how the Israeli PM has shaped the politics of Israel and beyond. 08/04/2019

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As the interminable machinations of Brexit continue, this week another poll takes place which could have long–term ramifications for the global order as well as those voting.

Israel’s election sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a fifth term as Prime Minister. After his surprise victory in the 1996 elections, Netanyahu became the youngest Prime Minister in Israeli history, and the first to have been born in the State. He’s already the second longest serving Premier in Israeli history.

After his initial three–year term, Netanyahu spent 10 years out of power, before taking control again in 2009. His leadership has led to comparisons to the populist leaders who have taken control in nations across the world. But rather than being a recently minted phenomenon, part of the Trump/Bolsonaro/Modi wave of this decade, he’s been honing his appeal for much longer.

Netanyahu belongs to a generation of populists who first came to power in the 1990s, along with the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Supporters would find this allusion to populism distasteful, insisting that Bibi (his ubiquitous nickname) isn’t comparable to any populist leader. Instead, he’s the man who’s steered Israel through years of relative stability and calm in a hostile world – a world which became all the more unpredictable in the wake of the Arab Spring, which left revolutions and wars raging around the Middle East – most significantly on Israel’s borders to the South (Egypt) and the East (Syria).

Bibi the populist

Yet the populist label fits Bibi well. On the day of the last election in 2015, Netanyahu took to his Facebook page to declare that Arab voters were “turning out in droves.” They were being “bused to the polling stations by left–wing NGOs.” Earlier this year, he courted further controversy, saying, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens… According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.”

Any thought that the 2019 campaign would be less divisive was a pipe dream. Rather than just issuing vague threats about Palestinian citizens of Israel exercising their vote, this time Netanyahu has thrown real chunks of red meat to his base, emboldened by the Trump Administration.

This week he declared that, should he be elected, he would annexe Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This move to incorporate the settlements, which are illegal under international law, could put the final nail in the coffin of a ‘two state solution.’ Palestinians’ desire for a contiguous state in the West Bank would be in tatters if the Jewish–only towns and cities there were incorporated in the state of Israel.

Trump’s carte blanche to Bibi has seen the US Embassy moved to Jerusalem and US recognition of the Israeli–occupied Golan Heights. These are controversial issues in and of themselves but each time Trump unilaterally acts, he removes one of the delicate bargaining chips which would need to be in play in any final deal with the Palestinians. The outcome is that the prospect of any such putative deal becomes more and more remote.

If Trump is emboldening Netanyahu from the outside, the internal pressure on him to placate his right flank is high. Like many proportional systems worldwide, the Israeli electoral process encourages the formation of fractious groups of parties to form governments.

In the last decade, Netanyahu has governed with the support of figures such as Naftali Bennett (who has advocated the annexation), Avigdor Leiberman (who resigned from government over a truce with Hamas in Gaza) and Ayelet Shaked (whose rise from obscurity to potential future Prime Minister is attracting attention).

None of this is taking place in a vacuum, of course. The Trump era opportunity to move the geopolitical pieces and the internal pressure from his right–wing coalition partners notwithstanding, Netanyahu fundamentally seems to believe in the course he is charting. Massive outrage from Israel’s minorities (around 20 per cent of the population is non–Jewish) over 2018’s Nation State Law boiled over into street protests. “Without a nation–state law it is impossible to fortify Israel’s status as a Jewish state” said Bibi at the time, supporting the controversial legislation that, in the absence of a codified constitution in Israel, is one of the so–called “Basic Laws” which are the foundation of Israeli jurisprudence.

With a solid grip on power for the last decade and a seeming willingness to go on for a long time (despite charges relating to bribery, fraud and breach of trust being in the pipeline) the right wing of Israeli politics has run the table.

Peace Process?

Seeing the dominance of Likud, Netanyahu’s party, and its allies, it would be easy to assume things were always this way in Israel. Far from it. For the first 30 years of the existence of Israel, the Left was in the ascendency. Picking up on the socialist and co–operative ideals of the Kibbutzim and other founders of the state, the nascent country elected different flavours of left–wing party until Menachem Begin became the first Likud Prime Minister in 1977.

Hopes for peace in the 90s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, were devastatingly shattered. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an Israeli extremist at a peace rally in 1995. Netanyahu’s first term began soon after. Before long, ordinary Israelis were plunged into terror by the violent turn of the second Palestinian ‘Intifada’ (uprising). From 2000 to 2005 a wave of suicide bombings led to fear in the cafes and buses of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed. “Israel’s narrative has led to a decade of Israeli governments opposed to a meaningful two–state solution, and to a population largely disinterested in a peace process,” according to the Brookings Institution.

As Hamas took power in Gaza and the hopeful days of the 1990s receded, Israel looked on with concern as the Arab Spring took hold and saw the carnage of Syria unfolding on its border. As Egypt swapped a sclerotic autocracy for a military despot, there was talk of a third intifada. A series of stabbing attacks on Israeli targets by Palestinians in 2015–16 once again reminded Israelis of the threats they faced.

Netanyahu was a key influence on the destruction of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the centrepiece of President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy. Trump has ripped it up – a triumph for Bibi’s political strategy, but possibly a pyrrhic victory. It leaves Israelis feeling vulnerable not only from surrounding Arab hostility but also the unpredictability of the Iranian regime. Recent overtures to the Gulf autocracies from Israel may be no surprise in this circumstance. Under these conditions, under pressure from all sides, ordinary Israelis voting for a strong leader who prioritises security above all else is perhaps understandable.

On the streets of Tel Aviv last week it was hard to avoid his face on billboards. Photogenic former TV presenter Yair Lapid stares down too and in Nazareth and other Arab Majority towns, I also noticed prominent posters for the ‘Arab list.’ But Netanyahu’s face is the most often seen.

The real threat in the election comes to Netanyahu from Benny Ganz, a former Chief of Staff of the IDF (Israeli Army) who has formed a robust looking coalition with Lapid and some fellow former military men. This attempt to unseat the incumbent is still a long shot but it has a chance, because of the myriad domestic complaints about the current administration. Despite trailing in the polls to Ganz, the received wisdom is that Bibi still has the best path to forming a coalition in the aftermath of the election.

Into the future

The outcome of this election matters. Leaving aside domestic concerns, if the result means a green light for the annexation of West Bank settlements, it’s hard to overstate the potential consequences. Faced with no prospect of a realistic state, a generation of Palestinians and their leaders may be forced to ask where they turn next. Speaking to Palestinians about the elections in Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem last week often elicited a sardonic laugh. They have observed the elections which determine their future and the future of the region with a resigned detachment.

What is at stake here? The Middle East has been reshaped this century by wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Arab Spring. One constant has been the intractability of the Israel–Palestine conflict. If the status quo remains, the possibility of any resolution looks vanishingly small.

Populist leaders usually run out of road. Their appeals eventually fall on deaf ears and their promises ring hollow. Israel is a unique political climate and Netanyahu is the great survivor. The longer he remains in power, the further entrenched his view of the world is and the more distant the prospect of a Palestinian state becomes. It’s been a remarkably robust strategy so far.

Image by David Cohen 156 under a Shutterstock licence.

Andy Walton

Andy Walton

Andy Walton is a writer, broadcaster and media consultant. He is the author of the Theos report ‘Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain? @waltonandy 

Posted 8 April 2019

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