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Foreign Policy In Focus

Israel: Rise of the Right

The timing of the December-January Israeli assault on Gaza had everything to do with the Israeli elections (well, almost everything - there was that little item of finishing the military attack before Barack Obama's inauguration.).

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 (Israel's parliament) lineup.

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 Israel. Kadima, the party of former Likudniks including General Ariel Sharon - long known as the "Butcher of Beirut" for his role in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and especially the Sabra-Shatila massacre - has in fact become a moderate, "centrist" party without changing a single tenet. As Palestinian legislator and democracy activist Mustafa Barghouthi noted on the morning after the election, the vote consolidated Israel's apartheid system.

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 Iran. Ironically Netanyahu, the farthest right of the three mainstream candidates, was the only one not directly involved in the Gaza onslaught. The other two, Livni, the current foreign minister and Barak were the major public figures claiming responsibility for the Gaza war.

The election debate never questioned the legitimacy of the Gaza assault - the attack had overwhelming support from Israeli Jews across the political spectrum. It focused instead on the decision to end the attack three weeks after it began, and how to maximize the supposed "gains" of the Gaza assault in the future. Netanyahu led the charge that the government ended the war too soon and that Israel declared its unilateral ceasefire before the job was done. Livni based her campaign on the dual claims that attacking Gaza proved her toughness and that she was the best choice for prime minister because she would be Barack Obama's best friend. Labor's Ehud Barak, a tired perennial candidate, claimed the Gaza assault as his own and had little else to say.

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.

Electoral Consequences

Likud leader Netanyahu, who had tempered his rhetoric slightly while campaigning to avoid accusations of antagonizing Washington, has returned to his right-wing roots. Shortly after voting he headed to occupied Arab East Jerusalem and repeated his long-standing claim that he would never share control of Jerusalem with Palestinians.

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 United States, the so-called "Quartet," the Europeans, the United Nations, or anyone else, all Israeli governments have allowed and often encouraged new settlements to be built, settlement expansion to continue, and land-grabs to go forward. In fact, with the exception of the last couple of years, the most aggressive settlement expansion has occurred under Labor governments. Tzipi Livni, while claiming to back a two-state solution, campaigned on her support for "maintaining maximum settlers and places that we hold dear such as Jerusalem."

Regarding Gaza, the makeup of Israel's governing coalition won't likely make any difference. The current ceasefires between Israel and Hamas - each side declared a unilateral ceasefire, they were not based on mutual negotiations - remain fragile. Israeli policy will continue largely unchanged. It'll continue the lethal siege, maintain the closure of border crossings, deny access in or out to Gazans and others, continue "targeted assassinations," and keep on the table the threat of resuming full-scale military assault.

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"? "Our Palestinian partners" or "death to the Arabs"? Those linguistic variations won't reflect real differences in Israeli policy in Gaza, the West Bank, or Occupied Arab East Jerusalem. But they will play a significant role in determining whether the next period of the U.S.-Israeli special relationship will continue as warm, fuzzy, and business-as-usual, or turn into something slightly firmer, perhaps even approaching fair. ("principled" or "international law-based" probably remain outside the realm of possibility.)

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.

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Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Follow her on Twitter: @PhyllisBennis

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