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.).

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.