Israeli elections: resurrection of Netanyahu, rise of ultra-Zionists

The newest elections in Israel bring about the resurrection of Benyamin Netanyahu and the rise of ultra-Zionist parties. What is going on in the Promised Land? Wojciech Łobodziński asked a former journalists of liberal Israeli media, Sam Green*.

The ultra-Zionists were plenty popular before Netanyahu decided to bring them on board. Their appeal comes from the following points. One, they are taking ideas which exist in Jewish ideology and Zionism to a logical conclusion. This conclusion is not one that Jewish people are easy with, nobody likes to be confronted with the option she or he are xenophobic, but these ideas really are in the mix so to speak to begin with. This has a sort of crazy appeal. If one is already committed to the Jewish faith, how can one argue a statement that Temple Mount is vital to our faith and is a very holy site? If one is a Zionist in the sense nation A has a right to this land which outweighs nation B, why not deport nation B to Jordan? Two, in the two generations that have passed since the Oslo Peace accord Israelis became a lot more hostile to Arabs in general – he says.

What has just happened in Israeli politics? Why the coalition led by Netanyahu has just secured 64 MPsn seats in the Knesset?

What happened is that Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu won the majority of the seats in the Knesset in a free election where over 70% of the people voted. His success is not surprising, after all. He ruled this country longer than any other Israeli PM. What is surprising is how traditional left-leaning parties were wiped off the map (Meretz) or reduced to almost nothing (Labor with just four seats). What used to be the radical Jewish right is now sitting in the house and might serve as ministers – this never happened before.   

A lot of fingers point out also the electoral system of Israel. Did the 3,5% threshold make this result possible, thanks to the division of opposition towards Netanyahu?

Yes, Prime Minister Yair Lapid had the option to lower the threshold and refused to do so. Labor leader Merav Michaeli was offered to unite with Meretz and refused to do so. Had they chosen to do so, Netanyahu might have not won or not won on such a massive scale. 

It was the 5th parliamentary election in a row in a short time. W? One of the Palestinian parties was involved in this government...

The government did many positive things, among them passing a budget, offering a comprehensive package to the Arab community in Israel, and signing a gas deal with Lebanon. However, these positive things were not enough to win the hearts of most Israelis.

The previous prime minister, Naftali Bennet, ruled with just six seats in parliament after joining forces with Lapid. This new invention, a prime minister in reserve, is something Israel only recently got and does not need. Many people felt the government was glued together by hatred of Netanyahu, and without any real message to the people of Israel. That hatred was not enough to win the elections.

Passing a budget is a complex thing most people are not worried about. Lebanon is a non-functioning country so the gas deal is not very clear: if there is no government on the other side with whom have we signed a deal exactly? The package meant to serve the Arab community is seen as money given without much state control to extreme Islamic parties. This may not be the full reality – but most people are either uncaring about the positive or view it with suspicion.  

What has happened with the Arab Joint List parties? 

They proved they are unable to function politically and prefer to have the radical Jewish right leading the country than the moderate Zionist left. Maybe they have a point – if they believe Israel really is anti-Arab without repair, the radical Jewish right will show it to the world. On the other hand, is it politically wise to get your own community to a point when each member is seen as an enemy of the state? This question they need to answer on their own. 

Coming back to the winners. Who are the main protagonists of the new Netanyahu coalition, could you point some figures with short stories about them? 

Itamar Ben Gvir – A radical right wing Jewish person who was filmed for the television news service after he stole the car sign from the hood of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and said “we got to the car, we can get Rabin.” Later, Rabin was murdered by another extreme right person, Yigal Amir.

By winning elections and entering the house, the murderers of the Oslo Peace accord gained political power after one generation.

This makes many people in normative Israel very uneasy. It is also possible Netanyahu will use Ben Gvir to lure other parties to sign a deal with him, along the lines of “you may not like me, but this man is worse.” However, seeing as Netanyahu has passed 70 years old it is likely Ben Gvir, not Netanyahu, is here to stay. 

Itamar Ben Gvir

Areye Deri – Leader of the Shas conservative religious Jewish party. A man who was found guilty of corruption and served time in prison may now serve again in government. Famously said “what good is a High Court if four people can prevent me from being a minister?” Deri is seen by many as a very smart person and is, allegedly, a person Netanyahu appreciates. It is possible Netanyahu and Deri together, for different reasons, will bury the High Court by passing a law that will allow a regular majority to bypass any ruling the court makes. This would, effectively, remove almost any oversight on what the state can and can not do. 

Is that true that Netanyahu somehow has brought up those radicals, just like did Trump with some pizzagate or QAnon supporters?

No. Netanyahu is not Trump. Netanyahu served as a commando active duty soldier, Netanyahu went to university, Netanyahu served Israel in the UN, Netanyahu was brought up by a father who was a historian. The Israeli radicals like Netanyahu, but he does not “feed them” with any dog whistles and hints. Israel, in that sense, is not the US. We had very few people who opposed the COVID-19 vaccinations. Most Israelis still respect science. 

So where does their popularity come from then?

These people were plenty popular before Netanyahu decided to bring them on board. Their appeal comes from the following points.

One, they are taking ideas which are in Jewish ideology and Zionism to a logical conclusion. This conclusion is not one that Jewish people are easy with, nobody likes to be confronted with the option she or he are xenophobic, but these ideas really are in the mix so to speak to begin with. This has a sort of crazy appeal. If one is already committed to the Jewish faith, how can one argue Temple Mount is vital to our faith and is a very holy site? If one is a Zionist in the sense nation A has a right to this land which outweighs nation B, why not deport nation B to Jordan?

Two, in the two generations that have passed since the Oslo Peace accord Israelis became a lot more hostile to Arabs in general. The Arab Spring showed we are in a very bad neighborhood. Civil war in Yemen, civil war in Syria, military dictatorship in Egypt, Lebanon does not function, nor does Iraq.

We can argue why this is the way things are but most people do not care. They see Arab countries failing and ask: Why do we need to live with such people? How is it possible that so many Arabs, so many Muslims, are unable to build a better life? This, in turns, make the Palestinian case even worse. They are very weak people who belong to a very weak family of nations.

If, in the 1990’s, Israelis could expect a Palestinian state that would be a nice state. Today nobody has this idea anymore. So when radicals come and say: Hey, you know these people are unable to rule themselves, we know it, even they know it, so why fool ourselves? This has an appeal. Most Israelis want to get rid of the Palestinian issue, not to help the Palestinians to build the great society for both Arabs and Jews.

Three, Israel has always been a traditional society and there are simply more religious Jews now than there have been before because they usually have large families. Netanyahu is riding a tiger but he did not bring this tiger up since it was a little kitten, this was done by forces larger than him.

Religious Jews praying in Jerusalem

There is an additional fact: less and less people read newspapers or watch the news. Seth Rogan, the comedian, has more people listening to his podcast than all US news networks together. 11 million people listen to a comedian. 0.8 million to CNN. The radical right is usually much, much better than the Left in getting social media followers. The Left is good at making comedy, not getting people angry and scared. So, again, they do not need Netanyahu. He needs them.  

What position is he going to hold? Some say he is going to be a minister… 

This is unknown. See my comment on Netanyahu’s ability to toss him aside and say to Lapid or Defense Minister Benny Gantz, you all worked with me before, work with me again and prevent this person from being in government. 

Are the extreme ideas going to be implemented? I mean the ideas of death penalty for so-called terrorists, or annexation of the West Bank?

Both ideas had been floating around for 50 years. If they were not used then they will not be used now either. At least, I hope. 

Are there any forces who would be willing to oppose them, from the inside of the Israeli administration, for example the army?

No, the Israeli Army is not able to take over the country. The last Israeli General to rule the nation was Ehud Barak – now he sells medical cannabis. When Barak writes opinion pieces at Haaretz he writes well, but he speaks from a point of view which is fading from the Israeli mind. The Israeli military will follow the tycoons that rule the economy. The generals do not have any ideology or backbone that would make them resist the radical right trend. Why would they? Was there ever a military force in history which opposed getting more money and more respect? 

The only real thing that, I think, is going to happen is that the same young urban people who do not mentally “live” in Hungary, Poland, or the US will simply live their lives outside politics. The whole Marxist idea that the state machinery must respond to social changes might be false. In Poland the right to abortion had been nearly wiped out, people protested and screamed, and… people still have sex, right? They just curse the policies of the government and move on with their lives.

This sounds odd to people who do not live in Israel but, as I explained, Israel is able to control the Palestinians to such an extent most people do not experience the conflict. News about kids being shot? They do not read the news, remember? They watch Netflix.

Arab friends? They have none. Curiosity about the Arab world? Who is curious about a bunch of poor savages who are killing one another and nobody knows why? Do you think I am being too brutal? Fine, please name me who is fighting in Syria against Asad. You don’t know, why is that? Because the media no longer covers this conflict. The Syrians bled for the past ten years but nobody seems to know why or care what happened. Why should young Jewish people who live in Israel care about Arabs?

South Korea produces interesting Netflix shows, is there an interesting Arab program on Netflix? No, there is none. People watch us on Netflix, they watch Fauda and Shtisel and Homeland. So what cartoon characters like Rick and Morty say has more impact on how people think than the state budget. I know it sounds insane, but this is how people really experience the world. The state budget decides how many hospital beds a country has, but the people in those beds watch reality shows. This is the new world that Netanyahu’s son Yair knows a lot more about than his old man.   

Apart from the radicals in the new government, there is right now ongoing escalation when it comes to police and military violence towards Palestinians. Why is that?

What makes you think the escalation is one way? The Palestinians, faced with a corrupt leadership that never holds elections because when they do they lose to radical islamic parties like Hamas in Gaza, have been led to oblivion by their leaders.

The goal of the Oslo Peace accords was to create a two state solution. If that is not being carried out by both sides, young Palestinians are asking what have they got to live for? Many become radicalized because they see no hope of a better future.

Israel, in that sense, is responding to the natural progression of keeping a population under military control. Due to the immense technological tools Israel has and its deep initiate insight to Palestinian society it is amazing this control is kept with relatively little bloodshed.   

Are we going to see a stable coalition?

With so many seats in parliament Likud can rule the country alone. It will be a stable coalition and who knows? Maybe Netanyahu will be remembered as the peacemaker in his final term in office. 

Netanyahu could decide that he, with a stable religious government, will get a peace agreement for the entire Middle East. How? Well, imagine Saudi Arabia taking over the Palestinian issue. Saudi, not Jordan, will get Temple Mount. Jordan is a weak country with no water and an economy which is falling apart.

Saudi Arabia gets Temple Mount, signs a peace accord with Israel, and tells the Palestinians it is now their patron in the region. If Biden loses and Trump enters politics again, this is something I think is going to happen. If this happens, Netnayahu could crown himself the King Messiah of the Jews.

Will it happen? Ah, that I do not know.

* Sam Green is an Israeli reporter who currently works in the field of cultural diplomacy, which is why he chose a pen name for this interview. He lives in Tel Aviv.

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