|Posted on July 22, 2016 at 4:05 AM|
27 March 2015
By winning the Israeli early general election against all recent predictions, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demonstrated, if needed, that fear mongering is an effective political tool in situations of economic or political crisis. This phenomenon has also explained the success of nationalist or populist movements in many other countries, in particular in Europe. However no sustainable government policy can be based on fear, especially in a country facing so many domestic socio-economic issues and international challenges calling for progress towards peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Although most polls, including early exit polls announced a defeat or a tie for Benyamin Netanyahu, the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister ended up with a comfortable victory: 30 seats against 24 for the centre-left Zionist Union (out of 120 seats). Most observers explain this surprising last-minute come-back by recourse to the toughening of an already firm discourse likely to rally undecided right-wing voters or supporters of smaller, even more extreme parties whether secular or religious. Indeed, alarmed by forecasts of his opponents’ advance in the last days before the 17 March election, Netanyahu indulged in two types statements that appeared as SOS operations: first he went back on his pledge to work towards the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians (granted unenthusiastically in his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech), and on election day he called Jewish voters to vote en masse in order to offset the unusual turnout among the Israeli Arab community.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, such statements were clearly based on fear that any concession, especially territorial, to the Palestinians would be exploited by radical Islamist groups against Israel’s national security or that the country could be, for the first time in its history, run by a left-wing government supported by the Arab community, now equalling 20% of Israel’s population. Even if, after the election, Netanyahu back-pedaled on those two issues – the Palestinian state and the place of the Israeli Arab community – the desired goal has been reached.
Success of the Strategy Based on Fear
This appeal to nationalist and quasi-racist sentiments, added to the use of the Iranian threat by the Israeli Prime Minister, that culminated in his recent speech to the US Congress, produced the desired effect: it reversed the trend, observed in the previous elections, of fragmentation of the electorate and restored some primacy to the historical mainstream parties: Likud on the right and Labor on the left. Indeed the left-wing voters also deserted the smaller parties and intended their ballots to be more “useful”. However, this phenomenon has not yet reached a level that would simplify the setup of a coalition government. Even if Netanyahu is assured to remain at the helm of the cabinet, he will still need to negotiate a joint government platform with the other centre-right or right-wing parties, some of which (ultra-orthodox) exclude to sit in the same government as others (secular). The other alternative, called for by the Israeli President, is a national unity government including Labor and its centre-left ally, but it is, at this stage, rejected by the head of the Labor party, Yitzhak Herzog.
Such nationalistic and racist attitudes are, unfortunately, not unique in electoral processes. In the US, many members of the Tea Party (which often support Israel) do not hide the racist overtones of their attacks against the first American Black president. In Europe, several political movements (like the French National Front, the British UKIP or the German PEGIDA) thrive on scaring the electorate: fear of Islam or immigration; fear of alleged threats against national or regional identities that may come from external forces (like “Brussels” or the US); fear of being abandoned or marginalized by the central government, etc. Paradoxically, even in democratic countries like France, the opponents to the extremist parties resort themselves to a strategy of fear about their rise rather than arguing against their populist platforms.
An Unintended Consequence of Fear: Israeli Arab Unity
The other main lesson of the Israeli election is the appearance of a unified Arab List, which won an unprecedented 14 seats. One may also claim that it is also a paradoxical consequence of fear: until now, the parties representing the Israeli Arab minority in the Knesset were divided along political or religious lines (secular versus Islamist) and remained weak. Extreme right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman convinced the right-wing majority that the influence of Arab parties could be curtailed if the threshold for election was raised from 2 to 3.5 percent. This is why, under this pressure, the various Arab parties decided to overcome their differences and form a single list. The exclusion strategy pursued by the right clearly backfired and granted unusual weight to this list, now the third largest in the Israeli parliament.
Observers also noted an interesting characteristic of this election: according to several surveys, poor, disenfranchised, working class voters supported the Likud list although the outgoing Premier and its cabinet were accused of conducting a neo-liberal policy reducing social benefits, causing a rising cost of living and housing shortages. One could anticipate that this electorate would be attracted by the Labor platform, focusing on economic and social issues and promising some restoration of the welfare state to which so many Israelis are attached.
But, apparently, the fear-mongering strategy was more powerful, exploiting wariness of any external pressure, even from the US closest ally but mainly from the European Union or the United Nations, suspected of supporting the Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.
The Consequences on the “Peace Process”
Irrespective of the eventual composition of the coalition government, the issue of peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world will not disappear. The Palestinian leadership has already warned that, unless serious and sincere negotiations are resumed, it will pursue its initiatives for gaining world recognition. The fear about the instability of the Arab world, confronted by civil strife and the rise of the ‘Islamic State’ should on the contrary act as an incentive for concluding an historic agreement with the Palestinians, including their Hamas component, which would thus be neutralized and bound by international commitments. The fact that Hamas unequivocally called Israeli Arabs to vote for the United Arab List is a clear sign that it de facto recognizes Israel as a reality.
The fear about the Iranian nuclear programme will no doubt continue to be instrumentalized by a Netanyahu government. But the comprehensive agreement being finalized between the EU3+3 and Tehran, and making it very difficult if not impossible for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, will no doubt be welcome worldwide and thus more difficult for Israel to reject. Moreover, presumably the US will have obtained from Iran, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, that Tehran play a stabilizing role in the Middle East, supporting Sunni regimes in their fight against the ‘Islamic State’ and moderating its proxies or allies such as Hamas or Hezbollah.
Regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, the Obama administration has already made it clear that it will “reassess its options”. This may mean that it will cease to veto any resolution favourable to Palestinian statehood in the UN Security Council: indeed, the main US argument to-date was that such a development should be the result of direct negotiations between the parties; if one now refuses to negotiate, the international community should assume its responsibilities in the spirit and letter of past UN Security Council resolutions dating back to the creation of Israel. Moreover, even if the US itself, under the pressure of powerful pro-Israeli lobbies, does not opt for sanctions or strong public pressure, it will probably not oppose the international trend by governments and civil society for isolating the Israeli government.
Choosing between Isolation and Leadership
Some commentators expressed pessimism on the sustainability of a new Israeli right-wing coalition that will most likely be divided over socio-economic priorities (increased social benefits for all versus support to building more settlements in the occupied territories) or over the peace process (resumption of negotiations versus unilateralism and continuation of occupation). Others, including from the left, recalled that most peace advances were accomplished by strong right-wing leaders, often against the will of their coalitions: Begin who made peace with Egypt in 1978; Shamir who went to the Madrid Conference in 1991; Netanyahu who withdrew from Hebron in 1996 and concluded the Wye agreement in 1998; Sharon who withdrew from Gaza in 2005. There is thus a chance for such precedents to apply again if Netanyahu abandons a policy based on fear for a policy based on political courage, vision and leadership. Time only will tell whether he will remain in history not only as the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister but also as one who helped make peace and consolidated his country’s place in the Middle East.