On January 22nd, Israelis will go to the polls in a general election that many predict will result in another victory for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. What this seemingly inexorable result belies, however, is just how dramatically Israeli politics has shifted since the country’s foundation 65 years ago. Once upon a time, secular socialists embodied by the utopian ideals of the kibbutz (collective farms whose very concept rejected hierarchy and control) dominated the government. Now, even ostensibly centrist parties are fielding an increasing number of Orthodox candidates in a system that already gives small religious parties disproportionate power when it comes to forming coalitions. The Labor Party, which governed Israel without interruption from 1968 to 1977, hopes recent protests over the dismantling of the welfare state will revive its fortunes following a split that almost plunged it into total irrelevance.
If there is a challenger to Netanyahu and his Likud party in this election, it comes not from the wounded left but from the even farther right-wing. Jewish Home, led by settler leader and businessman Naftali Bennett, has seen a surge in popularity thanks to its extremely hawkish platform, which strongly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and actually advocates for the annexation of the West Bank, Palestinian territory Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War. Polls indicate many voters planning to cast their ballot for Jewish Home don’t actually share the party’s radical agenda, but if Netanyahu aligns himself with Bennett in hopes of co-opting a rival — a favored tactic of his — it would almost certainly mean a continuation of an ongoing rapid expansion of settlements in Palestinian areas. It may also mean Netanyahu finally ending his hitherto unproven support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It remains to be seen what impact the Israeli election and its effects will have on Israel’s foreign relations, specifically its somewhat strained relationship with the United States. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Barack Obama stated “privately and repeatedly” that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” when he heard Netanyahu had approved the construction of 3,000 new settlements in the occupied territories. Despite some unrealistic fantasies of bold steps the typically milquetoast President Obama could take to “rein in” Tel Aviv, very little actually seems to be in the pipeline for deterring Israel from pursuing policies that not only make a renewed peace process more difficult, but technically impossible. You cannot establish a Palestinian state, after all, without land belonging to Palestinians, and with each new settlement that is built and with each Palestinian family that is displaced, more and more of that land is being absorbed into Israel.
Those sympathetic to the Israeli right argue that the electorate is moving away from the peace process because it fears that, if a second Palestinian state is allowed to form, Hamas will come to power there, just as it did in the Gaza Strip, and more rockets will rain down on Israeli Jews. From this point of view, long-standing in the debate over the conflict, Palestinians are behooved to get their act together first and foremost. If Israelis have a growing siege mentality, it is claimed, it is a justified one based on Palestinian violence.
There are numerous problems with this. Firstly, while much is made in the Western media about Israel having “a right to defend itself” when Hamas militants fire Qassam rockets, very little is ever said about the regular extrajudicial assassinations Israel carries out within the Palestinian territories. Indeed, even within Israel itself, there is a discussion about whether Israel’s “surgical strikes” are worth the risk of Hamas rockets in retaliation.
Let us assume that it is worth the risk, that enough Israeli strikes will eventually deter attacks from Hamas. Rewind to 1996, when Israel assassinated Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas bomb-maker behind a series of suicide bombings. Did Palestinians recoil at the consequences of terrorism? On the contrary, Palestinian groups rallied around Ayyash’s memory and the man remains a martyr. Similarly, when Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, tried and failed spectacularly to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 1997, the result was not to drive Mashal further underground but instead led to the release of Hamas political prisoners and a bolster to Mashal’s stature among Palestinians. It is important to note that earlier in the 1990s Hamas had been under considerable pressure to renounce violence and conform to the Oslo Accords. Israeli “deterrence” led to Hamas eventually being perceived as a party of freedom fighters and underdogs, and goes some way to explain why Palestinians have elected Hamas governments in free and fair elections in the Gaza Strip. Consequently, it seems odd to excuse Israeli voters for turning to radical right-wingers because of a “siege mentality” when it is precisely that mentality that has promoted Hamas in the minds of Palestinians — something Israeli apologists cannot countenance.
Yet there is a more fundamental problem with the “Israeli siege mentality” thesis. It ignores that there is a particular movement within Zionism that perceives expansionism not as a pragmatic national security issue but also as a religious mandate. This school of Zionism, which has existed since the 1920s, is summed up in the words of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
The declared goals of Revisionist ideology included relentless pressure on Great Britain, including petitions and mass demonstrations, for Jewish statehood on both banks of the Jordan River; a Jewish majority in Palestine; a vigorous policy toward Britain; re-establishment of the Jewish regiments; and military training for youth.
As the Web site states, the Revisionist Zionist movement later evolved into a political party that later merged into the modern Likud party, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s father, by the way, was a Revisionist Zionist historian who believed, in the words of the New York Times, that “compromising with Arabs was futile.” This is not to say that Bibi holds the exact same political beliefs as his father, but it does highlight the fact that expanding Israel’s borders and purging the land of its Palestinian majority is not a new, knee-jerk reaction to Hamas in Gaza. On the contrary, it is the realization of a strain of Zionism that has existed close to the surface of Zionism for as long as it has been around. If you think about it, it is not at all difficult to make the cognitive leap from “moderate” Zionism’s belief in settling a Jewish state in the “Promised Land” to Revisionist Zionism’s belief in expanding that settler colony throughout the whole region, whatever the cost. Media sources in the West rarely bother to examine the ideology that fueled Israel’s foundation, instead perpetuating the presentation that comes from Israeli spokesmen: “Israel has a right to exist, a right to defend herself, because Jews have been persecuted long enough.” No one really considers that Israel’s existence hinges on the continued displacement of Palestinian refugees, which began in the 1940s and continues to this day.
Those peaceniks hoping for a return of the peace process, who believe that groups like Jewish Home and Hamas are just temporary obstacles to negotiation, are fooling themselves. The present state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a logical conclusion to a colonial project that cannot reconcile the Zionist desire to create and expand a “pure” Jewish state with the Palestinian desire for sovereignty and self-determination. I believe that future generations will look back on this election as the tipping point, after which Israel could no longer be defended, even by the most cynical lobbyists and politicians, as anything other than an apartheid state.