By Prof. Asher Susser, Professor of Middle East Studies, Tel Aviv University
Israel’s elections were one of the most crucial in the country’s history, although the conduct of the campaign would hardly make one think so. Israel is rapidly approaching a point when it will have to make crucial decisions about its national priorities.
It must maintain three vital characteristics for its long-term survival: It must remain the democratic nation state of the Jewish people it must remain a first world state if it is to survive in its very tough neighbourhood and it must remain a legitimate member of the family of nations.
As a small state, Israel has diverse dependencies – political, diplomatic and economic – that cannot be effectively managed if it becomes an international pariah. Labour and Likud represent the two major schools of thought that split Israeli society on these critical issues.
The Labour camp believes it must strive towards some form of two-state reality. If it does not, it faces the existential threat of turning into a bi-national state in which the Jews will eventually become the minority.
This would spell the end of Israel as we know it. Moreover, the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians, coupled with the disproportionate diversion of huge resources required by the occupation and settlement expansion, at the expense of Israel proper (education, health, welfare, housing, etc), will make it increasingly difficult for Israel to maintain itself as a first world state and as a legitimate member of the family of nations.
Likud argues concessions to the Palestinians are unthinkable in the prevailing chaotic regional circumstances. It believes they would irreparably undermine Israel’s security by providing an opportunity for Islamic radicals, such as Hamas or ISIS, to operate against Israel from West Bank bases that are unbearably close to Israel’s major population centres.
Labour supporters would say Israel should and can think of ways to change the status quo so it is also secure. Israel also has to consider what could happen if it fails to alter the situation in terms of demography and international legitimacy. Despite these issues being key to the Israeli dilemma, they were never at the top of the election agenda.
Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union were reluctant to fight this fight. They believed it would be easier to beat Benjamin Netanyahu by focusing on social and economic issues, such as the cost of living, especially the skyrocketing house prices, rather than on existential matters related to national security. They dreaded being called ‘unpatriotic’ by the right and avoided the debate even though it was obvious Israel’s economic ills cannot be effectively addressed unless the questions of occupation and national priorities are tackled directly.
Herzog never prodded Netanyahu with the critical question of how he intends to ensure Israel’s long-term existence as the internationally legitimate nation state of the Jewish people if he continued the policy of occupation and settlement.
One couldn’t win by arguing for cheaper housing or promising an end to poverty among the elderly when Bibi was spreading fear of a nuclear Iran, of Hamas and Hezbollah next door, and of ISIS at the gates. All the same, Herzog was ahead in the polls for most of the campaign. There was ‘Netanyahu fatigue’ and he was unpopular.
But the opposition never had the courage of its convictions and Herzog, a very worthy gentleman, did not have the guts, the charisma or the security background that would have made him into a winning candidate for the majority of Israelis. What Herzog lacked in personality, Netanyahu had in abundance: he was charismatic and resorted to any means to remain in power. He veered to the far right and blasted the opposition for being part of an international conspiracy to unseat him. He backed away from his previously announced support for a two-state solution and appealed to settlers and their supporters to vote for him rather than their natural choice, Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, to avert the “danger” of a Herzog victory.
The Zionist Union, according to Netanyahu, was waiting to cave in to international pressure to concede territory, uproot settlements, divide Jerusalem and undermine Israel’s basic security. Since Herzog had never presented his own coherent policy on these issues, Netanyahu had the benefit of the doubt. On election day, racist undertones notwithstanding, he urged his Likud base to vote to counter Israel’s Arab citizens who were being bussed “in droves” by leftist non-governmental organisations to the polls.
The tactics worked. Turnout of Likud supporters rose impressively compared with previous elections. Netanyahu drew votes away from right-wing satellite parties, mostly from Bennet. Thus he lifted himself from the 20 to 22 seats he had in the polls on the eve of the elections to the 30 that gave him the victory over Herzog’s 24.
Netanyahu, beholden to the settler right more than ever, is poised to form a narrow right-wing/ religious coalition. How this government will deal with increasing isolation, boycott threats and the US re-evaluating its relationship with Israel will be his immediate challenges. Israel’s future as a first-world, internationally legitimate, nation state of the Jewish people hangs in the balance. No more, no less.