How the Truth About Palestine Won Netanyahu the Israeli Election
Apr 22, 2015
13 Min read time
Rebranding their party as "center-left," Israel's labor leaders distance themselves from the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, pictured above in 1986, which is associated with a two-state solution. Image: Wikimedia commons
There is a famous quote, often attributed to George Orwell, which says that in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. In last month’s Israeli election, it was Prime Minister Netanyahu who spoke the truth against a background of universal deceit: three days before the election he stated clearly that, if reelected, he would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. And he achieved something akin to a small revolution: In the last moment Netanyahu defeated not just Herzog and Livni, but Israel’s military, economic, and media elite, which had united against him. Exit polls gave Netanyahu twenty-seven seats in the Knesset, while earlier statistics predicted twenty-four seats or less. With the thirty seats that he eventually received, Netanyahu now has the power to establish, if he wishes, a coalition consisting exclusively of extreme right and religious parties. In order to begin to change where the country is going, the Israeli left will also have to start speaking the truth.
The universal deceit exposed by Netanyahu just before Election Day had two main lies for pillars. First, of course, his own lie, the 2009 “Bar Ilan Speech,” in which the Prime Minister, facing European and American pressure, pretended to renounce everything that he himself and the Likud Party had ever believed in, and publically endorsed the two-state solution:
The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor's security and existence.
Non-experts may be unable to appreciate how dramatic this statement was. Ever since the 1930s, the ideological difference dividing Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Labor Zionism from Jabotinsky’s nationalist-revisionist alternative has turned on the question of the land’s partition. In 1947, Ben-Gurion enthusiastically supported the United Nation’s Partition Plan—encouraging the establishment of a two-state solution within today’s ’48 borders—while Jabotinsky’s successor as revisionist leader, Menachem Begin, fiercely objected.
True: some thirty years later, as Israel’s Prime Minister, Begin would hand over to Sadat the entire Sinai Peninsula. But this was a territorial compromise to the Arab Republic of Egypt, not a political-territorial concession to the Palestinian people, whose existence revisionists have always denied. Also true: Ariel Sharon, as Prime Minister, handed over occupied land to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, and to that end evacuated thousands of settlers. But in order to do this, Sharon had to leave the Likud party, his natural home, and establish a new party, Kadima, with Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres.
So when Netanyahu stood in Bar-Ilan University and announced, as Israel’s Prime Minister and Likud leader, that the Palestinians deserve to get “their own flag, anthem and government,” he did something genuinely new in Zionist history. For die-hard revisionists such as Rubi Rivlin, Israel’s current friendly-looking president, Netanyahu’s two-state concession came as a shock. If the Likud Party kept relatively calm, it was because everybody knew that Netanyahu was lying.
The second lie is more difficult to expose and more painful to point out. It dates back to August 6, 2011, the night in which 430,000 Israelis took to the streets, demanding “social justice.” (In Tel-Aviv alone, a city of a half million people, we were 300,000, shouting “the welfare state is coming!”; “the people demand social justice!” and, to the violent police officers: “Mr. officer, you, too, deserve more!”—in Hebrew, it rhymes.)
Netanyahu made it clear that the decisive question of this election is not "social justice" or Iran, but the Palestinians.
But it is dishonest to demand social justice from the Israeli government by deliberately silencing every mention of the greatest injustice that this government incurs: the five-decades-long military dictatorship over 3.5 million Palestinians. But this precisely was the movement’s strategy—deliberate, and hence a lie: achieving consensus about the interests of Israel’s middle-class by putting aside disagreements about the Palestinians. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that this strategy worked on Israeli consciousness: one is tempted by the Freudian hypothesis that 430,000 Israelis took the streets that night wishing to repress the occupation, not just to promote “social justice.” Of course the pretense that Israelis can ignore the Palestinians by speaking about justice is in bad faith.
This bad faith in turn created a new political category in Israel, the so-called “center-left.” Like Netanyahu, center-leftists would be willing to say, when pressed, that they do not want to “run the lives of Palestinians.” But also like Netanyahu, they avoid such words as “peace” or “two-state” as infectious diseases; and would never challenge the IDF’s sanctity by criticizing its role in implementing the occupation, or question its methods in wars such as the one we just witnessed in Gaza. The main difference between Netanyahu’s now-officially extreme right politics and Israel’s center-left consists in the fact that while he dodges talk of two states by stating that “the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany”; they dodge talk of two-states by speaking about social justice.
The impact of the center-left on Israel’s political discourse has been nothing short of disastrous, because while in reality the occupation remains the country’s greatest threat—moral, social, political and economic—talking about it is now perceived as an act of left extremism. In today’s Israel, many consider such “extremism” to be anti-Zionism bordering on treason. This atmosphere brought Shelly Yachimovich, Isaac Herzog’s predecessor as Labor leader, to announce in the 2013 elections that “calling the Labor-party left-wing is an unjust historical misrepresentation.” Effectively, this was an attempt to disown the legacy of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which is associated with territorial compromise and has become a burden. Similarly, in the press conference announcing their decision to run together in the present election, Herzog and Livni were careful to remove a portrait of Rabin and a picture of Ben-Gurion, which were hanging in the background. They also renamed the party, going from Avoda (literally, “Labor”) to the Zionist Camp.
These gestures were the counterpart of Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan lie: the moment in which Labor leaders pretended to disown everything that they themselves supposedly believed in, and everything that the Israeli labor-left has always been about. But, given the priorities created by the social justice consensus, reminding Israelis about territorial compromise could indeed seem like political suicide.
Soon, this universal dishonesty gave rise to the only thing that is worse than a lie—bullshit, in the precise philosophical sense of the term: a type of discourse bearing no relation to the truth. In a country as politically intense as Israel—occupying the Palestinians in the east, dealing with Hamas in the south, bordering present-day Syria in the north, and, despite Netanyahu’s swindle, Iran actually is threatening. Herzog’s campaign, on the other hand, focused on Sarah Netanyahu’s minor thefts from the Prime Minister’s residence or on other juicy details suggesting questions about her mental health. In one especially awkward moment, Herzog released a video attempting to convince voters that his voice, in the range of a countertenor, doesn’t preclude him from Israeli machismo. Labor politicians did everything they could to avoid talking about peace or Palestinians—and they easily succeeded, because Israelis repress the topic. (As Peter Beinart pointed out in Haaretz, during a 90-minute TV debate before the election, in which eight candidates participated, the word “peace” was uttered five times, three of which by Aiman Ouda, the Israeli-Palestinian leader of the Joint List.) When Herzog or Livni had to say something about the Palestinians, they still didn’t, speaking instead of a “diplomatic horizon”—a vague code-name for what Netanyahu, with Livni’s collaboration, used to do before he exposed his Bar-Ilan lie: namely, peace negotiations aiming not at peace but at sustaining Israel’s international relations.
• • •
It was against this background that Netanyahu issued a pamphlet declaring that the Bar Ilan speech was cancelled was released. Three days before the election, as Netanyahu had not managed to make a comeback in the polls, he decided to bet on the truth. A pamphlet distributed in synagogues announced, in what seemed an official Likud announcement, that “the Bar Ilan Speech” was “cancelled”. To Sheldon Adelson’s news website, NRG, Netanyahu stated clearly that “anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack ground to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.” He was then asked whether as Prime Minister he would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and meaningfully answered, “Correct.”
The double lie immediately fell apart. First, it became clear that the decisive question of this election is not social justice, Iran, or Herzog’s effeminate voice, but rather the Palestinians. Second, it made official what everybody, including the White House, had already known—Netanyahu would prevent a two-state solution—ensuring to settlers that he would form a coalition. (The settlers’ party, Jewish Home, which in the previous parliament had twelve seats, received eight in this election; the rest went to Netanyahu’s thirty.)
Against this tactic, as the election suddenly brought to the fore what had been implicit all along, the center-left remained hanging between the “social justice” distraction and the Sarah Netanyahu hoax. Having convinced the Israeli public that talking of a two-state solution is a matter for extremists, Herzog and Livni could not respond to Netanyahu’s outmaneuvering them with the truth. They could not state clearly that establishing a Palestinian state is Israel’s only chance of survival, and that Netanyahu, for this reason and no other, ought to be replaced. They had landed so far from this simple truth that they could not even criticize Netanyahu for taking back his two-state commitment. This hasn’t been sufficiently noticed in the media: neither Herzog nor Livni took Netanyahu to task on this score—certainly not before Election Day, and to the best of my knowledge they haven’t done so yet. Clearly, they are still hoping that Netanyahu will backpedal to his Bar-Ilan lie: since they too have dodged the two-state solution, reinforcing the lie would allow them to comfortably join Netanyahu’s coalition. It still isn’t clear whether Netanyahu would choose Herzog and Livni’s collaboration, which would enable him to enhance occupation with virtually no critique; or go with Bennett and Lieberman, his natural allies, which would allow him to change the West Bank’s map, undermine the Supreme Court, and revise Israel’s Basic Laws—at the cost of domestic and international pressure.
• • •
In an important comment immediately following the Israeli election, David Shulman wrote, after an op-ed in Haaretz, that Netanyahu’s most dangerous achievement has been “overturning” the liberal principle that “the state exists for the sake of its citizens,” replacing it with “the Fascist belief that the citizens exist for the state.” However, Netanyahu shouldn’t be faulted for overturning Israeli liberalism. An ethos in which “citizens exist for the state” rather than the other way around has always been pervasive in Israel—in left-leaning circles just as much as in circles on the right. If proto-Fascist language has finally toppled Israel’s wobbly liberal culture, then this is because in the context of the center-left consensus, left politicians have stopped insisting on what few liberal values they previously held.
This was never clearer than during the last summer, in the course of the Gaza war. A few weeks into the fighting, and just shortly after Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burnt alive, an anti-racism poster was circulated in Israeli social media, featuring a picture of three soldiers posing in full IDF battle gear. The soldiers: three Israeli Arabs serving as officers in IDF operative units. The heading: “Next time, before you shout ‘death to the Arabs’, you may want to think twice.” Widely endorsed as it was among center-left Israelis, this anti-racist strategy only revealed how deeply entrenched racist assumptions have become in Israel. It also indicated that the Israeli center-left had subscribed to the Fascist principle, alluded to by Shulman, succinctly formulated in Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s 2013 election slogan: “No citizenship without loyalty.”
In the war’s frenzy of images and commentary, this poster could have been easily forgotten. But another poster succeeded it—this time produced by Peace Now, Israel’s strongest extra-parliamentary left-wing organization—which was alarmingly similar to the first. The new poster also featured an IDF operative team—in full battle gear again—against a background clearly resembling Gaza. Its headline read: “This moment, many people of the left, who believe in peace and think differently from the government, are in the front . . . Therefore, before you continue sitting at home and accusing leftists of being traitors, think about them.” In other words, there are not only loyal Arabs in Israel, but also loyal leftists. This is what Peace Now had to tell to the Israeli public when more than a thousand Palestinians had already been killed, and when bombs were falling continuously. The most striking thing about this poster is that it just doesn’t say anything about the war.
This irresponsible lack of integrity during the war was the counterpart to the opportunistic dodging of Rabin and the two-state solution: an attempt, in the context of the center-left consensus, to dissociate from leftist principles. That is, just as the Labor party was renamed the Zionist Camp and would not speak about the Palestinians, Peace Now activists were presented in IDF uniform and would say nothing about the war. But this lack of integrity eventually backfired politically in the elections. For while leftist politicians refused to speak about peace, or against the war, certainly they couldn’t and didn’t speak for the war, or against peace. The most that they could offer, therefore, was silence, either in the form of a bullshit campaign or through general statements that can’t be translated into meaningful politics. This silence in turn confirms the age-old argument of the Israeli right and the militant center: the left is disconnected from Middle Eastern reality. It has nice politically correct ideas about peace, but when the Arab world speaks, the leftists, too, keep silent and hope that the IDF will be in a position to answer.
Having no political role in Israel, left politicians certainly will not replace Netanyahu. They will continue to enjoy a body of ideological supporters (three to five seats for Meretz, twenty-something for labor). These supporters will be tolerated on the streets of Israel as loyal, but mocked, not without reason, for dogmatically clinging to parties whose politics have been proven irrelevant.
If the left wishes to change Israel’s future rather than join Netanyahu’s government, it has only one marketing strategy. The left must convince the Israeli public of the reasons for ending the occupation, establishing a Palestinian state and lifting the siege on Gaza. Certainly it cannot avoid talking about all these by insisting to talk about justice instead. Rather than dressing left activists in IDF uniform, the left must create a political environment in which such words as ‘citizenship’ haven’t been replaced by ‘loyalty’, and ‘legitimate’ hasn’t been replaced by ‘Zionist’; it must reclaim a language in which a serious political discussion (which can only mean one that includes the Palestinians) doesn’t count as treason. Such a reform will be a revolutionary act. But if Herzog or Livni will find it conducive to their political ambitions—and surely this is their only chance at capturing Netanyahu’s seat—this revolution may still be within reach.
April 22, 2015
13 Min read time