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Low Expectations; High Stakes


On November first, the citizens of Israel will go to the polls to choose their members of the Knesset, and by extension the next government. The expectations are low, and turn out not expected to be high, because these will be the fifth such elections in the country in less than four years. The previous four cycles of elections produced no clear winner, but two so-called unity governments that didn’t last long. Expectations are low, as well, since all the polls—which were pretty accurate last time—predict a stalemate again.

But the stakes are high, and not due to any external enemies of the state, even taking into considerations Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north, and Iran in the east. It looks now as if Israel was successful (I thought they would be)—together with Iran’s leadership, one must admit—in curtailing the chances, limited as they were, of achieving a nuclear agreement. Not that I see Iran’s nuclear threat as an existential threat to the state of Israel. Rather, it helps all its governments to deflect other issues and pressures, mainly the need to solve, once and for all, the conflict with the Palestinians.

As long as we’re at it, a word about it. To his credit, the caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who’s doing a relatively good job in his limited time in power, had mentioned recently in the General Assembly of the United Nations the need to solve the conflict on the basis of the old two-state solution idea. That statement created a short-lived firestorm back home in Israel, and favorable responses here in America. A major new candidate for the next Knesset, an admired former IDF chief of staff,  Gadi Eisenkot, who joined Benny Gantz’s party, had also voiced the need to solve the Palestinian conflict along the lines of the two-state solution. However, there’s no chance of it becoming a reality any time soon, if ever. I don’t see it being much discussed, even, in the next government and Knesset.

For that matter too, it’s worth mentioning here that what currently is happening in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, is akin to a low-simmering, semi-Intifada. On the one hand, young Palestinians, desperate of the oppression of the occupying Israeli army on the one hand, and the useless corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority on the other, are determined to resist and inflict some suicidal pain on the Israelis. Who, in turn, seem determined to kill as many young—and not so young—Palestinians as possible, daily and persistently, almost as if Israel has decided that this is the best way for it to eliminate, eventually, the Palestinian problem.

Of course, it will not. This brings me back to the ‘high stakes’ of the headline. Unfortunately, the high stakes have nothing to do with the possibility of solving the Palestinian conflict, or with any other threat facing Israel externally. But it is all internal. It is the threat to Israel as a democratic state. While it being a Jewish state is not, currently under threat; the Jewishness of its character, though, may overrun its democratic character and values. The chief instigator of this threat is none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, he, the longest serving Israeli Prime Minister, twelve years and counting, before this latest, short-lived attempt at a unity government. Since he, sometimes only his lawyers, appears almost daily in a Jerusalem court, fighting his indictment on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, determined to return to power and, Trump-like, put an end to the Israeli judiciary system and democracy as we know it.

It is not surprising to learn, therefore, that way back during the Obama administration, it had come to light lately that former president Obama characterized Netanyahu as an Orban-like leader. (See under Hungary.) And while right now, as mentioned above, the polls are indicating that no candidate will be able to form the next government, two things are still working in Netanyahu’s favor. One, his Likud party no doubt would come on top, as the largest party in the Knesset, based mainly on Netanyahu’s traditional stronghold on the large Mizrachi, Sephardic population of Israel, with other elements of society—American immigrants, Russians immigrants—helping his cause. But mostly, his chances are improving due to the emergence of a new party, and a new force in this elections cycle: Itamar Ben Gvir.

A far-right religious zealot, Ben Gvir is a disciple of “rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in both Israel and America,” (TOI). He previously was convicted on terror charges, and like his ‘prophet’ had espoused the idea of expelling all Arabs from the land of Israel. Though he’s now backtracking on that notion I, for one, do not believe him. Together with another extremist, Bezalel Smotrich’s, their Religious Zionist Party is projected now to be the third largest party in the next Knesset. This means that in order to form the new government, it would not only be Netanyahu’s natural partner—its anti-democratic tendencies align squarely with Netanyahu—but an absolute necessity for Netanyahu in order to form the next government.

No wonder some high-ranking US politicians—Senator Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and California Congressman Brad Sherman—issued strong warnings already to Netanyahu regarding such an alliance with those far-right extremists, and the damage it may inflict on the US-Israel relationship. So that you’ll understand clearly what we’re talking about here, the favorite chant of their supporters is “death to the Arabs.” Such a probable outcome would not only endanger the Israeli democracy, as envisioned by Herzl and put into practice by Ben-Gurion and other leaders and generations, but would shred whatever credit Israel still possesses in terms of human rights, and regard to it as a peace-seeking nation around the world. It will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire of anti-Semitic rhetoric and threat, and thus, I’m sorry to say, endanger the lives of Jews worldwide, not the least here in America.

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After the Fall—Comes the Reckoning


All Israeli governments fall sooner or later, to paraphrase the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but each government’s fall is unique in its own special way. Yet even according to this maxim, the fall of the current government stands out as especially unusual, disturbing, and telling. Here’s why:

To begin with, this governing coalition, which was formed just over a year ago, was unusual not only in Israel but throughout the democratic world. After two years with four elections but without a decisive win for the left, right, or center, and with Netanyahu and his Likud still very much a threat to the rule of law—his day in a Jerusalem court on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach-of-trust was about to begin—and Israel’s democracy teetering after some twelve years as prime minister. But then eight small parties—I repeat, eight!—got together and were able to form a unity coalition of 61 Knesset 1 members.

Quite the miracle. In this governing coalition, Yair Lapid (the driving force and now a caretaker PM) and his Yesh Atid party had 17 Members, a center-left party of liberal Tel Avivians opposed mightily to Netanyahu and fighting to retain Israel’s fragile democracy. He Partnered with Naftali Bennet, whose party Yemina, a right of Likud party of settlements and settlers, had only 7 members, with one already on his way out. There were parties from the very left, like Meretz and Labor, and the central party of Defense Minister Benny Gantz. And to add a cherry to that cake: An Arab Muslin party for the first time in Israel’s history. No Jewish religious party, though: also a first. But a religious Prime Minister. A first too.

It was expected, and predicted—by many observers, including yours truly—that this government won’t last for long. Indeed, it lasted about a year. In that year its major accomplishment was its “survival.” The fact that it had managed to stay in power, and take care of business—the remains of the coronavirus pandemic, economic issues, passing a budget for the first time in three years, and no war with Hamas in Gaza. So not only did they kick Netanyahu out of office, but enabled the court proceeding against him to begin and continue, which was another important achievement.

But it was not enough. The cracks became fissions. Some rats began to escape the sinking ship. And yet, as pointed above, the most telling thing—not just as to the fall of this government, but in a certain way for Israel and its conflict with Palestine as a whole—was why and how this government fell. Let me try to explain, especially for those of you who don’t keep a close tab on the ins and outs of Israel’s politics since this issue may come back to haunt other governments, and maybe the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

There is a law in Israel, the “Emergency Regulations for Judea and Samaria” (it includes also the Jordan Valley), which was enacted not long after the Six-day War of 1967 by the Labor party in power at the time. Basically, it established two sets of legal systems (both illegal according to the Geneva Convention): one for Israelis living in the occupied territories, who will live under Israeli civil laws, and one for the Arab citizens of the West Bank, who will be ruled by the occupying Israeli army. Separating Jews from the Arabs was the idea, you get the picture. These laws, “Emergency Regulations,” stayed in effect since then, enshrining the occupation into existence. No wonder it was nicknamed the “Settlers Law.” Make sense, doesn’t it? Though others refer to it as the “Apartheid Law.” Take your pick.

Since then, every Israeli government had automatically—with some adjustments and tightening of the screw—renewed this law in the Knesset when it expired, I believe every five years. And yet—hold on to your seat—when the law was about to be renewed now, in this government with a past settler as its Prime Minister, the opposition—led by who else but Netanyahu—refused to support it. Why? Not because they opposed it. Couldn’t be further from the truth. But because they realized that this is their best chance of toppling the government. Successful, as it were, due to a couple of defections of members in the coalition.

In other words: sheer brutal politics overtook substance and common sense. And so a law representing the worst of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, agreed upon by the vast majority of the Knesset members, had failed to pass in order to bring down the government and enforce fifth elections in the space of three and a half years. What’s more, once—and if—a new government is in power, certainly if it’s Netanyahu’s Likud, the law will be the first to pass in a heartbeat. Not to be believed, if it wasn’t true.

In a way, there is some justice in all of it. A law that preserved and protected the unlawful occupation, creating a semi-Apartheid state, and symbolizing all of Israel’s problems with the Palestinians—its inability and unwillingness to make peace by establishing a two-state solution—is also forcing on the Israeli citizens a Perpetuum mobile of unending elections. And in the process, unsettling the Israeli democracy. If the latest polls are to be believed—and why not, unlike here in America they were pretty accurate in the latest rounds of the Israeli elections—while Netanyahu’s win is secured, as far as winning the largest share of Knesset members, his ability to form a governing coalition hasn’t improved that much.

And so it goes. Only time would tell, of course, since anything can happen. Pardon those previous clichés, yet this is where Israel finds itself now. Its major existential threat—no, not that of Iran’s nuclear capability, or Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, but—the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, is facing another major challenge.

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