The New Face of Israel

The New Face of Israel

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Beer-Sheva, Israel

Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has selected Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister for his new government, it looks like the die has been cast. While talks could result in a last-minute power-sharing arrangement with the Kadima Party’s Tzipi Livni–which would, presumably, exclude or sharply demote Lieberman and his ilk–it looks increasingly likely that the new Israeli government will range from the hard right of Netanyahu’s Likud to the extremist, openly racist right of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) and the even more right-wing, Kahane-inspired National Union, along with smaller parties like the Orthodox Shas.

Why have talks between Livni and Netanyahu run aground? Livni knows that if Netanyahu is forced to rely only on the far right, his ruling Knesset majority will be razor thin, susceptible to the demands of smaller coalition partners and thus highly unstable. Such a government would also be held at arm’s length by the international community–including, probably, the indispensable ally, Washington. After all, Netanyahu spent much of his previous prime ministership (1996-99) feuding with the Clinton administration, which detested his stonewalling vis-a-vis the Oslo peace process. Netanyahu now openly opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the only game in town in the eyes of the international diplomatic community. This augurs frosty relations with the Obama administration. For all these reasons, Livni has been driving a hard bargain in her talks with Bibi. Since both know that he needs her a lot more than she needs him, it makes sense for her to reject anything less than a full power-sharing arrangement, with rotating prime ministerships (and possibly the participation of Ehud Barak’s Labor Party).

If Netanyahu does wind up forming an exclusively far-right government, a Rubicon of sorts will have been crossed. Israel has been moving steadily to the right for some time now, with this last election confirming the ugly national mood. From where I sit now, in the southern Israeli city of Beer-Sheva (I’m on leave from The Nation, having just begun a three-month fellowship courtesy of the gracious hospitality of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University), I see troubling indicators all around. It’s not just that the third-largest party in the country has talked of demanding a loyalty oath from the country’s Palestinians, now roughly 20 percent of the population, or that it talks of unilaterally abrogating their citizenship in a future settlement involving population transfers, with the goal being creation of an ethnically pure Jewish state. Nor was it the overwhelming public support for the recent brutal Gaza campaign, an assault on a mostly defenseless population disguised as war and self-defense.

Another disturbing election result was the decline of the left, with Meretz now having become a minor party with only 3 percent of the vote. Everyone I’ve talked to here tells me that Israel’s media–generally considered by veteran US readers of Ha’aretz, myself included, to be refreshingly more open, and certainly more informative, than the US media on issues relating to the conflict–have been a significant factor in stoking the national mood of vengeance and obscuring basic facts about the occupation and relations with the Palestinians. I don’t know how much the media is responsible for it, but one can see a new, far more intolerant generation on the rise: in most high schools across the country, Lieberman’s party was the favorite in the elections. And while brutality toward Palestinians is hardly new in Israel, the recent unprovoked shooting of ISM activist Tristan Anderson is of a piece with unprecedented police repression of peaceful Jewish demonstrators during the Gaza campaign, both here in Beer-Sheva and elsewhere, about which I’ll be writing more in the future.

Certainly there’s something to be said for letting a far-right government show its true colors, and thus hang itself in short order, without Kadima or Labor having soiled themselves by joining. And no trend in politics is irreversible. But one does get the ominous sense that fateful red lines are being crossed, that the center in Israel may not hold.

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