The recent police recommendation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for various acts of corruption may well have started the countdown to the long-awaited departure of the man who has spent more time in the prime minister’s office than anyone in Israeli history save David Ben-Gurion. Even jaded observers, like myself, who will not count the slippery and resourceful Netanyahu out until he is out of office must admit that this time it will be difficult for him to survive, as he has vowed, until the end of his current term, which expires in November 2019.
For most Israelis, Netanyahu’s departure will be a welcome event.
Even among the Israeli right, Netanyahu’s blatant corruption and willingness to undermine the very fabric of Israel’s democratic structures, such as they are, have cost him support. A recent poll showed that 50% of Israelis believed that Netanyahu should resign or suspend himself from office, and only 33% believed that he should not. In December, a small contingent of several hundred right-wingers joined anti-corruption protests by Israeli centrists and leftists. Though the number was a token, even that many shows the depth to which Israelis of all political stripes recognize Netanyahu as corrupt.
The next prime minister is unlikely to engage in the bashing of Israeli institutions that Netanyahu has taken to recently, as he thrashes about trying to save himself. He—and it is a virtual certainty the next prime minister will be a man, as there is no serious woman candidate at this time—is also unlikely to monkey around with the media as Netanyahu has. He probably will also be more careful about bending or breaking rules about gifts and bribes, missteps which brought down both Netanyahu and his disgraced predecessor Ehud Olmert. Finally, the next prime minister is unlikely to engage in the shameful promotion of antisemitism that both Netanyahu and his son, Yair, have made an indelible part of their family’s legacy.
For Israeli Jews, then, there will be some gains in Netanyahu’s departure. But in terms of Israel’s overall trajectory, little is apt to change. In that regard, Netanyahu was less a cause than a symptom. Polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud party is still the leading vote-getter in potential elections, and this has changed little over the course of the corruption revelations. One poll asked voters which party they would choose with Likud led by Netanyahu versus Likud led by someone else: there was a slight, albeit negligible, uptick in pro-Likud response with Netanyahu at the helm.
The left-right balance might shift a few seats but not nearly enough for a shift in the right-wing majority, especially since the opposition will not agree to form a government that includes the Joint List, the coalition of Arab parties and the non-Zionist Hadash party. In other words, right-wing control remains firm for the foreseeable future.
The main battleground to replace Netanyahu is going to be within the Likud party. There, Gilad Erdan, Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz, and Gideon Sa’ar are poised to battle for the top spot, and thus the favorite position to become the next prime minister. Sa’ar is probably the most moderate, but it is a distinction without a difference in terms of the occupation and foreign policy. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, and Avi Gabbay, leader of Labor, have both expressed support for a “peace process.” But that support has been so vague—and placed beside statements from both that clearly show their hostility toward both Palestinians and, at least in Gabbay’s case, Israel’s own Palestinian citizens—there is little hope for real change from this corner, even in the unlikely event that either of them could cobble together a government they could lead.
Netanyahu: An Extreme Example, Not An Anomaly
As much as Netanyahu has come to symbolize, for many, Israel’s long-term thrust to the right—against the two-state solution, toward less democracy, greater ethnocracy, and growing racism—he has not led that charge. Rather, he has ridden it. “The face of Israel nowadays is that of settlement thugs behind whom a cowardly Benjamin Netanyahu hides, just as he hid on the balcony at Zion Square where the ideological justification for the murder of Yitzhak Rabin was being prepared,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell has written. “All are burying liberal values happily and with a sense of mission.”
Sternhell demonstrates in his book, The Founding Myths of Israel, that whenever the Israeli mainstream, generally the ostensibly left-wing Labor Party and its cohorts, must choose between nationalism and socialism or egalitarianism, it invariably chooses nationalism. Except for the most progressive fringes of Israeli society, this has always been the case. This reality was accelerated by the self-serving demagoguery of Netanyahu, but it was not a new Israeli reality.
From its beginnings, Israel was never what many liberal Jews outside the state thought it was or hoped it might be. On the contrary, it has moved, sometimes haltingly, away from that idealized state, arguably since its birth, and certainly since the 1967 war and the beginning of the occupation. Yet Sternhell’s conclusion says more than it might seem.
Liberals and progressives who identify as Zionist or pro-Israel have come under a great deal of fire for hypocrisy. In the charged climate around this issue, this isn’t surprising, and the charges are sometimes, though far from always, merited. But is it nothing more than self-interest that so often has led liberals and progressives to check their values at Israel’s door?
Sternhell’s formulation suggests not only that Israel maintains a liberal “mask”, but that some real idealism can be found in Israel and its supporters. I do not mean to whitewash the very real denial in which many of Israel’s supporters have lived, and in some cases still do. But there is an aspirational aspect to Israel. And that aspect is a place where, even now, with the horrific starvation of Gaza, the tightening occupation of the West Bank, and the looming possibility of full, US-recognized annexation of Jerusalem, and the complete denial of a century of dispossession of the Palestinians, a kernel of hope still survives.
More and more, Jewish and non-Jewish supporters are being forced to come to terms with an Israel that has no real interest in peace. It is an Israel that wants control of the West Bank and full sovereignty of Jerusalem, with as much sheket (Hebrew for “quiet”) as possible. But as supporters of Israel come to terms with it, they are also choosing sides: they are either deciding to abandon Israel or to accept the fact that it is an eroding democracy, at best, and a place where the values of equality for all, not only Jews, is not only disappearing from reality but even from Israeli aspirations.
Hope In the Darkness
It is in that stark decision that I see hope. The eventual resolution to this conflict will not come with the ultimate defeat or ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but neither will it come with some magical or physical eradication of the Zionist ideology. The resolution, however long it may take to arrive, will be one that accommodates not just Jews and Arabs, but both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. Those two movements will not fade while the conflict continues. The conflict itself sustains it, and therefore it cannot be resolved through the disappearance or defeat of either or both national movements.
The hope raised by Sternhell’s view—the conclusion of a strongly self-identified Zionist who has fought not just in the academy but in the streets—stands in stark contrast to the dark cynicism and the cruel, racist myopia of Netanyahu. By raising the question, coming to the conclusion he did, and still believing strongly in the Jewish right to self-determination, Sternhell keeps alive the argument that Jewish national consciousness need not sustain itself by the denial of Palestinian national and human rights.
The past is the past, and the history of the past century has been dominated by the selfish and prejudicial nationalism that Netanyahu brought to an extreme during his term as prime minister. That nationalism, like all self-absorbed nationalisms, cannot co-exist with democracy and respect for the rights of even all of the nation, let alone those outside that circle. Perhaps that’s all that Israel will ever be. Certainly that is the view of anti-Zionists, but that view holds no hope. But there are Zionists, as there are Palestinian nationalists who hold to a different vision of nationalism, which allows sharing the land, in whatever formulation, with the other. Getting to that point is more difficult than ever, and it would be historically unprecedented to see that future come to be.
But much about the Israel-Palestine conflict is unprecedented, and the depth of ethnocracy and oppression that Israel has sunk to is beyond anything in the history of this conflict. Maybe it still hasn’t hit bottom. But maybe one day Netanyahu’s scorched-earth policy will unwittingly produce the fertile ground that both Zionists and Palestinians who believe in both their own national existences and the sharing of the land can cultivate and grow into a better future.