Bibi bounces back: Can anything stop Israel's rightward drift?
By ZAC HILLS
Last Tuesday, Israelis returned to the polls for the fifth time in almost four years and, despite his party making overall gains, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his fractured coalition were defeated by a reactionary bloc seemingly united around former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who is affectionately styled “Bibi'' by supporters. Likud won 64 out of 120 seats.
Without a stable majority or a state budget, and three corruption charges to his name, the Knesset finally turned against “King Bibi” last summer, when evictions of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem led to a renewal in the seven decades-long war. His former aide, the far-right Naftali Bennett, joined in a surprise coalition with the centrist Yair Lapid to depose Netanyahu with other smaller parties. Bennett became premier with Lapid as his ‘alternate’ and designated successor. In retrospect, the challenges they faced were insurmountable, and their project could never have been fruitful.
Their bloc, containing Jewish conservatives and Arab Islamists alike, could only agree on their contempt for Netanyahu and his behemoth-like political dominance. Some saw him as a violent imperialist, while others thought him incapable of overseeing their colonial project. Without him in power, they were rebels with innumerable divisions but without a cause.
This reached its climax this June, when Bennett had to resign. He and Lapid had risen to the apex of power on a wave of anti-Palestinian insecurity as fears of Netanyahu’s mismanagement became a fear for the future of the state itself – and this anxiety proved to be their downfall. Their heterogenous coalition was unable to renew legal privileges to Jewish West Bank settlers – which enshrine judicial and medical apartheid into the Israeli constitution – and Bennett knew his dissolution of the Knesset, and handing over to Lapid, would maintain these protections until after the election. Paranoid nationalism and racism brought them into office, and then removed them.
Netanyahu can thank his opponents for his restoration. Israel’s overly proportional voting system means slates between similar parties are critical to electoral success, but disagreements prevented many from emerging. Labor leader Merav Michaeli refused to cooperate with Meretz, another left-wing party, and as such the once-dominant Labor has been reduced to four seats and Meretz to none. The parties representing Arab interests, who united in 2020 to become a Knesset kingmaker despite their historic marginalisation, split into three slates over ideological differences and now have five fewer seats than they did at their height. Netanyahu’s Likud, on the other hand, formed a vote-surplus agreement with the Religious Zionists to ensure moderate candidates would not win leftover seats.
Divisions between anti-Netanyahu parties were due to the failed Bennett-Lapid regime. Ra’am, an Arab party, left the Joint List to support the coup against Bibi. They pushed the new government towards providing unprecedented employment opportunities and infrastructure improvements for Israeli Arabs, enticing some Jewish coalition partners back towards Bibi. Despite this short-term achievement, Ra’am’s disunity to the wider Arab movement – which has meant thousands of anti-Bibi votes have been wasted and led to the inability to block legislation that prevents Palestinians married to Israelis from obtaining permanent Israeli residency — has contributed to the rise of an even more sinister, anti-Palestinian force in Israeli politics, namely Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Ben-Gvir, known for his hate speech charges, and displaying a portrait of a terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinians in his living room, became the figurehead of the far-right nationalist movement in the summer of 2021 by leading marches through Sheikh Jarrah to incite violence against Arabs. His bloc the Religious Zionists, which follows the Kahanist doctrine that Arabs are subversive aliens and only Jews should enjoy democratic rights, gained five seats because he expresses the unadulterated ethno-nationalism that Netanyahu has slowly normalised in repeatedly threatening conflict with Iran and expanding the settlements that push Palestinians out of their ancestral lands.
Bibi was quick to recognise Ben-Gvir’s stardom and use this to his advantage. In return for supporting judicial reforms that would halt Bibi’s corruption trials and providing votes for his sixth administration, Netanyahu offered them mainstream respectability and the prospect of genuine power. However, his opponents are culpable too. In collaborating with nationalists like Bennett, centrists like Lapid failed to comprehend that Zionism cannot be moderated when reactionaries share power. Their misunderstanding promoted the more malevolent Ben-Gvir, and furthered the culture of Netanyahu-ism rather than destroy it.
In Netanyahu, Israel has a leader who is actively interested in stoking violent hatred to create fear. By dignifying the Religious Zionists with his approval and likely some ministerial positions, he will have to battle with Palestine and fan the flames of war with Iran to mollify those around him. For President Biden, who intends for a new nuclear deal with Tehran, this may undermine America’s willingness to ignore Israeli aggression.
The unparalleled Western social media campaigns following the Sheikh Jarrah pogroms last year, led by the likes of Gen-Z’s Mohammed El-Kurd, mean it is easy to imagine Israel becoming more diplomatically isolated because of fanaticism. It is just as improbable that their 73-year-old political veteran leader has the dynamism to face these challenges. As the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters under 24 are brazenly right-wing, these repercussions will likely breed paranoia rather than moderation. The future of Israel seems to look more like the past of apartheid-era South Africa, but only time can tell if this far-right experiment will satiate Israeli appetites for a more extreme Zionism.
Image: Flickr / Prime Minister of Israel