Adversity brings out character, and Benjamin Netanyahu is running like an angry outsider in his country. At a rally of the hard right wing in Tel Aviv night he bragged about never giving in to Washington’s pressure to give up Jewish land. He had never evacuated settlers and he will never evacuate settlers, he said.
“We just announced the building of new homes in Jerusalem,” he said. Then referring to his main opponents he went on:
“Tzipi Livni says that building in Jerusalem is wrong. If Jews cannot build in Jerusalem, where can they build? Buji Herzog says, I see Jerusalem as two political capitals, west Jerusalem for Israel and east Jerusalem for Palestine. [Boos.] That’s what they’re trying to hide, but those are their beliefs. We have a different way. We will save Judaism in all parts of the country. I stood up against even the biggest pressure. I said what I believe in Washington. When there is pressure against us, the prime minister must stand strong, even when the Americans oppose us. That is what I will keep doing.”
The mask was off at the rally. Did the New York Times tell you that the Israeli leaders could make concessions these last six years? You were misled. Netanyahu will never be for two states. “As long as Likud is leading this country, the national side … we won’t give up Jerusalem, we won’t give anything to our enemies.” The centrist Zionist Camp of Livni and Herzog will give up land to the Palestinians.
As I heard this and heard the sea of Jews in Rabin Square chant Bibi Bibi, I had to wonder: Why did Obama ever meet with this man, let alone meet with him more than a dozen times? Why didn’t he just say, You know my number, when you are willing to cut a deal, call me? The US press which also presumes to support the idea of two states never asked this question.
Again and again Netanyahu promised that he would not “evacuate” Jewish families. That is why the “left” says he accomplished nothing, he said. Even if he raised the minimum wage, lowered unemployment, built rail stations, he did not evacuate settlers, and therefore he did “nothing.”
Coming a week after anti-Netanyahu forces gathered in the same square, this rally of tens of thousands of rightwingers was called a “farewell party” by the center left, which is excited to see the end of the Netanyahu era. And the rightwing has imbibed much of this fatalistic belief. One man came up to me to say almost proudly, we have lost. Others gave off the same defensive, bitter, party’s-over feeling. “We are not ashamed to be rightwing,” a settler woman said to me.
With the election two days away, the rally represented a defiant claim on the Israeli political soul: what does it mean to be nationalistic? Netanyahu spoke many times of “our way” and “my way,” and that way is warlike. He had learned from his father the scholar and his grandfather the rabbi:
“The Jewish nation is 4000 years old. For 2000 years we fought for a state in our land. For 2000 years we fought to go back to our land and now we are fighting to stay in our land. To stay in Jerusalem. That gives me strength to fight. That is my mission. That is our mission.”
“Each one of you is a soldier in this war,” he said. “We have Order 8, they have V15.”
Order 8 (my translator tells me) is the notice to a young person that he or she must come join the army. V15 (Victory in ’15) is an Israeli campaign to get rid of Netanyahu that has a lot of foreign support, including from a former Obama campaign official. A V15 volunteer even moved through the Netanyahu rally crowd, giving out V15 stickers. People tried to ignore him, he spoke to me of the necessity of giving up land so that Palestinians could have self-determination.
The defiant spirit of the Jewish settler movement was the theme of the rally. The Arab List that could lend support to a centrist coalition government was the enemy, mentioned only once or twice. The nationalists here deny the Palestinian presence in the land any way that they can. Netanyahu was preceded at the microphone by Daniella Weiss, a settler leader who has approved pricetag attacks on Israeli army bases when the government tried to remove settler outposts. She said that Netanyahu was opposed by a party of weakness and “appeasement.” The first thing Isaac Herzog will do as prime minister is to go to Ramallah to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, he has said.
“He wants to give away the houses of 100,000 Jews,” she said.
Netanyahu was followed at the microphone by his partner on the right, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party. His speech was even more religious nationalist than Netanyahu’s.
“The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel… From Brussels to Washington.. we tell them loud and clear, No nation can be an occupier in its own land. I stand in front of you and swear, Never ever will we allow anyone to give up even a centimeter of the land of Israel. ..
This election is about one thing. Will Israel remain Jewish?”
So the Jewish state is about to lose its Jewish character to a bunch of (Jewish) secularists. Fear and strength and Jewishness were themes of the rally. And so its tone was fascistic: a gathering of a militant ethnic community to support strong leaders who would defend an old order against all change. Ariel Sharon has turned into a leftwinger in death in the views of the people in the crowd, because he gave up Gaza. While Daniella Weiss looks backward nearly 50 years: the political moment in Israel is 1967 all over again, she said. Jews are afraid they are going to be pushed into the sea. The appeasers could let this happen. It is time for another great victory and renewal.
Religion ran through the event. Many speakers alluded to the charge by a centrist Israeli cultural leader that the rightwing are “mezuzah-kissers”– reference to the scriptural scroll that religious Jews mount in their door-jambs. Netanyahu began his remarks by taking on the charge.
What’s the problem with kissing a mezuzah? Since when is it a sin that we keep up the Jewish tradition? We believe in our eternal beliefs and we want to secure the Jewish future in Israel.
You would think from the rally’s spirit that Herzog and Livni are nihilists and revolutionaries. Of course they are not. They are not committed to anything beyond the idea of talking to the Palestinians. They have made no promises to give up land or even stop the settlement project. Herzog has said he will continue to build inside the settlement blocs. And going to this rally shows you why. The Jewish nationalist attitudes on view in the sea of head coverings and kippas are deeply imbedded in the Israeli Jewish people.
We may lose on Tuesday: that was the bitter spirit of the rally. Still we are a major force inside Israeli life, they were saying, and in losing they are making a claim on the Israeli political spirit.
The Israeli center won’t run explicitly against the settlers. It is running against Netanyahu’s divisive presence, his failure in Washington, and on economic issues. It will likely win on these issues.
But the rally in Tel Aviv was a declaration of the living spirit of Zionism. The settlers in Jerusalem and in the West Bank are only doing what Zionists did when they came to Palestine in the first place. They are, they reminded us, the soul of Israel. On Tuesday the center will win. But it will take great care not to contest these beliefs.