Israelis will go the polls on April 9th, in what I consider to be a good omen: It would be the 154th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, and we certainly could use any victory over racism. The results as predicted this early in the campaign, however, are anything but hopeful.
The latest polls show Labor, the old liberal-Zionist central-left party, losing approximately 75% of its seats, standing now at 6-8 seats, and a gentle push may drive it under the Blocking Line of four seats, which means the party will lose all seats. Things look bleak for Meretz, the only party on the Jewish left. Usually, Meretz would gain at Labor’s loss, particularly as Labor took a right-wing path under its current feckless leader, Avi Gabai; but now Meretz, too, is hovering near the Blocking Line. It has five seats at the moment, was expected to make a modest gain to seven seats, but now the polls indicate it will gain four. A slight opposing wind may do just that. There’s a real chance both Meretz and Labor won’t be present in the next Knesset.
(Full disclosure: I am a long-standing member of Meretz, voted for it since 1988, and was somewhat comically elected as a party center member from Petah Tikva – Petah Tikva elected no male center members, so I was jumped up in the list as a sort of affirmative action.)
What happened? Several things, but the trigger for the disappearance of the Zionist left parties is the arrival of Gen. Benny Gantz, the butcher of Gaza, at the head of a new party, Gantz, who published videos extolling the carnage he inflicted on Gaza in the 2014 massacre known as Protective Edge, is running under two slogans: “Israel before everything” and “neither left nor right.” He shot to over 20 seats in the polls, and is considered to be a better candidate for prime minister than Netanyahu (by a slim margin: 43-42).
And this is the crux of this election. Gantz seems (for now, at least) to have a real shot at dethroning Netanyahu. Ever since the elections of 2009, removing Netanyahu became a fetish of the center-left: everything was sacrificed to the removal of this boogieman. One feckless leader of Labor and the late, unlamented, Kadima after another promised they’d bring him down. Their main way of doing so was to turn more and more rightward. They stopped mentioning the occupation, since they believed this issue held no interest with the electorate – and, worse, marked them as “leftists.”
Being called a “leftist” has become a swear word for over a decade now. This scared Labor and the various, ever-shifting center parties. Labor tried, in 2013, to officially remove all traces to the occupation, and focus only on social issues. This failed badly.
And while the left and center tied themselves in a knot trying to find a way to dethrone Netanyahu by imitating him, Netanyahu – who is, for all his corruption, pettiness and inability to tell the truth, a political strategic genius, – undercut the basis of the left’s existence. In a campaign which began even before his election in 2009, he began shifting the meaning of Zionism. He understood well that liberal Zionism, and Jewish liberals, were a real danger to him and what he represented, so he worked to delegitimize them. Zionism was a term both sides could wield. The center-left unfortunately often used to it denote patriotism and by so doing excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel, but under Netanyahu “Zionism” came to mean Jewish supremacy. By this transformation of the term “Zionism”, Netanyahu wiped out the legitimacy of liberal Zionism.
By turning Zionism into Jewish supremacy (and yes, the elements of Jewish supremacy were always there, but the 1980s and 1990s saw a sort of normalization), Netanyahu drove another wedge: liberal parties cannot build a coalition without reliance on the Palestinian parties, yet they cannot remain politically viable among Jewish Israelis if they do. Netanyahu has already started using the line this past weekend that voting for Gantz means voting for the Palestinian parties, as he will have to rely on them to build his coalition.
The normalization of Jewish supremacy made sure that Jewish liberal parties would pay a high political price for accepting Israeli Palestinians as partners. It also radicalized many Israeli Palestinian activists. As a result, in a massive own goal, the Joint List refused to sign a votes-sharing agreement with Meretz in 2015. Three years later, the Nationality Law – the epitome of the process of Jewish supremacy legitimization – made the situation even worse. Rabin could build a minority government, enjoying the support of out-of-coalition Palestinian parties, and bring about what is today described as a golden age for Palestinian citizens of Israel; his heirs cannot. As a result, they have no viable way to a coalition. Palestinian citizens found the majority of their countrymen doubting their citizenship and hollowing it out.
While no Palestinian parties have called for a boycott of the elections yet, we’re still to face the usual election ritual of Zionist parties trying to ban Balad from running. Normally, the Supreme Court strikes such bans down. This time, however, the right wing managed to stuff the court with some ultra-nationalist judges. If the Court decides Balad may not run, there would be huge pressure on the rest of the Palestinian parties to declare the elections a sham and boycott them. It’s worth noting that technically, Balad does violate the law which forbids parties who don’t support the idea of Israel being a “Jewish and democratic” country from running. The court used to turn a blind eye to that; it’s not at all certain it will do so again.
Normalizing the idea of Zionism as Jewish supremacy was one arm of Netanyahu’s pincer movement. Another was endless war. It should be noted that Netanyahu has one redeeming quality: he strongly dislikes real wars. War is unpredictable and he lacks, with evident justification, faith in the ability of IDF ground troops. He wants what was infamously termed as “cutting the grass,” short operations, preferably either for the air or by elite commando units, all backed up with precise intelligence, with the goal of targeting enemy leadership. Enduring Edge was an exception, and it looked like he would pay a heavy political price for it in 2015.
By emphasizing “cutting the grass” operations, Netanyahu conditioned Israelis to endless small scale war, for which they paid little price. As painless war became the new normal, Israelis erupted with rage anytime Palestinians fought back, painting them as monsters and those who sought to help and protect them.
The third and final arm of the Netanyahu pincer movement was the separation regime. Aside from settlers and soldiers, few Israelis now meet Palestinians. In the 1970s and 1980s, my father employed Palestinian workers, many of them Gazans; they slept in our house; I slept in theirs; one of them named his first daughter after my sister. For Israelis who grew up during the First Intifada and afterwards, this situation looks dreamlike, hallucinatory. Netanyahu didn’t start this process – Rabin did; but he reaped the benefits.
And, of course, there is a ghost haunting the left: the failure of the Oslo Accords. They burned and crashed in 2001. I’m not going to do another of those debilitating rounds of “whose fault was it”: I’d rather have a nice glass of hemlock. The point is, the left is still crashing and burning. No one came up with an alternative plan, and everyone still clings to the ashes of the two state solution even as it long became clear that this train blew up along with the station.
It’s been 18 years now, the Oslo Accords are actually a right-wing tool, and the left is still unable to come up with anything better. Liberal Zionism is gone as an option for a generation at least, and Gantz is right on at least one point: there is no longer left or right. The vast majority of Israeli Jews are now Jewish supremacists. Some embrace this supremacy eagerly, others cling to it while bemoaning cruel fate has brought them, good liberals that they are, to this low state.
It’s possible, though still unlikely, that Gantz will take the elections. He will find it hard to build a coalition. Likud is not a me-too party. It will not join a government led by another party. Even if Gantz managed to build a coalition, it would be an improved Likud government. The Jewish left is essentially wiped out – and, until it realizes it has to be left first and Jewish later, it is unlikely to make a comeback.
To make a long story short, April 9th isn’t likely to be an Appomattox; more likely, a Bull Run.