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This Israeli election is between the right wing and the even more right wing

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Israel’s election campaign, now in its last days, must be the first in which a sitting Israeli prime minister has sought to win over voters by boasting about how much he insulted a president of the United States.

One of the last campaign videos by Benjamin Netanyahu spliced together media clips of U.S. analysts voicing disbelief back in 2011 at the Israeli prime minister’s public humiliation of Barack Obama.

The ad not only described Netanyahu as “lecturing” Obama, but showed him visibly angering the U.S. president by berating him for chasing “illusions” in his pursuit of peace talks with the Palestinians. It closed with Likud’s campaign slogan: “Netanyahu. Right-wing. Strong.”

Netanyahu’s electioneering has rarely been subtle. But after Israel’s attorney general announced during the campaign that the prime minister faced corruption indictments, Netanyahu has had every incentive to plumb new depths.

His officials have stated that his main rival, Benny Gantz, a general he once appointed as military chief of staff, is mentally unstable. One Likud video showed Gantz’s head emerging from a cuckoo clock.

The character assassination has been aided by the leaking of a recording of an off-guard Gantz saying that, if he could have done so, Netanyahu would have had him killed.

Netanayhu’s team also exploited, and possibly leaked, a claim that Gantz’s mobile phone was hacked by Iran. “If he couldn’t protect his own phone, how will he protect our country?” Netanyau has said.

Innuendo has suggested that compromising information on the phone could be used for blackmail.

Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, hardly emerges spotless, either. He has steeped himself in dubious military glory with ads showing footage of the devastation in Gaza that he presided over, a bombing spree that killed more than 500 children. The video bragged about his sending the enclave “back to the Stone Age.”

Blue and White, which includes two other high-powered generals, is the Israeli security establishment’s effort to oust Netanyahu, who is seen as having squandered international goodwill with his public intransigence on peacemaking.

The generals are no less opposed to Palestinian statehood. They understand the Israeli public’s mood: a recent survey shows that more than 40 per cent of Israelis favor some form of annexation of the West Bank.

Pandering to these sentiments, Netanyahu said at the weekend he would extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank during his next term.

Gantz has shown no inclination to stray far from this consensus. In his inaugural campaign speech, he said he would “strengthen the settlement blocs” as well as “retain control of security in the entire land of Israel,” which includes the West Bank and Gaza.

He has repeatedly evaded questions about what solution he proposes for the Palestinians.

But, like most other security officials, Gantz believes it is important for Israel to court the West by giving the appearance of a willingness to negotiate.

Nonetheless, it is no simple matter to dislodge Netanyahu from power after he has won three general elections over the past decade on his security record.

He did so on previous occasions by vanquishing the country’s founding Labour party, which has traditionally presented itself as centre-left. Over time, faced with an unassailable Netanyahu, Labour leaders stopped paying lip service to the Oslo peace accords they signed a quarter of a century ago.

Instead, they began to champion illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory nearly as vociferously as the ruling Likud party.

This time, there are no left-leaning parties in the running. This is a straightforward slugging match between the right wing (Gantz) and the even more right wing (Netanyahu).

For most of the campaign, the two parties have been neck and neck. To form the next government, Netanyahu or Gantz must forge deals with much smaller parties in the 120-member parliament to gain a majority.

Netanyahu will need a mix of the far-right and religious-extremist factions he has previously relied on to clear the 61-seat threshold. To help, he has invited into a future coalition Jewish Power – the rebranded fascists of Kach, a party that was outlawed more than 20 years ago.

Gantz, on the other hand, is caught in an electoral trap. He will either have to out-right-wing Netanyahu to win over these same extremist parties, or secure the backing of Jewish centre-left groups and parties representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population.

Bearing in mind his military career, Gantz risks alienating his core support if he suggests a readiness to enter into a deal with the Zionist left or with the country’s Palestinian minority.

Netanyahu understands Gantz’s bind. At the last election, in 2015, the Israeli prime minister warned on polling day that “the Arabs” – Israel’s own Palestinian citizens – were “coming out in droves” to vote. He added that the Jewish left was supposedly “bussing them” to polling stations.

Throughout this campaign, Netanyahu has fanned similar flames. During a recent TV interview, he accused the Palestinian parties of supporting terrorism. He has even characterized the possibility of loose, informal support from Palestinian legislators for a Gantz-led government as “working to eliminate the state of Israel”.

In a recent interview Gantz also said the Palestinian leadership in Israel “speaks out against the State of Israel, so I cannot have a political discourse with it”. He has said he will sit only with parties that are “Jewish and Zionist”.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, a former TV news host and Gantz’s electoral partner, voted along with Likud to ban two Palestinian parties already in the parliament from running in the election. The decision was overturned in the courts.

None of this has been lost on Israel’s Palestinian voters. They have had to sit through an allegedly ironic campaign video by the current justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, of the settler-allied New Right party, in which she sprays herself with a perfume labelled “Fascism”.

They have also seen Oren Hazan, a legislator in Netanyahu’s Likud party, emerging from a bubble bath, in a James Bond parody video, to shoot dead a lookalike of a leading Israeli-Palestinian politician.

In Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, it has been hard to discern that an election is just around the corner. There have been few posters or rallies, and no excitement. According to a late poll, half of Palestinian voters in Israel intend to stay home.

In part, that reflects a protest at the Nation-State Basic Law, passed last summer, which made explicit Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state: that Palestinians can never properly be Israeli citizens and that they will always be viewed as unwelcome interlopers.

But it is also a judgment that any success by the Palestinian parties, split in this election into two acrimonious camps, will have no impact on the direction Israeli policy takes.

Whether Netanyahu or Gantz wins, more legislation will be drafted to advance institutional discrimination against the Palestinian minority, and the abusive treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories will intensify.

U.S. President Donald Trump has done his best to give Netanyahu an electoral leg-up. That has included the recognition of Israeli claims to sovereignty over the Golan Heights and an invitation to the White House days before polling.

Last-minute surprises are still possible, but most expect Netanyahu to win outright. Even if the election is indecisive, Israeli history suggests that the most likely outcome is a national unity government between the two largest parties.

Whatever Netanyahu and Gantz claim now about being bitter enemies, the truth is that, ideologically, they have more in common than either cares to admit.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi on April 7, 2019.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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10 Responses

  1. eljay on April 8, 2019, 12:03 pm

    It seems that Zionists have had enough of pretending that Israel:
    – is a “moral beacon”, “light unto the nations”, “Western-style democracy” and “progressive paradise” state; and
    – isn’t quite as bad as Saudi Arabia, Mali, African “hellholes”, etc.

    The bottom of the barrel awaits and Zionists are diving toward it.

  2. Kay24 on April 8, 2019, 12:13 pm

    I compare the Netanyahu voters to the Trump voters. They have accepted his racist tendencies, lies, drama, corruption, investigations, name calling, insults, and even though he has killed Palestinians on Gaza streets, they will still vote for him. It says a lot about THEM.

    Trump has shamelessly campaigned for Kushner’s good pal, Bibi, given him Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and now officially names the Iranian military as “terrorists”., which Netanyahu has taken credit for in a tweet apparently. Bibi and Bin Salman must be pleased with their puppet. We have to wonder what Bibi will do to return the favor in 2020.

  3. JLewisDickerson on April 8, 2019, 1:37 pm

    RE: “His [Netanyahu’s] officials have stated that his main rival, Benny Gantz, a general he once appointed as military chief of staff, is mentally unstable. One Likud video showed Gantz’s head emerging from a cuckoo clock.~ J Cook

    MY COMMENT: I can easily see an ad with Trump’s head emerging from a cuckoo clock.

  4. jon s on April 8, 2019, 3:55 pm

    Mr. Cook writes: “This time, there are no left-leaning parties in the running.” but later he refers to “Jewish centre-left groups … ‘ and the Zionist Left.
    In the center-Left there’s Labour, on the Left we have Meretz and the two Arab lists. Here’s hoping for a good result…

    • Mooser on April 10, 2019, 12:10 pm

      “Here’s hoping for a good result…” “Jon s”

      You got your good result. More Netanyahoo.

  5. lonely rico on April 9, 2019, 10:17 am

    They have also seen Oren Hazan, a legislator in Netanyahu’s Likud party, emerging from a bubble bath, in a James Bond parody video

    Jonathan Cook, arguably Britain’s best journalist, makes a small slip here.
    The bubble bath scene, with Tuco (Eli Wallach) in the tub, is from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, a Sergio Leone film.

    While I’m picking nits –

    I don’t often disagree with eljay, but think
    … bottom of the barrel awaits and Zionists are diving toward it
    is simply wrong.

    The Zionists were born on the bottom

    ” ….[the Zionist pioneers believed that] the only language the Arabs understand is that of force ….. [They] behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it, and nobody stands to check this contemptible and dangerous tendency.” (Expulsion Of The Palestinians/Ahad Ha’Am)

    They have worked diligently to remain there ever since.

  6. Misterioso on April 9, 2019, 10:30 am

    Regarding “Israel’s” election, I received the following from a Canadian friend. I hope you can access the audio. If he wins the election Netanyahu’s strategy is to continue reaching out to and forming alliances with authoritarian fascistic regimes around the world.

    “Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the rise of authoritarian populism. Now it’s paying off for him”

    Day 6, CBC Radio, April 6/19
    “The Israeli PM spent recent weeks meeting with world leaders ranging from populist to authoritarian”

    Audio: 8 minutes, 22 seconds in length.

    “Ahead of Israel’s April 9 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the home stretch of the campaign meeting with world leaders ranging from populist to authoritarian

    “First, he met with U.S. President Donald Trump, then embattled president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and finally Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    “Writer and author Ben Judah tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that while that strategy may have once seemed confusing or even misguided, it now looks prescient.

    “He says it’s a sign that Netanyahu was ahead of the curve in seeing the emergence of a new and powerful kind of politics.

    “Here is part of that conversation.
    Question: “What are the common denominators you see in the leaders that Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to forge strong ties with over the course of his leadership?

    Answer, Ben Judah: “Netanyahu has this longstanding belief that the future doesn’t belong to liberal politicians alone, and to liberal states alone.

    “Netanyahu believes that the future of the West is going to be full of strongmen, populist leaders full of nationalism, full of very, very sharp divisions over Islam.

    “And he has sought to develop strong ties with the populist strongmen that have emerged within the West and also with the populist strongmen beyond the West.

    “It’s this belief that the future is not going to be some idyllic utopian liberal consensus.

    Question: “Ten years ago when [Netanyahu] came to power people didn’t have that dark view of the world. Barack Obama was ascending, and people thought that he was going to lead the world towards a more pluralistic, liberal identification.

    “That wasn’t Netanyahu’s read on things. What do you think he saw then that others did not see?

    Answer, Ben Juda: “I think that’s coming from a very deep place to do with his relationship with his father who was a historian of the Spanish Inquisition; comes from a very deep place — within maybe even Zionism itself — is this belief that the future is not going to be some idyllic utopian liberal consensus.

    “That the future will be much like the past: a sort of harsh place of warfare and conflict. A future where demography, religion [and] ethnicity are going to continue to be highly important.

    “And I think this sort of historical sense helped shape Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s nickname] attitude towards this moment, where it was commonly believed across the West that there was only one place of convergence that Obama was supposed to represent.

    “That the idea that nationalists and strongmen — states like Putin’s Russia — were sort of throwbacks that would melt away or fade away as history unfolds.

    Question: “And now there is this new kind of nationalist — some would say racist or perhaps even anti-Semitic — streak among the followers of leaders in Eastern European bloc countries like Viktor Orban of Hungary or the leaders of Slovakia or Poland or Czech Republic.

    “These are the Euro-skeptics. They do see themselves as opposed to the liberal West. What do you hear from Jews and Israelis about Netanyahu’s ties with leaders like Viktor Orban?

    Answer, Ben Juda: “There are a lot of divisions within Israel and within the sort of broader Jewish world over this — and it’s very fraught.

    “Within Israel there’s perhaps a majority opinion on the right that the country is under a permanent state of siege and hostility from the outside world. The country is unfairly victimized and held up as an example to be punished.

    “And that because of its fragile security situation; because of its precarious place, Israel can’t be too picky… about who becomes its partners and allies.

    “And therefore politicians, as sort of noxious as they may be, like Bolosonaro in Brazil or Orban in Hungary or [China’s] Xi Jinping or [India’s] Narendra Modi — these are politicians that Israel needs to partner and work with.

    “Israel is a small country and therefore has to work with the world as it is, and not dream of a world that’s different.

    Question: “Among the alliances that Netanyahu has created, there’s Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Orban as we mentioned, Bolsonaro who he just met with.

    “Last year he defended Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Kashoggi killing. How are these relationships helping Benjamin Netanyahu secure his authority at home in Israel?

    Answer, Ben Juda: “Netanyahu is seen by most Israelis as a politician who has built strong ties and alliances where previously there were none.

    “And the idea that Israel could be enjoying a discreet, cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia is something that was unthinkable in the 1960s and the 1970s, given how strong its sentiments were about the Palestinian-Israeli-Arab conflict.

    “And when Israelis look at the relationship that Netanyahu enjoys with Putin, they don’t see a leader letting the country’s sort of ethical standards down. They remember the fact that Israel had no relationship with the Soviet Union during key periods … and the Soviet Union was actively supplying military forces that were used to invade Israel during wars in those decades.

    “So, they think of it from a slightly different place.
    “When they see Israel forging a strong relationship with Modi — a politician that’s got a very questionable track record at home as well — they remember a period when Israel had next to no meaningful relationship with India.

    “And India had a ‘Palestine-only’ and ‘Palestine First’ approach.

    “Similarly with Brazil, this is not a country where Israel has historically had particularly strong or good or close relationships and it’s seen as something positive — even if there are things that are unpleasant about Bolsonaro.

    Question: “You were in Jerusalem a few months ago when Italy’s powerful and very right wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini was visiting. And you mentioned that he didn’t meet with any of the Palestinian leadership.

    “How has this reorientation of Israel’s alliances helped take pressure off Netanyahu to resolve the Palestinian question?

    Answer, Ben Judah: “One thing that I was struck by was how shocked Palestinian officials were by the relationship that has emerged between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    “By what they saw as the totally unexpected rise in Christian Zionism in South and Latin America. They’ve been very much taken by surprise by the last decade.

    “Right now the odds are on that he will [win]. How long that government will last with these impending indictments, I’m not sure.

    Question: “Netanyahu may or may not win this election. He may be indicted in three criminal cases — that still could happen — so, his future is not clear. But your argument is that he has changed Israel’s place in the world. What do you think his legacy is?

    Answer, Ben Juda: “Netanyahu is quite unique in Israeli politics because of his bilingualism.
    “Netanyahu has this immense command of being a politician in English and in Hebrew. That I think has made him a very good salesman for Israel.

    “It’s also meant that he’s been highly visible in the western Jewish diaspora. His faults have been highly visible.

    “And he’s been very willing to play politics with the diaspora, to cut it out or to ignore it in a way that no Israeli prime minister has done before.

    “And I believe that he has damaged the perception of Israel amongst the Western Jewish diaspora.

    Question: “Do you think he’ll win?

    Answer, Ben Judah: “Probably. Right now the odds are on that he will. How long that government will last with these impending indictments, I’m not sure.”

  7. Misterioso on April 9, 2019, 10:52 am

    It seems Netanyahu and his fellow thugs will do anything to win the election, including targeting Palestinian voters. No surprise! Entirely consistent with Likud’s fascism.

    “Israeli elections: Netanyahu faces challenge from Gantz at polls”

    “Police confiscate dozens of body cameras placed by Netanyahu’s Likud party in polling sites in Palestinian areas.” By Mersiha Gadzo, Al Jazeera, April 9/19

    Jerusalem – “Voting is under way in Israel to choose the next party to lead the 21st Knesset, amid reports of 1,200 body cameras being placed in polling sites in predominately Palestinian areas, prompting an investigation.

    “Israel’s Central Elections Committee (CEC) chairman Judge Hanan Melcer has filed a complaint to the Israeli police after Likud reportedly provided right-wing activists with 1,200 body cameras to monitor polling sites located in Palestinian populated areas, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

    “Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the police investigation saying there should be cameras everywhere to “ensure a fair vote”.

    “Police have since removed the cameras.”

  8. CHUCKMAN on April 10, 2019, 2:25 pm

    Netanyahu is actually the perfect representative for Israel and the values it has so often demonstrated.

    A repeated killer of unarmed people (a total of about 300) demonstrating for rights in Gaza, someone who openly steals homes and farms from others, and someone so flagrantly dishonest that two major foreign presidents (France’s Sarkozy and America’s Obama) were once caught in an off-mic incident talking scathingly about not being able to believe anything he says.

    Of course, Israeli voters’ other choice was a man who openly bragged that if elected, he’d start assassinating leaders in Gaza. Imagine making a campaign promise like that?

    So, I’d say, in a very bizarre sense, Israel’s democracy worked.

    But of course, in reality Israel is not a democracy, not in any meaningful sense of the word.

    How can you have democracy when nearly half the people under a government cannot vote and have no rights of any kind?

    When immigrants or new citizens are permitted entry only on the basis of acceptable ethno-religious identity?

    When refugees are sent packing if they do not have of the same ethno-religious identity?

    Where blacks have been treated extremely harshly, refugees and even migrants with claimed Jewish identity, every effort being made to get them out of the country, images and stories having made their way aboard despite Israel’s tight control of the press?

    That is precisely the kind of “democracy” they had in the American Confederacy and in Nationalist South Africa, which both also held “elections.”

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