What Netanyahu’s victory says about Israeli politics

comment1The results of the Israeli election on March 17th have put the final nail in the coffin of the idea that a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible through goodwill and hopeful feelings. In the final days of the election, Benjamin Netanyahu appealed directly to the most right wing elements of Israeli politics by saying, in an interview with daily newspaper Maariv, that a Palestinian state will not be established while he is in power – in other words, the two state solution is dead. He went further on polling day  in saying in a video directed to his voters that “right-wing rule is in danger” because the “Arabs” were voting in “their droves”, being bussed to polling stations by the left.

The most important thing to be taken from these comments is that they worked: Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 seats (12 more than the last election) with 23.40% of the vote compared to the ‘liberal Zionist’ Isaac Herzog whose Zionist Union took 24 seats with 18.67% of the vote. The result  was a shock, as polling right up to election had foreseen a victory for the Zionist Union.


Some context is necessary to understand the early election, which was called in December of 2014 after Netanyahu’s coalition government collapsed amid infighting. The governing parties disagreed over the budget and a proposed “Jewish State” bill, which would have further enshrined Israel, a state for the Jews (and was accused of relegating non-Jewish citizens to being second class).

The election itself was then fought mostly on economic issues, with 53% of Israelis in a poll placing cost of living and social issues as their primary concern. House prices have jumped 55% between 2008 and 2013, and the number of Israelis living in poverty has doubled from 1992, going from 10.2% to 20.5%. 20 families control half of the total value of Israel’s stock market, leading to warnings of monopolies and unsustainable inequality.

Netanyahu’s remarks at the eleventh hour appealed directly to Israeli insecurity about Palestine and Arab citizens, and considering the stark contrast between polls and the final result his victory can mostly be attributed to them.

There is a close, though often under examined, connection between economics and the occupation of the West Bank. Israelis struggling to find affordable housing can move to the illegal settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, where housing is cheaper and the government offers subsidies. As a result of this, the government reduces pressure on the property market (and themselves to resolve underlying issues), while increasing the population of the settlements and tying poor Israelis directly into the occupation.

Regardless of the economy, Netanyahu’s remarks at the eleventh hour appealed directly to Israeli insecurity about Palestine and Arab citizens, and considering the stark contrast between polls and the final result his victory can mostly be attributed to them. It’s noteworthy that Netanyahu’s increased vote share came mainly at the expense of other right wing parties, The Jewish Home who lost four seats and Yisrael Beiteinu who lost seven. These more extreme satellite parties of Likud have long been controversial for their extreme right wing, sometimes borderline fascist rhetoric. Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu infamously said that Israeli Arabs “who are against us” should be beheaded in comments before the election.

Shift to the right

What Netanyahu has done is essentially erase the differences between his own party and those further right than him, and as a result left Israel to be governed by someone who engaged in race baiting for electoral victory and has been clear that peace is unimportant to him. For the past decade a constant refrain in Israeli politics has been that they have no “partner for peace” – that the Palestinians do not want a just solution. Now, it’s impossible to claim anything but the opposite. The Israelis have voted for someone whose victory relied upon putting peace in a grave. The reasons for the Israeli political shift to the right are complex, but it’s possible to give a brief overview. The foundational moment in the “peace process’” between Israel and Palestine was the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, which sought to fulfill “the right of the Palestinians to self -determination”. They came after the first Intifada, or “uprising” of the Palestinians in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a primarily peaceful move to demand an end to the occupation.

However, the peace process (for various reasons) stalled and failed to reach an agreement acceptable to both. What the 2000s brought was unending rounds of peace talks with Camp David in 2000, the Road Map of 2003 and finally the American led Mitchell (2010-11) and Kerry (2013-14) talks. All of these have failed. Concurrent with them was a steadily increasing amount of violence on both sides, with the second Intifada in the early 2000s followed by a series of wars in Gaza. For the sake of outlining the Israeli shift to the right, it’s necessary to focus on the impact of the violence upon Israeli civilians though also vital to note that Palestinians have been victims of Israeli violence overwhelming more than the reverse. The second Intifada saw the current generation of Israeli voters face suicide bombings in Israel, and the periodic wars in Gaza see ineffective though very frightening rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

Hardening of public opinion

The result has been a hardening of Israeli popular opinion. Peace, for many Israelis, is simply no longer a major political issue. This has been compounded by the situation in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Iraq and Syria are both in the midst of civil war, Egypt has returned to military rule and is battling an Islamist insurgency and Lebanon teeters on the brink of a return to its own horrendous civil war.

This has fed into a common narrative in Israeli politics: that the Palestinians simply cannot be trusted with their own state. That it would inevitably fall prey to Islamists who wish to destroy Israel, that Gaza proves the Palestinians cannot be trusted and so must be controlled. To use an Israeli quote from the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, occasionally the “grass must be mown”, but beyond that the problem should be ignored.

If I’m honest, I find Israeli fears understandable and I sympathise with them. However, though the fears are real, so is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Just on Thursday Israeli forces entered the waters of Gaza, before shooting and killing a fisherman off the coast of Gaza for no reason: he was within the chokehold the Israelis enforce around Gaza fishing areas.

The ramifications for Israel voting to continue the status quo are scary to think about. Amid mounting violence over the summer, there was talk of a third Intifada – another major uprising by Palestinians who have grown tired of a perpetual occupation, which seems destined to continue.  An Intifada would mean thousands dead, mostly Palestinians, and considering the outcome of the previous two would likely not directly lead to positive results (though one cannot deny the right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation under the circumstances).

However, perhaps the most important result of Netanyahu’s political manoeuvers has been a growing coldness towards Israel from the American political establishment. Netanyahu addressed the US congress in the run up to the election, directly against the wishes of Barack Obama, which combined with Netanyahu’s race baiting and comments on the two-state solution have seen the US hinting that they may consider taking a stronger stance with Israel unless a serious effort is made to achieve peace.

In Europe, even before the election there have been growing calls on governments to sanction Israel, to end arms deals and limit trade – calls which governments across Europe have proven more and more willing to listen to. The final ramification is likely to be the continued growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which calls for disengagement, and sanctions upon Israel until it complies with international law. Israeli politicians have begun to openly discuss the possible damage of BDS, and have taken moves to try and weaken the movement through “hasbara” or “propaganda”.

Taken together, it looks as if Israel, if it continues with the status quo, faces international isolation and internal economic woe. Short term, these effects will likely lead to a hardening of it’s position, as no one likes having policy decisions dictated to them from abroad. But in the long term, as South Africa showed, no country can maintain a system of apartheid without support from and trade with the international community.

This time last year, in this paper, I called for Trinity to adopt boycotts, divestment and sanctions and I have no qualms about doing so again. We should divest and boycott Israel immediately, or else we are complicit in the crimes they commit. Although I cannot foresee a just peace soon, solace can be drawn from the knowledge that like oppressed peoples all over the world, eventually the Palestinians’ day will come.

Oisin Vince Coulter

Oisin was Editor for the 63rd volume of Trinity News. He is a Philosophy and Classical Civilisations graduate.